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The Eel is slick

By Ray Pride

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:  Cruel lot, people. Shohei Imamura's characters somehow manage to be both cruel and tender - damaged, uncertain creatures longing for reassurance. "The Eel" is a rich drama-comedy of a murderer's return to society after eight years in prison, and Imamura is studious about charting the web woven by emotional violence and in etching the contours of lasting, abiding trauma, through the story of how one man copes gamely, but badly with it. Mr. Yamashita (Koji Yakusho, from "Shall We Dance?"), supervised by a worldly Buddhist priest, sets up shop as a barber in a tiny coastal hamlet. He shuns anything other than superficial contact, bonding only with a pet eel from his days in prison. One day, he saves a young woman - unsettlingly resembling the wife he killed - from a suicide attempt, and she soon insinuates himself into his shop and into his life. Imamura's telling is filled with odd asides and blunt complications, a tonal mix as odd (and compelling) as John Ford meets Buñuel. Look at Imamura's joy in goofball sidekicks: There's a willingness among many master filmmakers in their late work to just let the camera roll. Through the introduction of a drunken ex-con who taunts Yamashita, Imamura returns to his common theme of murder as an unwitting social compact that embraces us all. Look, or look away, it is all part of human nature and the animal kingdom at large. Gorgeously shot and composed, idiosyncratically but engagingly paced, "The Eel" is at its core, a generous comedy about the value of passion and how it should be tempered. Simple on its surface, "The Eel" leaves much to savor.

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