Movies at the Mudd: “The Eel

Corey Lehnert

“Movies at the Mudd” is a weekly review of films available at the Mudd Library.I’ve never been terribly fond of the quintessential “feel-good” movie. It brings to mind the Hallmark Channel and Rosie O’Donnell, two things that I affiliate with my first pangs of existential loneliness.
My problem with such a style of movie isn’t so much that it aims to make the viewer feel “good,” but that it does so with a highly sweetened, shamelessly formulaic plot. If film studios would like to avoid the ire of this critic, then, they would do well to take a cue from Shohei Imamura’s 1997 film “The Eel,” an endearing Japanese “feel-good” movie with none of the above.
“The Eel” centers around the life of Takuro Yamashita, a man trying to live a quiet life as a barber in a small Japanese township after being recently released from prison for murdering his adulterous wife eight years prior.
A pet eel, to which he speaks nightly, is the sole remnant from his past. Takuro succeeds in leading his unassuming life until he comes across a young woman named Keiko with a troubled past of her own. Although both sides try to hide their secrets from the other and the rest of the town, they are forced to risk rejection when it soon becomes clear that such secrecy will only drive them apart.
Lending the film a stark realism, “The Eel” is shot in a tired provincial style that lingers on the characters long after the dialogue has been spoken. Being privy to the awkward moments between people who are just beginning to understand each other, it feels uncomfortable at first, but as the film progresses, this style brings us closer to the characters through their human qualities.
But the cinematography plays a small role compared to the story of Takuro and Keiko’s struggles to build new lives free from the impurities of their past. Takuro, despite his best efforts, finds that the shadow of his wife’s death permeates all aspects of his life, and Keiko constantly fears reprisal from a former lover.
Although the characters fear that divulging their secrets will only bring them further pain, when they finally reveal their pasts, they find only abounding compassion. And although I’m sure that last line sounds cringingly sentimental, “The Eel” is such a finely crafted story that it manages to be sentimental in an extremely subtle way.
Altogether, “The Eel” seems to be something like the “feel-good” movie for the fashionably stoic crowd, a film that offers a story of redemption without eschewing the often-harsh realities of daily life.

“The Eel.” Directed by Shohei Imamura. Not Rated.