Praying for Modern Man

Eureka, a Japanese movie about the aftermath of a city-bus massacre, may be one of the quietest films ever made about an act of violence. At 3 hours and 40 minutes, it’s probably also one of the longest. Hang in: I can‘t think of a film made in the West -- unless it be Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, or maybe Paul Schrader‘s Affliction -- that pays its respects to the inner life of the traumatized with such imagination and tact. The 37-year-old director, Shinji Aoyama, belongs to a new generation of filmmakers working largely outside Japan’s stagnant studio system and groping for ways to address the mounting instability of a society long famous for its strictly codified internal consensus. He calls Eureka “a prayer for modern man.” But while Aoyama may be the most modern of men -- the title is taken from a song by Jim O‘Rourke, and the movie was inspired by a rising tide of random aggression in Japan, specifically by the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway -- he has set Eureka in his birthplace, tucked away in a corner of southwest Japan, and the film marks a return to cinematic as well as geographical roots.

Early on in Eureka, an anonymous-looking man boards a city bus and methodically guns down everyone onboard except for the driver and two schoolchildren, a brother and sister. The violence takes place offscreen or in distancing long shots, and at no point does the director probe the killer’s motive. He‘s interested in what it feels like to survive an attack as vicious as it is coldly impersonal. Eureka is about the management of unspeakable suffering, and about the monstrous indifference (a mutant form of terror, perhaps) to that suffering of everyone who has not endured it. The point of view throughout is that of the victims, each of whom is struggling to paper over or deflect what’s happened. The driver, Makoto (played by Koji Yakusho, whose studied imperviousness you may remember from the surprise 1997 hit Shall We Dance? and Shohei Imamura‘s recent movie The Eel), disappears, returning two years later in a heroic if doomed effort to start his life over. Meanwhile, the two heart-stoppingly beautiful adolescents, Kozue and Naoki (played by real-life siblings Aoi and Masaru Miyazaki), have lapsed into traumatized silence. They communicate with each other wordlessly, but to the world they present a united front of noncooperation.

Or they would, were anyone taking the slightest interest. To hear Aoyama tell it (and his sentiments are echoed by young filmmakers throughout Asia, to say nothing of here in the West), we have, worldwide, taken to ignoring and mistreating our young to the point of catastrophe. Eureka’s Japan is certainly a critical case. The society that for centuries prided itself on the solidity of its fundamental institutions is crumbling; the family, for so long its cornerstone, is worse than useless. And this, not in Tokyo or some other metropolis in which social decay is endemic, but in a tightly knit, traditional rural community. Compounding their tragedy, the children find themselves orphaned when their abusive father dies in a car accident and their mother takes off with a new man. Makoto‘s beloved wife, too, has left him, and though he’s taken in by relatives, when another murder takes place in town and he falls under suspicion, he‘s unceremoniously kicked out of the house. It’s only a matter of time before the three survivors are living together, with Makoto playing both mother and father as he cleans up the mountains of mess accumulated by the kids in the big house they‘ve been rattling around in, and tries to gain the youngsters’ trust. Throw in, somewhat gratuitously, a nosy cousin (Yohichiroh Saitoh) who looks as though he wandered in from some post-punk other planet. And the corpses -- all of them young, attractive women -- keep piling up.

If all this sounds overdetermined beyond credulity, Eureka also feels strangely plotless, and not just because of its length. For all the dead bodies, the movie is no more a murder mystery than John Ford‘s The Searchers -- which Aoyama says was cooking around in his head as he dreamed up his own story -- is only a Western. If anything, Eureka’s loose narrative structure is that of a meandering double road movie. In an echo of his troubled past, Makoto buys an old bus and, with his two young companions and their clueless but well-meaning cousin in tow, drives off in search of some kind of rebirth. The external odyssey is matched by the internal journey traveled by the survivors as they try to rise above their common devastation.

It‘s this that makes Eureka so eerily compelling. Its language, like that of its subjects, is silence, interrupted by spare dialogue and scraps of music slipped in at long intervals. The action, such as it is, is propelled by the juxtaposition of wordless gestures: A woman’s dainty shoe floats down a river and comes to rest against a crushed beer can. Makoto sits in a window, obsessively switching on and off a lamp as he gazes into the black night, or stands motionless as sheets of rain drench his body. Kozue, surrounded by billowing white curtains, gazes out of the same window from which she and her brother had glimpsed their glamorous mother strolling away with a small suitcase.

Like masters of Japanese film before him -- most especially Ozu and Mizoguchi -- Aoyama surveys his characters with an impassivity that mirrors their dumb suffering. His three survivors wander like ghosts through a muffled, sepia landscape at once sharply local and specific, yet drained of color -- home and yet not home. The dialogue, such as it is, is spoken mostly by Makoto, who has returned home in a state that can‘t be glibly written off as survivor’s guilt. A simple, kind man, he is forever apologizing, as if he now exists purely on the sufferance of others (a sentiment his relatives do little to dispel), until at last the responsibility he has willingly, even desperately accepted for the mute children spurs him to more vital speech, then to crisis -- and, finally, to action.

Notwithstanding a somewhat gaudily redemptive ending and occasional lapses into exposition, Eureka is a modern man‘s return to classical Japanese cinema, a form of contemplative listening and looking. There’s relief in that, and refreshment, for those of us who have to live with a strident film culture that has drowned its capacity to think about violence in a cacophony of irrelevance, forcing us to choose between the earnest socio-psycho-therapeutic sanctimony of the “socially responsible” Hollywood movie, whose purpose is to make you feel without thinking; the gleeful juvenilia of neo-noir, whose purpose is to blunt thought and feeling; and the orgiastic oblivion of the action movie. With Eureka, Aoyama has quietly written a chapter in the history of Japan‘s ambivalence toward the strain of violence in its culture. If the Japanese government continues its current stealthy practice of editing out the nasty bits in its history -- witness its recent doctoring of World War II history textbooks -- at least we will have filmmakers like Shinji Aoyama to reinstate them.


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