Frances Loden frako at twics.com
Tue Nov 4 05:00:45 EST 1997

Here are some stray reactions of my own to "Unagi":

There's a quality of strained kookiness in much of Japanese cinema.
Scripts and acting have difficulty portraying eccentricity in a
matter-of-fact or believable way; the depictions seem laced by the
creator's own amusement of such an odd character, or the eccentricity is so
off-the-wall that it distracts from the characterization.  An example is
the heroine Keiko's disturbed mother, who dresses outlandishly and has a
bent for flamenco.  Ostentatious dancing seems to signal out-of-control
sexual desire, frustration, or mental illness.  Perhaps the mother acts out
desires that Keiko can't.  I haven't developed any theories to explain the
presence of these extremely irritating subsidiary characters, but they
might bear some kind of burden of displacement of excess energy that the
main character is not permitted to display.  Or they might express desires
that are also present in the central character but which it would be
unseemly for the latter to convey.

Speaking of the main character Yamashita (Yakushi Kouji), he is supposed to
be a taciturn, antisocial character who opens his heart only to his pet
eel.  Yet I would wager that he is more talkative in this film than he was
as the repressed salaryman in "Shall We Dance?"  In other words, it's
difficult to accept a male character as bottled-up or reticent in a
particular movie when so many Japanese central male characters are like
that anyway.

Another wearisome tendency of many Japanese films is the limited conception
of the central female character.  Especially when, or possibly because, the
main focus is not on her, she revolves in a very narrow circle of possible
reactions to the film's situations.  And the reactions are not consistent
with a well-rounded, complex portrayal of a character but are arbitrary,
sudden, and cater to the exigencies of the plot.  For example, our first
sight of Keiko is her walking dazedly past Yamashita's barbershop.  Next we
find her sprawled unconscious in the grass, having tried to take an
overdose of pills.  Then she is introduced to Yamashita as a potential
employee in his barbershop.  When she begins working there, she is suddenly
so cheerful and perky--putting cut wildflowers everywhere--that the
barbershop becomes a cozy haven for the villagers.  What happened to her
desire to kill herself?  Why was she so pliant to the idea of working in a
barbershop when we learn later that she is actually an accomplished
businesswoman?  And, having just learned the graphic details of Yamashita's
crime, the fact that she is pregnant, harboring suspicions about her own
feelings for her loan-shark lover, and knowing that her mother is spying on
them as they make love, how can she suddenly melt to the touch of a
vibrator?  Like many other female characters in Japanese cinema, she seems
ordered up to someone else's specifications.

Frako Loden
Tokyo, Japan
(03) 3247-5332
Keitai: 010-04-97072

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