Anne McKnight amck
Tue Nov 4 22:24:15 EST 1997

        I too wasn't really swept off my feet by Unagi, but one angle I
thought was rather interesting was the different ways that it represented
anxieties about "private life."   
        The protagonist Yamashita is first alerted to his wife's affair by
a neighborhood busybody.  This person informs him in lavish empirical
detail about things that are going on in the place that turns out not to be
"his" house with the person who turns out not to be "his" wife -- "his" to
the extent that he has provided for them economically as a blue-suited
train-riding salaryman and this assumes he has a tacit kind of contract of
both conduct and mutual knowledge/appreciation with his wife.  It turns out
that the private life that is supposed to be both subsidizing his salaryman
identity (making tasty bentos, looking after his fishing gear etc) and
benefitting from it, is altogether unfamiliar to him, to the extent that
nosy neighbors are more up on his wife's activities than he is (and get a
kind of pleasure out of revealing both that fact, and the actual contents
of his wife's duplicity).  Having said this, I'm not sure how this differs
from the many other "disenchantment of the salaryman" film/tv dramas I've
seen, where the horror of the salaryman's sacrifice is exposed to his
disbelief, and various forms of melodramatic punishment and/or conversion
        The other version of private life which we never get to see is the
establishment of the mystical bond between man and eel, that which I hoped
would be the "buddy movie" part of the film, during the eight-year stint of
Yamashita's jail term.  Due to this jump between killing and Yamashita's
getting out of jail, it seemed that his character was just as much a dud as
Keiko, in terms of dramatic motivation.  I thought it also suffered from
the same kind of clip-art cut-and-paste logic of "wackiness" that Frako (&
others) have pointed out as symptomatic of the ensemble casts of some
recent films.
        In his postwar stuff,  it seemed to me that Imamura often used
nativist symbols to enspirit some kind of statement about humanism,
stripping down "humans" or "humanity" to get at some kind of motivating tic
of universality (or Japaneseness, which is an interesting questino in his
film's, that of culturalnationalism in the service of a critique of
perceived western techno-hegemony).  One example that comes to mind is
Nippon konchuu ki (I think the English title was Insect Woman, but correct
me if I'm wrong).  It was interesting to me in how it cited one of the
documents of western techno-discourse of Meiji (Fabre's konchuu-ki), and
applied the logic of its entemological taxonomy to a polemic about survival
and instinct involving Tokyo-denizens-as-bugs in US-occupied Tokyo.  I was
looking for the same kind of polemic in Unagi and couldn't find it, or
indeed find any reason why it had to be an eel at all.  I thought the
omission of the "private life" of man and eel might have supplied something
to enable a better reading in this respect.  Because of its omission we
never know the status of Yamashita's relation to the private life he had
earlier, nor any possible motivations for the highly inchoate sequence of
episodes that follows.
        Thinking back to other kinds of melodramas which take bourgeois
couples and their discontents as their subjects, thinking about the types
and generic physiognomies of which melodrama is so fond, it strikes me that
the most maddening part of Unagi is its relentless innocence.  For
instance, the narrative circle back to the pregnant Keiko giving Yamashita
a tasty bento (as his first bad wife did) as he's hauled off once again,
righteously, to the slammer.  The representation of nature (I find this to
be true also of many contemporary representations of Tokyo cityscapes) as
something pedagogically healing.  And most of all, the hope for private
life and romantic love as some place of innocence, out of space, out of
time, belonging only to one's "private life."  
        Maybe I'm trying to make a silk purse out of an eel's ear here in
attributing some sort of coherence -- even a coherent anxiety in the form
of "private life" -- to the film.  But the disenchantment of the salaryman
narrative -- and the way the possible traumas and critiques of corporate
capitalism and the contradictions of its demands are glossed over -- seems
to resonate with a whole string of other films.  (Including Shall We Dance,
but that is a whole nother can of worms, bugs, eels, something).  

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