Directed and written by Shinji Aoyama
With Koji Yakusho, Masaru Miyazaki, Aoi Miyazaki, and Yohichiroh Saitoh
By Fred Camper
Last week the New York Times published an article on Sara J. Rudolph, a survivor of the infamous 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls, one of them Rudolph's older sister. While the motive behind the bombing was racist, Rudolph said she would never understand how "someone could be that cold." Now 50, she jumps at loud noises. She said, "There will never be any closure for me."
That same day I saw Shinji Aoyama's immensely moving 220-minute Eureka for the first time. In part an action picture, a road movie, a whodunit, and a slasher film, Eureka is more deeply about the immeasurable and lasting damage suffered by those who experience senseless violence. For much of the picture, three survivors of a shooting seem doomed to "wander forever between the winds," to quote a line from John Ford's The Searchers, a film Aoyama cites as an inspiration.
While the movie has taut, chilling moments, most of the time it appears to mirror the shell-shocked trauma of its characters. As Aoyama told a reporter, "It is as if they are pursued by an endless tidal wave preventing them from regaining their balanced lives." Critics have given the film mixed reviews. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote, "Eureka never comes to life....In pursuing its aesthetic agenda so single-mindedly, the movie leaves the characters behind in the muck." Stephen Cole of Canada's National Post was discomfited by "long, barren sequences where characters stare off into space or wander aimlessly through the frame."
These critics seem to be judging the film by the character-centered, action-driven standards of commercial cinema, where many foreign directors also march to the Hollywood beat. Those "long, barren sequences" enrich Eureka as surprisingly powerful and precise articulations of the void within the characters. And as thoroughly Japanese excursions into an open space drained of traditional meanings, they take on a hypnotic, meditative quality of their own.
A bus stops to pick up passengers, including a pair of middle-school children, Naoki and Kozue, a brother and sister played by siblings Masaru and Aoi Miyazaki. Last to board is a rumpled salaryman, who looks about nervously. In a shocking yet searingly beautiful elision, the film cuts to a shot of the bus in a parking lot. There's a corpse on the pavement; another man runs and is gunned down. This is a hijacking. The only survivors are the hijacker, the driver Makoto (Koji Yakusho), and the two kids. By the time the hijacker is shot, the children have come within an instant of death.
We never see the initial hijacking — or most of the killings — and we never learn the reason for it. The event seems like a force of nature: unalterable, beyond analysis. Aoyama, who also wrote the script, has said he was thinking of the 1995 nerve-gas murders in the Tokyo subway and of the general condition of postwar Japan. But the incident can also stand in for any of the countless acts of senseless violence that occur all over the world.
Two years pass, and a rootless Makoto takes up residence with the kids in their large family home. The children had been living alone after their mom ran off with another man and their dad died in a car accident, possibly a suicide. Makoto cleans their house and fixes their meals. Soon they are joined by the kids' cousin Akihiko (Yohichiroh Saitoh). After several women are murdered around town, the police arrest Makoto. He is soon released but remains under suspicion. A bit more than halfway through the film, he buys a bus, and the four set out together. "We need some time to find ourselves," he says. They travel around the mostly rural island of Kyushu, Aoyama's birthplace and Eureka's setting.
Aoyama's characters do not "come to life" in the usual sense — and that's the point. They are traumatized and don't even understand themselves. The two children never speak; they use hand signals when necessary. Both Miyazakis offer wonderfully restrained performances. Their faces manage to hint at emotions while rarely displaying them. Only near the film's conclusion do we get a sense of their rich and complex inner lives.
Yakusho's performance as Makoto is also admirably measured; he conveys a subtle mix of introspectiveness and strength. Akihiko is the one character who is openly emotional; at times he's something of a goofball. His almost obscene outwardness — giggling and prancing about — ennobles the others' quietude.
Holden's beef notwithstanding, Eureka is arguably richer emotionally than standard-issue character-centered fare, which puts individual feeling and will at the center of reality. Aoyama doesn't deny individual feeling. He even cuts between close-ups of characters looking at each other, but this occurs only at carefully selected moments. We also see characters interact in complex long takes, where the camera seems to have a will of its own, acknowledging the larger world.
In Hollywood cinema and its international offshoots, compositions, camera movements, and editing closely follow characters as if under their control, implying the characters are indeed autonomous. Though Eureka employs these same methods to acknowledge the will of its characters, it also uses other methods to suggest they're less than independent. When Makoto meets his estranged wife, the scene begins with a shot of tall buildings and bridges seen through a restaurant window; the camera then moves around the characters as they talk, deflecting attention from their faces and suggesting that their growing alienation is somehow out of their control.
But Aoyama also confounds such simple interpretations. When the quartet park their bus to get out and wander, we see them from above crossing a field with grazing cattle, Makoto in the lead. As they walk up an irregular incline, each character moves at a different pace, and the following camera never locks in on any one of them. The next shot is an odd close-up of the cattle, roughly at their eye level; this is one of several moments in the film when some element of nature seems to be given a presence independent of the characters and their story. Then we see the group lolling on the grass. Makoto looks up, and there's a shot of clouds. Emptiness and beauty merge: the scene is at once a portrayal of lost souls and a hint that humans do have a place in some higher order.
Counterpoising disconnectedness, Ayoma also shows characters forming links across space. When Makoto buys the bus, Akihiko and Naoki are dubious, but Kozue enters it, and we cut to a shot with the other three in the foreground, backs to us. Kozue looks at Naoki from the bus, and one can almost feel her gravitational pull on him across space, even before he begins to walk toward her.
The first instance of Aoyama intercutting head-on close-ups occurs when Makoto arrives at the kids' house and they face each other. He is seeking to forge a bond with them, and the relationship becomes central to the film and to all of their redemptions. The last two instances occur between Makoto and each of the kids — at moments when they connect deeply. The juxtaposition of these moments with a variety of less character-driven images creates a precisely articulated system of connections, partial connections, and uncertain drifting.
The abandonment of conscious striving has a long history in Japanese cinema: Hiroshi Shimizu's 1936 Mr. Thank You is a rural bus ride with no real plot, no suspense, no tension, no release. But if Eureka contains a dual view of its characters — as willful individuals and as ciphers lost in limitless space — it also has a similarly divided view of the landscape. The sepia wide-screen imagery renders Kyushu as both sensuous and indifferent. The tinted pictures also have a different effect than standard black and white, lessening the perceived differences between light and dark. Though the images appear unified, many of the landscapes are a bit chaotic. When Makoto works as a day laborer, we see construction sites, a steam shovel digging, and upturned dirt. Even the undisturbed landscapes never reflect the social perfection found in the concluding shot of Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, for example, which affirms the ordered world of traditional Japan. Instead, Eureka's compositions are somehow incomplete — fields, roads, utility poles, and haphazardly placed buildings are framed in a way that underlines their disruptiveness. It isn't just the hijacking that has upset the characters' lives; the parking-lot-studded landscape becomes a perfect metaphor for the arbitrariness of contemporary culture.
Rootlessness is nowhere more elegantly expressed than in one long take set in yet another parking lot. This is when we learn the identity of the serial killer (if you don't want to know the film's ending, stop reading). Naoki has disappeared from the bus, and Makoto goes to search for him. We discover the boy in close-up, wielding the small knife that he had earlier used to slash tall plants in a field. Naoki crouches as he pursues a woman. Then he's frightened by a starting car just as Makoto emerges from the shadows to confront him. The camera changes functions several times; at one point it leaves the pursuing Naoki behind, assuming the place of the stalker. The viewer is thus put through a series of emotional shifts — fearing for the woman, then identifying with the killer, then identifying with Makoto's attempts to subdue him. This also expresses the emotional chaos of the characters: indeed, Makoto had earlier admitted that he too had been tempted to kill.
Naoki is locked up, Akihiko gets expelled from the bus, and the remaining pair park at a scenic peak. Kozue stands at an overlook, the second time in the film when she seems on the verge of suicide, and Makoto calls her back from the brink, repeating Ethan's line to Debbie at the end of The Searchers: "Let's go home." In close-ups, the two look directly at each other across the expanse, a moment made meaningful in part because it has been so rare. Suddenly, in a cut to an extreme long shot, color reenters the world. The sepia monotone has acted as a metaphor for an emotionally disconnected culture.
Kozue walks toward Makoto, as this helicopter shot follows her purposefully. The camera spirals around them. One reason this cliched ending escapes bathos is because Aoyama's earlier restraint has lent an authenticity to the final close-ups, conveying the characters' connection more effectively than performances alone could. As they enter the bus and the credits begin, the camera leaves them behind, gradually reframing the image on more distant landscapes, moving with a peculiar mix of mastery and surrender that recalls the film's earlier wanderings while suggesting that love can transmute uncertainty into beauty.