Only a year ago, the inauspicious career of Japanese director Shinji Aoyama consisted merely of midlevel festival exposure for a half-dozen mixed-up-youth movies--classified by film scholar Donald Richie as "pop singles in film." That being the case, Eureka, which Aoyama wrote while listening compulsively to Sonic Youth and Jim O'Rourke, is a cinematic double album--something like the Wall of Japanese movies. Following three survivors who build barriers between themselves and society following a busjacking, this languorously bleak, 217-minute interior epic won the young director an international critics' award at Cannes, and it earned a coveted spot in the New York Film Festival. It's a sepia-toned, CinemaScope daydream rumination--and a hell of a trip, man.
Bus driver Makoto (Yakusho Koji, similarly restrained as a reformed killer in Imamura's The Eel) picks up Naoki (Masaru Miyazaki) and his younger sister, Kozue (Aoi Miyazaki), on their way to school. A sharp edit from a long shot of the bus to a close-up of a bloody hand in a parking lot communicates a staggering amount of terror: A salary man is perpetrating a massacre. Setting the scene for something concise, Aoyama gives us the opposite. The killer is shot as he's preparing to murder the kids, thrusting the three protagonists into posttraumatic stress disorder. "Am I at fault for having survived?" asks Makoto before proceeding to walk the earth like Cain in Kung Fu for two years. Western viewers will rightly feel like shouting: "Will someone please hook these poor people up with a good therapist?"
Indeed, it wouldn't hurt. Murdered bodies begin to accumulate--rendered elliptically, again, with a shoe floating in a river and so on--and Makoto is the main suspect. In a how could it get any worse? scenario, the children are orphaned. Out of place in his suspicious home, Makoto moves in with the silent duo, who have formed a psychic link, behaving more like catatonic zombies than humans. Faced with the prospect of 170 more minutes and just three characters (two of which are mute!), we're relieved to see the wacky big-city cousin Akihito (Yoichiro Saito) arrive to complete the postnuclear family. One day Makoto says to Kozue, "Let's start all over." He buys a bus and they leave, simply because they must. Eureka then begins anew. On the road to nowhere, the symbiotic relationships ripen; it's hard to tell who's caring for whom. Words cannot describe their pain.
Many of Aoyama's six other films, including his 1996 debut feature, Helpless, are explicitly about the communication breakdown subsuming today's Japanese youth, and their resulting turn to violence. In Eureka, besides showing the shell-shocked reaction of survivors, Aoyama expresses the impossibility of communicating the experience of this crippled state, even to other sufferers: As Makoto's hacking cough worsens (a symptom of his guilt), he and Kozue "talk" by knocking.
More problematic still is the challenge of expressing the survivors' stress and guilt to an audience. (A similar dilemma exists in most war films, although Amos Gitaï's timely Kippur gives it a damn good shot.) Placing himself and his viewers at a distance--saying, in effect, "We can't feel his pain"--Aoyama attempts some innovative types of identification. Personally, I get off on long movies, but the chorelike length and pace of Eureka is as interminable as painting your living room with a toothbrush. At one point, there's a lengthy scene of the characters--specks in a long shot--crossing a field and being passed by cows. The Zen-like length of the shot, together with the creeping camera movement, do make us feel like the characters (i.e., uncomfortably numb), but they also turn anguish into an aesthetic.
Meanwhile, Aoyama appeals to other films about suffering: The sumptuous shots of the Japanese countryside make it look like John Ford's Monument Valley, and the relationships are roughly parallel to The Searchers' Ethan (Makoto), Martin (Akihito), and Debbie (Kozue). When the "family" sets up house, we're languishing on the old homestead, swatting away flies to a Western-tinged score. The second half of the film lifts its drifting-cloud travel photography from Wim Wenders's Kings of the Road--Akihito even wants to visit a projectionist friend in a nearby town--and personal suffering ambitiously coexists alongside the grief of an entire culture. While it's difficult to start over from scratch, Aoyama is unwittingly implying that these other works possess the cinematic language to describe suffering.
My quibbles about Eureka may be traced to Aoyama's overweening allegorical impulse--his desire to say a prayer for the modern man ravaged by violence, self-obsession, and the media. In an odd reunion, Makoto's ex-partner calls him a monster for ignoring her during his breakdown. But while the force of the scene makes us pity Makoto, Aoyama's stubborn diffidence makes it unclear who's truly insensitive. I suspect it's both--and neither. It's tempting to hail Eureka as a masterpiece because its positive qualities--many of which Aoyama pushes to their breaking point--are those most lacking in Hollywood films: an authentic style (albeit inconsistent); visually pristine compositions; and a deep sense of social concern. Truthfully, though, a lot of Japanese films are good-looking, and even if it is a deliberate test of patience, Eureka would play better if it was shorter. Intended to be monumentally staggering, Eureka is substantial and affecting, but it lacks a little something. Call it modesty.