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Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2001


Trauma in a sepia-tinged Kyushu

It's not easy filming the inner lives of human beings. Novelists can go on at length about their protagonist's stream of consciousness (see "Ulysses") while filmmakers cannot show scene after voiced-over scene of that same stream without inducing audience catatonia. See Joseph Strick's misbegotten 1967 film of Joyce's classic for an example.

Trauma -- in the original meaning of the word, not its modern "I'm having a bad-hair day" trivialization -- is among the hardest of inner states to get right in any fictional form, simply because its effects are all but incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it. When a man goes to a war and is still having nightmares about it years later, those who stayed home wonder why he can't get used to it, suck it up, move on. These folks forget the healed cut, the pulled tooth, the discarded lover as though they never existed. They've never faced a horror, a shock, a loss that shredded the core of their beings and rearranged their synapses. They just don't get it and, if they're lucky, never will.

Even so, with the acceleration of trauma-inducing technologies -- everything from weapons of mass destruction to powerful mind-altering drugs -- and the collapse of values that once inhibited their use, trauma has become central to our time. Even in Japan, a society which once seemed dedicated to avoiding conflict at any cost, is no longer immune. Trauma is found in the subways, the schools and the most intimate relationships.

Trauma and its consequences is the theme of Shinji Aoyama's "Eureka," which was awarded the FIPRESCI prize at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, while dividing critics and audiences, with Stephen Holden of The New York Times slamming it as "dawdling" and David Stratton of Variety praising it as "majestic."

Asian festival films often regard the fixed camera and long cut as articles of faith: If nothing is happening, it must be art, so before the three hours and 37 minutes of "Eureka," I was more inclined to agree with Holden than Stratton.

But Aoyama has imposed a unity of style and mood that indicates cinematic sophistication, not a following of fashion. He has made four films since his feature debut in 1995 with "Kyokasho ni Nai (It's Not In the Textbook)," which he made while contributing as a writer and critic to Cahiers du Cinema Japon and other publications.

Also, he has made intelligent choices in "Eureka," the story of three bus-hijack victims struggling to recover from their ordeal. Working with cinematographer Masaki Tamura, Aoyama uses sepia shades that reflect, with austere beauty, the victims' inner landscape. He avoids cliches such as voice-overs, swelling music, anguished confrontations and tear-filled eyes. Instead, he strips the victims' search for renewal to its essence, with his model being John Ford's "The Searchers."

"Although 'Eureka' might not seem so, it is indeed a western!" he says in a program interview. There is relatively little dialogue or incident.

A bus in rural Kyushu is hijacked by a disturbed salaryman, who shoots everyone but driver Makoto Sawai (Koji Yakusho) and two children before he is killed by police. The driver is reduced to a trembling wreck, while the children, Kozue (Aoi Miyazaki) and her older brother Naoki (Masaru Miyazaki), lapse into a zombielike silence.

Two years pass. Sawai, having lost his job and wife, is slowly, tentatively returning to a semblance of normality. Meanwhile, the children's mother has divorced and left them and their father has died in a car crash -- an apparent suicide. They live alone in the big family house, in near total isolation.

Then Sawai, after failing to fit in with his family and his co-workers in a new construction job, re-enters their life -- first as a visitor, then as a live-in member of their world. A noisy, obnoxious cousin (Yoichiro Saito), a college student seemingly on permanent vacation, intrudes, but never penetrates their silence.

Sawai is arrested as a suspect in a murder investigation (he was seen with one of the victims on the night of her death) but is released for lack of evidence. A free man again, he feels a need to get away, to find a place where he can heal. He fixes up a bus and takes the children and their reluctant cousin on a voyage of redemption. His starting point: the parking lot where the hijacking ended in blood and terror.

The problem with this voyage is not so much its length as the motivations of the voyagers and the means Aoyama uses to express them. Sawai I understood well enough: a broadly talented actor, Koji Yakusho more than adequately portrays Sawai's anguish, guilt and need for human connection (though his tubercular cough labors the point that he's a sensitive sufferer). The children, however, are mute bundles of anger and resentment, who never become much more than living symbols of the film's central themes.

What horror strikes them dumb? What makes Naoki explode with violent rage? Aoyama answers with stylized gestures, spare, beautiful images of Kyushu as Monument Valley. His vision, finally, is too abstract and orderly to reveal the true face of trauma's father: chaos.

"Eureka" is playing at Theatre Shinjuku. Sunday showings are subtitled in English.

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