A hugely empathic study of sorrow and reckoning, Shinji Aoyama's epic Eureka maps the aftermath of a bus hijacking in southwest Japan that leaves three survivors, two of whom have been literally shocked into silence by the ordeal. "I wanted to carry my film into the arena of grief beyond language," says Aoyama, who gladly acknowledges the influence of Alain Renais's Hiroshima Mon Amour and John Ford's The Searchers. "From Ford, I learned how to use action and long shots rather than language to express emotions. The singular realization at the end of The Searchersyou don't get to that point via language, but it emerges in a few words: 'Let's go home.' " Indeed, Aoyama's searchers are pressed by circumstance to improvise a new family and homethe latter of which eventually takes the form of a bus. Eureka is foremost a classical road movie, and "in some ways, it's very much a western," says the director.
Aoyama began in movies as a propmaker and soon rose to assistant director (on Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's Cold Fever and films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa) while also writing criticism for Cahiers du Cinema Japan. His first feature, Helpless (1995), also employed violence as the force behind its protagonist's existential crisis, as did An Obsession (1997), a suicide-fixated policier. (Aoyama's hair reaches past his waist, because he hasn't cut it since beginning Helpless: "I haven't had time.") He was born in 1964 in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands, where Eureka was filmed. "We shot the last scene near a large volcano, Mount Aso," Aoyama says of his film's transcendent final moments. "My parents took me there a lot when I was a child, and I remember thinking that usually your vision is limited to things that are very close by, but at Aso, you can see 360 degrees around you. The extraordinary largeness of the expanse made me constantly aware of my small existence."
A visceral attunement to nature (as well as glorious sepia-toned CinemaScope) makes it possible for Aoyama to externalize a harrowing interior journey. The torrid Japanese countrysideall tall swaying grass and screaming cicadasbecomes another character, alternately suffering (as when the camera holds on a newly cut tree branch that weeps sap) and threatening. "I did not want to make this a story about conflict between people, but between people and nature," Aoyama notes. "We don't have the power to change the landscape that surrounds usit can be likened to destiny. People can see in nature their own sadness and pain, but of course, there is no emotion there at all. We're merely seeing what we want to see."
Aoyama likens Eureka's pivotal hijacking scene to "a natural disaster," the kind that has beset Japan during its last 10 tumultuous years, which have been called "the lost decade": marked by economic turmoil, a revolving door of prime ministers, an explosion of youth crime, and mounting agitation for official government admission of Hirohito's war crimes. Aoyama says the 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway was a catalyst for his script, while the plague of murderous school rampages (all too familiar to Americans, and dubbed kireru in Japan, literally meaning "to snap") informed Eureka's serial-killer subplot. "One of the seriously deficient aspects of Japanese society is how parents handle responsibility for their children," says Aoyama, whose next film, Desert Moon, "tells the story of a family that gets broken and pulled back together." (It premieres at Cannes this month.)
This labyrinthine social subtext couldn't be fully addressed in a dozen movies of Eureka's 217-minute duration, so it's fitting that the film is a daringly patient collection of gestures both monumental and minimalist: Slow, meditative snatches of real-time are punctuated by sudden, throat-grabbing upheavals. Eureka is delineated by violence, but it is not a violent film. The hijacking, for example, is summarized in one iconic shot: a bloody hand lying on the pavement. Says Aoyama: "The power of film is that it excels at expressing a result. I think showing the result first and then letting the viewer guess at the cause leaves a much stronger impact than telling the story in order. In that initial confusion, a single powerful image enters your consciousness."
Even with its thriller-genre elements, the uniquely immersive experience of Eureka may leave some viewers feeling a bit restless, and that's fine by Aoyama. "If a character is riding in a car, I want you to feel you're riding alongside him. I'm not really trying to bore the audience," he says with a soft laugh, "but I am thinking of something along those lines. Viewers tend to challenge themselves and think, I'm going to really watch and think of something, feel something, project something onto this film. But that's not always necessary. Sometimes I just want them to sit rocking in the backseat of a car."
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