Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka is a film of rare tenderness and mystery. One might describe it as a mix of John Ford’s The Searchers and Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, except that the comparison beggars its nervous rhythms and millennial sense of unease. Opening with a bus hijacking in which a psychopath kills five passengers for no discernible reason except to vent his rage and despair, Eureka follows the incident’s three survivors—the driver and two children—as they try to cope with the trauma and make a new life.
The narrative, at its most basic, is a rescue fantasy set in motion by the hijacking. After an absence of two years, Makoto, the bus driver (Koji Yakusho), returns to his hometown only to find that his wife has left him. The children, Kozue (Aoi Miyazaki) and her brother, Naoki (Masaru Miyazaki), now in their early teens, have also been on their own since their mother ran off with another man and their father drove his car into a tree. Like the hijacking, which we see only in its final horrific moments, these events occupy mere seconds of screen time. Having ruptured the surface of what seemed like normal life, they exist as memory shards, conditioning everything that follows.
Makoto moves in with Kozue and Naoki, who’ve remained in their big old house, supported by their father’s insurance money. The children have stopped speaking entirely, although they seem to communicate telepathically with each other. Makoto gets a job working with an old friend on a construction site, but it’s only with the children that he feels a real connection. The traumatic experience that binds them together stigmatizes them in the eyes of the world. And when several young women fall victim to a serial killer, Makoto becomes the prime suspect. Realizing that they must break with the past to heal their wounds, Makoto buys an old bus, fixing it up as a caravan, and they take off. The fourth member of their company is the children’s cousin (Yohichiroh Saitoh), who was sent by covetous relatives to keep an eye on the money, but is himself enough of an outsider (he’s an Albert Ayler freak) to fall partly under the spell of this alternative family setup. At this point, the film turns into a road movie that maps an inner journey where, to put it in Freudian terms, Eros and Thanatos fight for possession of the psyche, and, by implication, the future of the world.
What’s so extraordinary about Eureka is that it makes one believe that intimate human connections are possible, that empathy is worth struggling for, and that propriety and hipster cynicism alike must fall by the wayside en route to unconditional love. It’s tempting to read Makoto as a saint; he evokes, at the very least, a longed-for compassionate father figure. But resisting sentimentality, Aoyama shows that he is merely a man with a certain insight into his burden of survivor guilt. He can answer the question “Why was I spared?” in two ways: It’s either to ease the suffering of others or to inflict on them what was inflicted on him. The two choices are irrevocably linked. In acting on one, Makato wards off the other.
Aoyama, who previously made several small genre pictures in rapid succession, has said he was interested in the aftermath of senseless crime as epitomized by the sarin-gas attacks in the Tokyo subway. Eureka, however, does not take place in a situation of urban anomie. Rather it uses the vast, underpopulated landscapes of Kyushu (where Aoyama and Yakusho grew up) to underscore the fragility of human life and the emotional distance the characters must cross to make a connection.
Shot in CinemaScope and on color stock from which almost all the color was drained, Eureka evokes the way one sees with the mind’s eye. The combination of empty space and vivid detail in the image and the joltingly elliptical editing suggests the kind of dream that takes place halfway between sleep and waking. (The film might have been inspired by memories of movies Aoyama saw as a child in the ’60s on black-and-white TV.) Eureka takes you into another world, one that at the end of three and a half hours I didn’t want to leave. Some of its seductive power can be attributed to the starkly beautiful cinematography (by Masaki Tamra), some to the delicate balance of pleasure and pain in the scrupulously plotted narrative, but a large part has to do with the three leading actors. Real-life sister and brother Aoi and Masaru Miyazaki bring an unstudied concentration that’s rare in young performers. The weight of the film, however, falls on Yakusho, who became an international star on the basis of his utterly charming performance in Shall We Dance, but here delivers a combination of charisma and self-effacement that takes him to another level.
Eureka leaves to our imagination what happens to Makoto in the first shell-shocked months after the bus hijacking. François Ozon’s Under the Sand performs a similar though shorter bypass. Marie (Charlotte Rampling) and Jean (Bruno Cremer), a middle-aged couple, are on vacation. While she’s lying on the beach reading, he goes for a swim and never returns. Fighting off panic and despair, Marie goes to the police, but their investigation turns up nothing. Cut to six months later: Marie is in full-blown denial. Refusing to accept even the suggestion that her husband is dead, Marie talks about Jean to their friends as if he simply were away on a business trip. At home, her fantasy takes a slightly different form. She acts as if Jean were with her—lying in bed, eating breakfast, chatting about the events of the day. Like Eureka, Under the Sand operates within a psychoanalytic framework: Freud likened mourning to a kind of madness that needed to be played out in time, but in contemporary society where one is supposed to return to work after a few days of bereavement, Marie’s denial not only endangers her livelihood (she’s a college professor), it makes her something of a social outcast. No one wants to be involved with a crazy lady.
Under the Sand is not only about grief and loss but also about mortality. It’s the sense of death in the midst of life that smacks us in the face in the film’s opening moments, when Jean lifts a fallen branch in the garden and sees the ants swarming beneath. And, of course, it’s the coming of old age written on Rampling’s once flawless face and body—the slight sag under the chin, the softened line of the shoulder. What makes this film so different from, for example, Truly, Madly, Deeply or the infinitely more maudlin Ghost is that the heroine is not a young woman. But since, as we well know, beauty is more than skin deep, Rampling has never been as beautiful, not to mention as emotionally naked, nuanced, and affecting as she is here. It’s no slight to Ozon’s direction to say that the virtue of the film is its minimalism—the fact that it can be reduced to the relationship between camera and actress.
Jessica Winter’s profile of Shinji Aoyama.