Harking back to the day when masters like Kobayashi, Inagaki and Kurosawa regularly spat out films with running times in excess of 200 minutes, Aoyama ("Two Punks," "Shady Groove") has delivered a picture that is both quintessentially Japanese and unabashedly artsy. What starts off as an average morning in a suburban southwestern Japanese town soon turns horrifically bleak when a commuter bus is hijacked by a gun-wielding madman. By the time the incident ends, the hijacker and all but three of the hostages are dead: the driver and a teenage brother and sister.
In the coming days and weeks, the residue of survivor trauma takes its toll. The driver, Sawai Makoto ("The Eel's" Koji Yakusho), flees his family, while the children, Naoki and Kozue (real-life brother and sister Masaru and Aoi Miyazaki), find themselves in the opposite dilemma, essentially orphaned by their mother's abandonment and their father's death in an auto accident.
When Sawai finally returns, the welcome is anything but warm. His wife has long since moved on, leaving him at the mercy of his uncaring brother and sister-in-law. Sensing that only the children may be able to understand and appreciate his struggle, he pays them a visit. What he finds, however, is a situation even more desperate than his own: squalid living conditions and children so detached from reality that they don't even speak, much less show emotion. On the other hand, it's far more hospitable than living with his relations. So Sawai moves in with the children and before long is able to restore the home to some semblance of order and normality. But the emotional turmoil continues. All three remain deeply scarred and dysfunctional, too damaged for any one of them to resolve without more direct, desperate action.
The contemporary setting notwithstanding, "Eureka" plays like a classic Japanese drama, addressing the same dark themes that have been an inextricable part of the island nation's literature and art for centuries. And though it comes no closer to resolving those issues than any previous attempt, it does manage to generate enough empathy for the three central figures to keep audiences engaged well past the half-way point.
That's about as far, though, as "Eureka" is able to function without a significant glitch. Somewhere past the two-hour mark, the film finally starts to trip over itself as the characters return again and again to the same dilemmas and insurmountable obstacles. While that may very well be the point, Aoyama's cure is almost worse than the disease. By turning the latter portion of the picture into a road trip, Aoyama is finally able to work out most of the lingering emotional issues, but at the same time fails to sustain the precarious energy and momentum constructed throughout the first two hours. Had the first part not worked so well, the road trip might well have unraveled the entire story, leaving nothing for audiences to remember as it hobbles to its overlong conclusion. Thankfully, this is not the case, though many viewers will undoubtedly feel taxed during the final third.
As prevalent as such themes are in Japanese cinema, there are also accessible western analogies to be made, specifically Peter Weir's "Fearless" and Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter," both of which share many of "Eureka's" underlying concerns and its austere approach to emotional isolation in the aftermath of tragedy. While it's no sure bet that fans of those films will respond in kind to Aoyama's approach, they may very well be "Eureka's" best chance at breaking through to more mainstream art-house audiences. Starring Koji Yakusho, Aoi Miyazaki, Masaru Miyazaki, Yohichiroh Saitoh, Sayuri Kokusho, Ken Mitsuishi and Go Riju. Directed by Shinji Aoyama. Written by Shinji Aoyama. Produced by Takenori Sento. A Shooting Gallery release. Drama. Japanese-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 218 min