You may not be overjoyed at the prospect of sitting through a 220-minute, intermission-less feature about despair, grief and trauma, shot in black-and-white, with very little music but plenty of subtitles to translate the Japanese dialogue; but if you skip Shinji Aoyama’s remarkable, affecting “Eureka,” the final entry in this spring’s Shooting Gallery series of independent films, the loss will be yours. Like Atom Egoyan’s extraordinary “The Sweet Hereafter,” Aoyama’s picture depicts the aftermath of tragedy with both restraint and emotional power; and while it’s a very different from (and not quite the equal of) that 1997 Canadian masterpiece, it’s comparably compelling.
The film begins with a starkly-rendered mass killing, in which a deranged man randomly shoots many of the passengers on a bus in a provincial Japanese town. After the police deal with the perpetrator (who remains a blank, a deus ex machina who simply initiates the narrative), three survivors remain: the driver, Makoto Sawai (Koji Yakusho), and two siblings, adolescent Naoki Tamura (Masaru Miyazaki) and his younger sister Kozue (Aoi Miyazaki). All of them are traumatized by the episode: Makoto simply runs away from his family (his wife will eventually leave him), while the children are soon orphaned and living a withdrawn existence in their family home. In time Makota returns, takes a menial job and, in an unspoken attempt at redemption, moves in with the youngsters and becomes a sort of surrogate father to them, trying to draw them (and himself) back into the world of the living. There are difficulties, however: the siblings’ big-city cousin Akihiko (Yohichiroh Saitoh) unexpectedly arrives for an intrusive visit, and Makoto becomes a suspect in a series of local murders. Eventually all four of the house’s residents climb aboard an old bus, which they rehabilitate together, and go off on a road trip which–Makoto obviously hopes–can serve as a therapeutic experience for the children. The journey will in fact bring a kind of closure to their mutual tragedy, but the outcome will be bittersweet.
This synopsis might make “Eureka” seem more event-filled than it in fact is. Despite the serial-killer subplot, for example, it is hardly a whodunit or even a whydunit, and anyone expecting suspense in the unmasking of the murderer is bound to be seriously disappointed. The picture is, instead, a character study of individuals who have shared a traumatic experience and suffer its effects. There are long stretches where very little seems to happen at all, and static shots held for an agonizing time to create an almost hypnotic effect. “Eureka” is a film of pauses and silences, dramatizing the reality of grief and pain in a style that will certainly irritate some viewers with its leisurely, deliberate pace and its insistence on understatement. But it’s also a film of quiet intensity, employing simple techniques to build, gradually but inexorably, considerable impact. The acting is low-key but adequate to the director’s purpose, and Masaki Tamra’s cinematography invests the images with gritty realism that’s punctuated by occasional touches of surrealism.
Ultimately “Eureka” doesn’t quite match Egoyan’s treatment of the same theme, which achieved greater emotional complexity within a briefer compass and plumbed depths of emotion that the newer film only obliquely suggests. Nevertheless its mixture of hushed seriousness, serene beauty and underlying anguish give it a resonance that almost makes one forget, and surely allows one to forgive, its ample running-time. Appropriately for a film with this title, “Eureka” is a real cinematic find.