Imamura’s film is an exuberant, eccentric fairy tale. Yamashita kills his wife in a fit of jealous passion and then adopts an eel whilst in prison as an ersatz substitute. His passions have rendered him incapable of having real relationships with humans. An eel is safer.
The film then gradually traces the return of his humanity. He finds a sleeping princess, Keiko, (she’s actually taken an overdose) who he rescues. She falls for him and comes to work in his barber’s shop. Gradually Keiko helps him overcome his sense of alienation and when her own problems come back to haunt her, Yamashita finally begins to face up to his true feelings.
As the plot outlines, this is an ultimately sentimental tale, even its starting point is an act of murder. At times it feels as though the director runs the risk of being overly whimsical, with the secondary characters who help to make up Yamashita’s world all having their particular eccentricities (creating a UFO landing ground or displaying a passion for flamenco). Sometimes these feel like gimmicks, in contrast to Yamashita’s more nuanced relationship with his eel. In another way it could be said that they give the film something of the feel of a US indie movie: there’s a hint of Imamura’s idiosyncrasy in the work of Wes Anderson, for example.