Shinji Aoyama’s astonishing new film is all about violence, but it provides none of the usual adrenalin kick. Instead, Eureka probes effects, the ways that a physically and emotionally traumatic experience changes your sense of self and of the world’s rhythms. Harshly beautiful, the movie is also contrary and strange: intertwining subjects as sensational as serial killing and as mundane as life on the road in a Winnebago, it never quite takes you where you think it will.
Eureka introduces its protagonists as they are unexpectedly sucked into irrevocably life-changing trauma. Kozue (16-year-old Aoi Miyazaki, whose face is one of the more exquisitely affecting images I’ve seen on screen in years) and her brother Naoki (Masaru Miyazaki) board a bus and sit in the very back seat, facing forward as the bus follows its daily route, in a small town in southwest Japan. Suddenly, the scene is changed: a hijacker (Go Riju) has boarded the bus, which is now parked in a lot. Rather than taking you immediately inside, to the action, with acrobatic crane shots, the camera hunkers down at a distance. You gaze across the parking lot, over a crumpled dead body, at the bus, where the hijacker is barely visible, moving about.
The cut inside reveals that this fellow has no dastardly plan, no plan at all. He’s fumbling with his cell phone and his gun, messing with the cops, for whom the scene is out of control (they pace and point their guns, but they’re left to watch and wait). Kozue sits dead-still, Naoki leans forward, his face glistening with sweat. After some tension-making minutes, during which very little happens, the bus driver, Makoto (Koji Yakusho), figures a way to give the police snipers a shot at their target. The episode ends abruptly and horribly, when a lanky young detective shoots the villain dead, right in front of the kids. They continue to sit, eyes wide. The film cuts again, to a newspaper factory, the new editions spit out by machines, the event reduced to headlines: “Tragedy at Noon,” “Two Middle School Children, One Bus-driver Rescued.”
The rest of Eureka‘s three hours and forty minutes follows the unending aftermath of this single event, as the three survivors struggle to live, to understand their own sense of guilt, fearfulness, and hopelessness. The trick is that Kozue, Naoki, and, to a lesser extent, Makoto, are unable to articulate their feelings. Utterly alone and visibly undone, they withdraw into a kind of functional catatonia, refusing to go to school, watching television and playing games with one another. Eventually—the film is unclear when—they stop speaking, even to one another. Their mother abandons the family and their father dies in a car wreck. And not one person from town comes to their home to help.
During this same period, Makoto is undergoing his own transformation, most of it offscreen. After the tragedy, he leaves town. When he returns two years later—on a bus—he’s unkempt and despondent, but goes home to his brother, sister-in-law, and father: they inform him that his wife has left him. He starts work at a construction company, where the manual labor and daily ritual of washing shovels seem to bring Makoto back to life. Still, he’s unable to converse with his family. And so, the film turns again: Makoto goes to live with Kozue and Naoki, nurturing them, finding his own generosity, cleaning up after them, feeding them regular meals, hauling them outside for bike riding and shopping expeditions, filling in the silences with encouraging chatter.
There are any number of scenes in Eureka that articulate this threesome’s peculiar but somehow necessary relationship, as well as their incapacity to make connections with anyone else. Makoto’s brief reunion with his wife, Yumiko (Sayuri Kokusho), is one of the more striking and exemplary, subtly and increasingly uncomfortable, as they timidly test what cannot be said and what cannot be ignored. Shot as a series of one-shots as they chat in a restaurant, surrounded by crisp white tablecloths, the conversation turns taut as they stand to leave: at this point, their very different pains are almost palpable. His eyes search hers, he wonders whether they might try again. She smiles, her eyes too bright, but can hardly maintain the charade. She hits him playfully, calls him a “monster,” and accuses him—a little too nicely—of not “taking care of her.” He says he’s sorry, as he tells most everyone he meets now. But it’s too late.
And so, the three survivors find solace—and importantly, respect for their separate griefs—in each other, as well as the kids’ free-spirited cousin (Yoichiro Saito), who comes to stay with them. You see very little of their interactions, but know they are all better off as a crew, at least temporarily. For of course, their idyll is fragile and short-lived. When a determined detective (not incidentally, the same one who shot the bus-jacker as the kids looked on) becomes convinced that Makoto is a serial killer stalking young women in town, the foursome hits the road in a camper. Once in motion, they cannot turn back, and must learn to communicate—even if only by tapping on the walls between them—rather than living in devastating isolation.
The film reflects this arduous emotional process in detail, but the route to redemption, or at least to continued endurance, is circuitous. Some of it is even a bit too obvious: as a sign that Makoto is coming to terms with his own mortality (an issue all three survivors confront daily), he begins coughing, occasionally at first, then more often, and more achingly. But even this clunky cue doesn’t really pan out; the film changes up, offers hope instead of death. Always, violence remains inescapable, shaping all of their lives—it’s in the air they breathe, as it is, really, for all of us, to varying degrees. And yet, despite and because of their anguish, they can find and then, against every expectation, struggle to save each other.
Perfectly composed and shot in elegant black and white by Masaki Tamra, the film spends long—very long—moments contemplating the emotional truths so often unseen but still visible in surfaces, in stark interiors and vast landscapes, subtle gestures and revealing postures. The film’s great strength is its stunning indirection: events and characters point in familiar directions, but Eureka is rarely familiar.