A tidal wave is coming. Soon I am sure. It will sweep all of us away.
      –The opening lines of

One of the more familiar works of Japanese art–particularly in the West, where it has shown up everywhere from ecocampaigns to the cover of the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift catalogue–is Hokusai’s Shogun-era The Great Wave. Everybody knows the picture: a massive, percolating arch of water, dwarfing the far-off Mount Fuji and frozen at the instant of breaking. The wave has been hanging there, imperiling the painting’s tiny fishermen, since the early part of the nineteenth century.

It would be hard to imagine that Aoyama Shinji, director of another epic and audacious Japanese import, Eureka, didn’t have Hokusai’s lurching wave somewhere in his mind while building his three-hour-and-forty-minute film. (In an era when Hollywood’s current top stars seem constitutionally and/or contractually incapable of appearing in anything under two hours and fifteen minutes, it still seems necessary to mention Eureka‘s unorthodox length, if only because in this case it works.) Not only is the film poised, from murderous opening to rapturous conclusion, on an emotional precipice of imminent danger and delirium; it is, like The Great Wave, a work suspended between cultures: Hokusai created a supposedly classical Japanese painting by marrying Eastern imagery to Western artistic innovations. Aoyama’s movie presumes on the surface a most Japanese serenity, while at its heart is soul-shaking psychological and spiritual violence, ignited by a very Western cinematic sensibility. No cars blow up, only souls.

Despite the opening weather forecast–voiced over by the film’s delicate Kozue, who will be given such a moving and virtually mute performance by young Miyazaki Aoi–what comes closest to physically resembling a tidal wave in Eureka is a bus, cresting a hill in a heat-vapor haze and bearing a distinct air of menace. We’ve seen a woman in a bonnet waving goodbye from a hillside to her children en route to school; older brother, younger sister, they seem to adore/tolerate each other silently, routinely. They board that bus and what follows is a sequence of dispassionately considered horror: the entrance of an obviously disturbed character, his suit a careless attempt at white-collar respectability; the bus parked in an otherwise empty lot; bodies splayed on the gravel; one fleeing passenger shot dead in his tracks. The camera observing helplessly, possibly against its will.

The cops arrive, at last. And what adds to our rising sense of dismay is that we know so much more than they do. (What people know and when they know is essential to the fascination of Eureka.) They phone the madman, who has covered the inside of the bus windows with newspaper, shot several of its occupants and is clearly in that space where reason has evaporated and only more killing can diminish the sense of crime: The more bodies, the less each can mean. It’s a sentiment that will haunt the survivors of this “incident” throughout the rest of the film. Meanwhile, the cops ring Busjack Man’s cell phone. Kozue covers her ears.

Because he collapses in fear while being walked around the lot by Busjack Man, the driver–named Makoto, and played by veteran film star Yakusho Koji (Shall We Dance?, The Eel, Sleeping Man)–allows the sharpshooters an opening. But the shot’s not clean: The wounded Busjack Man gets back on the bus, managing to kill everyone on board but the kids. It’s not that he doesn’t try to be thorough–his gun, and his eyes, are trained on the two at the moment the police shoot him dead. And it’s not that he doesn’t succeed, in his way: That he is himself finally killed prevents nothing, really, but an actual bullet leaving an actual chamber.

Eureka is not a film about a bus hijacking. (With more than three hours to go, how could it be?) Nor is it, exclusively, about the serial killings that punctuate the movie. It’s a ghost story, about the almost-killed being viewed as if they were. Or worse–that they’ve become dangerous, walking time bombs whose experience has placed them beyond the common law of common experience, and rendered them entirely unpredictable.

But how can life possibly be lived once random murder has come so close and with such mad indiscretion? How can life be lived as a form of death? Having survived their ordeal, our characters become personae non grata, treated the way terminal cancer patients are often treated–like they’re not quite there, or are stubbornly, inconveniently delaying the inevitable. Makoto, Kozue and Naoki (played by actress Aoi’s real brother, Masaru) have their distinct postbus experiences: Makoto leaves home to wander, is eventually divorced by his wife and treated as an embarrassment by his family. The kids’ mother abandons their unhappy household, their father subsequently dies in a car crash (we’re pretty sure it’s suicide), and the two wind up living alone, unspeaking, in their squalid house. But common pain proves a common bond: Only when Makoto seeks them out and they set up housekeeping–sleeping in the shape of a torii (if we’re not reading too much into it), with the kids parallel to each other and Makoto serving as the bridge–does their dream state start to lift.

Aoyama alludes to François Truffaut’s 400 Blows, employs Western music to make certain sometimes cloying points and eventually winds up adapting the road movie to his metaphysical survivors’ tale. Despite the Ozu-inspired angles and distance of his film, his taste for sentiment is hardly an un-Western inspiration. But he’s certainly indicting Japanese culture. Had this been a Western film, the Holocaust would likely have been an unavoidable issue (how differently its survivors are treated, for instance, and why). Grief counselors would have stopped the kids’ story in its tracks. Tom Cruise would have been the lawyer fighting their damage suit against the bus company.

Instead, the culture of Eureka explodes the idea of Japanese family into something as twisted as Busjack Man’s psyche. Kozue listens silently on the phone as her auntie says how much she has meant to visit, how much she really wanted her and her brother to live with her…and is the insurance money still coming in? The prodigal Makoto tells his family he’s OK. “He said he’s OK,” his brother says, “now leave him alone.” Naoki, the most damaged and silent and unapproachable, exhibits strange reactions to everything, including the extended visit of his cousin Akihiko (Saitoh Yohichiroh), a wack-job college student who is probably a family plant, but who provides much of the movie’s much-needed humor. The secretary at the construction firm where Makoto works (his redemption is incremental; he rides a bicycle before he boards another bus) reveals that she too lost her parents as a child and was put into an orphanage by relatives who stole her insurance money. Makoto develops a mysterious cough.

Eureka is the most novelistic film to hit these shores since…well, at risk of revealing some kind of pro-Asian prejudice, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, another film with a seriously unhurried approach to construction. One of the most intriguing and seductive things about Aoyama’s film, as was the case with Yi Yi, is how we’re never so captivated by the obvious as we are by the painfully subtle. The serial killings that follow our quartet around (our suspicions flow like tides between the characters) seem almost incidental next to their inner lives. Likewise the pursuit of Makoto by the police inspector (Matsushige Yutaka) who killed Busjack Man, and who clearly wants to achieve absolution for the slaughter by proving Makoto’s gone bad. “Your eyes were the same as the killer’s,” he tells Makoto. All we can remember is Makoto dissolving in shame and nerves.

No, the moments of Eureka that wring out your brain are more delicately devastating. Kozue–the movie’s principal character when all is said and done, its conscience, its emotional bridge-builder, its selfless repository of pain–crosses a railroad track with her bicycle, stopping to consider the oncoming train, staring full-faced into the camera as if to ask our approval for whatever she does. Then, in an insidious bit of Joycean coincidence, unknowable by anyone but us, Makoto gets off that train. Krzysztof Kieslowski used to devise moments of such tantalizing realism of possibility, although they were usually a little less terrible than this particular moment of Eureka.

Aoyama’s movie played at Cannes last year–one screening, no doubt because of its inconvenient length. It then played at the New York Film Festival. (For purposes of full disclosure, be advised that this writer was on the festival’s selection committee.) It now opens courtesy of the invaluable Shooting Gallery Film Series, which has already made it possible for New Yorkers to see Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman, among other otherwise unreleased films. And there’s more good news: Aoyama returns to Cannes this year with a new film called Desert Moon. On the promise of Eureka, Aoyama makes it a very attractive prospect to head for the sunny French Riviera, to sit in the dark.