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