Time is the ultimate critic, but there's every reason to predict that Shinji Aoyama's "Eureka" will become one of the landmarks of the world cinema of the first decade of the 21st century. It has a daunting three-hour, 40-minute running time but is so compelling and so completely accessible that it doesn't seem as long as most films half its length.
This is a work of deceptive simplicity that grapples with the eternal theme of redemption with a Dostoevskyan intensity and scope. To watch this film, in short, can be a transforming experience, an effect often cited by viewers of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Decalogue."
"A tidal wave is coming soon; and it will sweep us all away," remarks a schoolgirl, Kozue (Aoi Miyazaki), who comes into view on a rural highway as the film opens. Kozue's prediction is apparently spurred by a weather report, but she and her older brother Naoki (Masaru Miyazaki) are about to be overcome by an entirely different kind of disaster. They're riding on a bus that is taken over by a crazed hijacker so swiftly it's hard to comprehend what's happening until after the fact.
In a standoff with police in a vast, empty parking lot, six people aboard the bus abruptly lose their lives, including a policeman and the hijacker himself. The only survivors are the bus driver, Makoto Sawai (Koji Yakusho), Kozue and Naoki.
Immediately engulfed in survivor's guilt, Sawai, a pleasant-looking, seemingly ordinary man, is so shattered by what he has witnessed that he simply disappears, turning up two years later in his hometown, looking scruffy and given shelter by his married sister. Soon he is working on a road construction crew. His hopes of rebuilding his life with the girlfriend he deserted are shattered by her having given up on him and returning to her own hometown, where she is about to get married.
Sawai blends in well with the construction crew, but in the community his presence creates constant unease, reminding people of the tragedy and evoking their curiosity about his absence. Sawai's predicament takes an abrupt turn for the worse when he is the person last seen with a young woman who becomes the apparent victim in a rash of serial killings.
Questioned brutally by the police but not charged, Sawai seeks refuge with Kozue and Naoki, who live alone amid mounting debris in their family home, a chic rustic retreat from which their mother fled for another man. Their father has since died, and Kozue and Naoki have dropped out of school and have never spoken since the hijack.
Now the odyssey of the spirit that is "Eureka" gets underway in earnest, as Sawai seeks to overcome his survivor's guilt and the loss of his lover by attempting to free Kozue and Naoki from the trauma that imprisons them. It is a clearly going to be a heroic undertaking, one that culminates with a heightened sense of how the interplay of chance and choice, of good and evil, determine an individual's destiny. "Eureka" builds steadily, with a deliberate far-ranging indirectness, to a culmination that is awesome in its sense of appropriateness.
Aoyama, whose few prior films are largely unknown in the U.S., elicits a doggedly towering performance by Yakusho. Aoyama compares Sawai to John Wayne's troubled but ultimately redeemed character in John Ford's "The Searchers"; the comparison is both apt and worthy. The demands he places on the young Miyazakis, actual brother and sister, are intense as well. Yohichiroh Saitoh, as the brother and sister's foolish cousin, a skinny, irascible college student who has come to spend the summer with them, provides quirky comic relief. Shot in black-and-white and printed in color, "Eureka" has a luminosity expressive of its spirituality and has a score shattering in its spareness.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: some jolting violence, intense, complex adult themes and situations.
Koji Yakusho: Makoto Sawai
Aoi Miyazaki: Kozue
Masaru Miyazaki: Naoki
Yohichiroh Saitoh: Akihiko
A Shooting Gallery release of a Suncent CinemaWorks presentation of a co-production of Dentsu, Imagica, Suncent CinemaWorks and Tokyo Theaters. Writer-director-editor Shinji Aoyama. Producer Takenori Sento. Cinematographer Masaki Tamra. Music Isao Yamada, Shinji Aoyama. Production designer Takeshi Shimizu. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 3 hours, 40 minutes.
Exclusively at the Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., (323) 777-FILM (No. 174) or (323) 653-3117.