This is an eerily entrancing experience delivered up by director Shinji Aoyama. Shot in black and white, but on colour film, the images drift into sepia or become almost pastel tones. "Eureka" is primarily a visual experience, one of the most lyrically beautiful pieces of cinema I've ever seen.
Yet such a bleak story! A bus is hijacked. People die. There is no evident reason - the crime is random, chaotic, motiveless. The survivors are the driver and two school children, a brother and sister. Now, leap forward two years. How have they coped? What effect has the violence had on their lives?
The children have lost their parents and are alone in a big house. They do not speak. The bus driver moves in with them, acting as their parents, or simply as someone who can understand their pain and confusion. Perhaps the only one who can. The children appear to communicate telepathically. Meanwhile, a series of murders has begun and the prime suspect is the bus driver.
The driver looks for some cathartic experience to help them get on with their lives. He buys a bus. Together they transform it into a mobile home and set off on a journey. Bus drivers follow the same route day in, day out. But this is a magical mystery tour, a process of self-discovery.
Shinji Aoyama says that he was influenced by John Ford's "The Searchers", in which John Wayne searches for a young Natalie Wood, a child kidnapped in an Indian raid. "Eureka" doesn't have the overt violence and anger of Wayne's character. Makoto, the driver, is a much gentler individual. But the theme of the film is one of searching - for the lost voices, the lost emotions, the loss of self.
Does violence contaminate the victim? Makoto wonders if it has infected them all. As a victim of violence he has been powerless. Perhaps the only way a victim can recover is to exert power over others, to violate, terrorise, and brutalise others. Would the act of murder free him of the guilt of survival? They take off in the bus in search of rebirth.
"Eureka" is a long film - three and a half hours. Its plot is a narrow strand. This is the antithesis of the action movie. Much of the filming is in long shot, with the actors distant figures. There are no close-ups. The visuals are extraordinary. Much use is made of the intense contrast of black and white - night time shots, use of sunlight and shade, dense dark scenes with only a central pool of light.
The camera frames a scene and holds it, dwells on it languidly. There are long silences. The film could have been cut in half, but this frozen timelessness is an essential part of the experience the survivors endure.
There is virtually no music - a couple of almost ironic intrusions. The sound is entirely naturalistic. The black and white filming seems to enhance the notion of reality. It's as if you are watching a documentary, intruding on the intimate lives of victims, watching through distant cameras with only the sounds of nature and the modern world to intrude.
And so much of the film presents you with pattern and graphic imagery: the stripes and checks of clothing, the stripes of wooden boards, the patterns of the natural world, of roads and railways. The pattern of the bus driver's routine has been shattered. For the victims there is no longer any pattern to life, just a bland sameness, day after day.
Instead, life flows like water. Much use is made of the images of water, of the natural cycle of rain flowing though the streams and rivers back to the sea. In the sea lies rebirth, in the sea lies hope and self-discovery.
But this is one of the most joyously hopeful and positive films I've ever seen. Bleak, set in a rural Japan which offers up none of the usual clichés of Japanese life, it transcends its extraordinary visual richness to offer up a hymn to the struggle of modern man, woman and child, searching for an explanation, for a reason for life in the face of violence and the unpredictable. It is a potent, powerful statement about the need to be reborn, to rediscover self and a sense of purpose.
An outstanding film, but not one which is going to capture everyone's imagination. It's a film you grow into. It's a film which you visually enjoy. It's a film in which, as you recognise the struggle faced by the survivors, you too begin to imagine your own need for a pilgrimage of self-discovery. Outstanding, but I suggest you rent it in the first instance ... and see how quickly it grows on you.