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Keep the River on Your Right:

and Laurie Gwen Shapiro

A girl has been kidnapped and only one man can rescue her. That’s the basic plot of Shinji Aoyama’s remarkable Eureka, as well as of the film the writer-director says inspired him, The Searchers. Devotees of John Ford’s 1956 Western—and there are many—will indeed notice some similarities between the two movies, notably a crucial line of dialogue. Still, Aoyama’s film is far from a literal remake. For one thing, the girl has not exactly been kidnapped. She (and her brother) haven’t gone anywhere; it’s only their souls that are missing. And the outsider who seeks to deliver the children is not a mythic horseman like John Wayne’s searcher; he’s a bus driver played by Koji Yakusho, the Japanese everyman who starred in Shall We Dance? and The Eel.

Aoyama’s story begins with the event that brings the three characters together. One day on a rural road, Kozue and her older brother, Naoki (real-life siblings Aoi and Masaru Miyazaki), board the bus driven by Makoto (Yakusho). What happens next is a chronicle of ordinariness, rendered eerie only by Masaki Tamra’s almost monochromatic sepia-toned cinematography. Then the director cuts suddenly to a shot of a bloody hand; one of the bus passengers has revealed a gun and an indeterminate grudge. The police move in, and both the cops and the hijacker get off a few rounds. When it’s all over, six people on the bus are dead and only Makoto, Kozue, and Naoki have survived.

Eureka’s rhythm contrasts long, deliberate sequences with sudden bursts of plot development. In a few moments, Makoto has fled the town and Kozue and Naoki have lost their parents; their mother leaves with another man and their father dies in a car crash. Two years later, Makoto returns to find that his wife has stopped waiting for him. He moves in with his brother and his family but finds life there intolerable. So he goes to ask Kozue and Naoki if he can live with them. The teenagers, who have trashed the house and stopped speaking altogether, seem to assent; Makoto cleans up, cooks regular meals, and otherwise establishes a routine.

This new domestic arrangement is followed quickly by the arrival of Akihiko (Yohichiro Saitoh), the kids’ college-student cousin, who says that he’s going to spend his monthlong school break with them. At first, it seems that he simply wants a change of scene. (He’s in school in Tokyo and his cousins live on Kyushu, the southwesternmost of Japan’s four main islands, which is where both Aoyama and Yakusho grew up.) Gradually, though, it becomes clear that Akihiko has been sent to check on the insurance settlement that’s supporting Kozue and Naoki, money the extended family would be happy to claim.

One more complication: A serial killer has started murdering young women in the area. Because Makoto returned around the time the slayings began, he’s a suspect. After spending a night in jail but not getting charged, Makoto decides that the best therapy would be a road trip. He adapts an old bus into a sort of RV, and the three survivors—plus the initially reluctant Akihiko—set out to find Japan, or at least some scenic parts of Kyushu. The meandering trip does roughly what Makoto apparently hoped, triggering a series of revelations and breakthroughs.

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Eureka ends with a sweeping vista that substitutes a volcanic peak for Ford’s emblematic location, Monument Valley, which is just one of the ways Aoyama transforms the American Western into a Japanese Southwestern. (This climactic scene is where color floods back into the desaturated film stock.) Like Ford, Aoyama relies on long shots, indicating both external conflict and internal turmoil by studiously placing the characters in expansive widescreen compositions. Kozue and Naoki also offer an ironic variation on Western archetypes; where Ford’s cowboys are taciturn, Aoyama’s kids are simply mute.

These parallels may be insufficient to sustain the interest of some Ford buffs through Eureka’s three-and-a-half hours of hushed introspection. (Eureka is named for a song by Chicago post-rocker Jim O’Rourke that eventually plays in the film, but there’s very little music; the wispy guitar and piano score, composed by Isao Yamada and the director himself, is heard only occasionally.) Yet Aoyama’s austere contemplation of the aftershocks of violence—inspired in part by the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway—is distinctive, poignant, and involving. The part of the movie that fails to engage is actually the “thriller” subplot about the serial slayings.

The script’s dubious thesis is that someone who survives an incident of random brutality may be tempted to turn to violence himself. A policeman who played a crucial role at the bus shootout tells Makoto, “I knew you’d turn bad,” and subsequent events suggest that one of the characters—although not necessarily Makoto—was indeed unhinged by surviving a violent assault. But this psychological theory is as implausible as the serial-killer plot is formulaic. Aoyama made several quickie genre pictures before Eureka, and it’s impossible to tell if he included the murder mystery because he considered it integral or simply for commercial reasons. Whatever the explanation, the subplot is a distraction. Serial killers may be big box office, but Eureka is most exciting at its least bloody.

In the ’50s, Tobias Schneebaum was the closest thing New York had to a wild man: The gay Jewish World War II veteran was an abstract painter, moving in the same circles as Pollock and de Kooning. He craved something even more primal than abstract expressionism, however, so in 1955 he traveled to Peru and walked into the jungle along the Madre de Dios River. There, he was adopted by a remote, warlike tribe with which he lived for seven months. He finally left after the incident that provided the kicker for his 1969 memoir of the journey, Keep the River on Your Right: He went on what he thought was a hunting trip but turned out to be a raid on a neighboring tribe; the murderous attack ended with a bit of ritual cannibalism, in which Schneebaum matter-of-factly participated.

Keep the River on Your Right has remained in print for some 30 years, but for Schneebaum, his experiences in Peru are less pivotal than those he had in New Guinea. He first trekked to the island in the early ’60s, soon after archaeologist Michael Rockefeller disappeared there, presumably eaten by cannibals. Schneebaum discovered a tribe after his own heart, the Asmat, for whom bisexual promiscuity is the norm. (The artist admits to an early erotic fixation with the “Wild Man of Borneo” he encountered at a Coney Island sideshow.) Now 80 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Schneebaum says that he could live only in New York, but he calls New Guinea “a more civilized world.” So when sibling filmmakers David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro asked to film him on a return visit there, he agreed. Peru, however, was out of the question.

For the documentary named after Schneebaum’s best-known book, the Shapiros followed the artist to New Guinea, where they filmed American tourists gawking at a mass ritual-circumcision ceremony and then Schneebaum’s moving reunion with his former Asmat lover, the now-toothless Aipat. Eventually, the filmmakers also talked Schneebaum into returning to Peru, where they found a few tribespeople he had known 40 years earlier, but very little of their former culture.

There are some fascinating moments during this odyssey, but the Shapiros’ dedication to deadpan cinéma vérité hamstrings the film. They offer little context for Schneebaum’s life, obsessions, and journeys, relying primarily on a few comments from a disapproving anthropologist, the cursory reminiscences of childhood friend Norman Mailer, and clips from two TV shows: a 1988 interview with a prissy Charlie Rose and the 1969 The Mike Douglas Show appearance in which the artist told America he was a cannibal.

The filmmakers seem to take overexposed images and lens flare as signs of integrity, and they studiously avoid one of their movie’s most potentially interesting anecdotes: the story of how they convinced their subject to return to Peru. Undercutting Schneebaum’s remarkable candor with its own coyness, Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale manages to make cannibalism and polymorphous perversity a little dull. CP