Released into the care of a Buddhist parole officer after eight years in prison, Takuro Yamashita (Yakusho), who stabbed his wife to death after finding her in the arms of her lover, opens a barbershop in a remote coastal village. The only relic he has from his prison stay is a pet eel the guards let him keep, presumably to encourage his rehabilitation. Takuro's desire to live quietly with the burden of his guilt is soon disrupted when he finds a suicidal drug-overdose victim, Keiko Hattori (Shimizu), in the reeds near his shop.
Though Imamura's engaging psychodrama of regret and sexual repression opens on an overheated and violent act, it soon cools to a slow burn, as the friendship between two troubled people blossoms tenuously before taking an unexpected turn. Yakusho, an expert at playing stone-faced, emotionally distant protagonists, is both sympathetic and impossible to fathom. Poising the action between icy restraint and simmering catharsis, Imamura — who indulges in a couple of surreal vignettes — makes his "Eel" a reflecting pool for modern malaise.