I’ve written elsewhere that one of the hallmarks of a truly great filmmaker is that even his “worst” movies are better than most people’s best efforts. This is especially true of Akira Kurosawa; there isn’t a movie of his that I’ve seen that wasn’t in some way worth the time spent watching it. The Sea is Watching is definitely lesser Kurosawa, but the fact that it’s Kurosawa’s work in some way automatically made it interesting for me. It’s not a great movie, but it is a decent one, and those who are already enthusiastic about Japanese cinema in general will at least get to see what the “Emperor” was up to in the last few years of his life.
Set in classical Japan, the film deals with the girls who work in a house of prostitution not far from the ocean. Two of them are seen in particular: the younger and somewhat starry-eyed O-Shin (Nagiko Tono) and Kikuno (Misa Shimizu of Warm Water under a Red Bridge), who is more experienced, more cynical, but also that much wiser about life. Their job is not seen with a great deal of glamour: poverty, boredom, bone-chilling cold, baking heat, and scummy customers are all part of the territory. The other girls regard O-Shin’s optimism as naïveté, but she doesn’t see herself as being naïve, just holding out for something better.
O-Shin's vulnerability to a sad story puts her at odds with the other girls in her red-lantern house.
One day something better seems to come along: a young samurai, Fusanosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka (also in After the Rain, which could be seen as a sequel to this story). He’s on the run from having accidentally injured another samurai in a drunken fight; O-Shin hides him in her room and pretends he’s a regular customer of hers to ward off the men searching for him. This is one of the movie’s more shameless indulgences in suspension of disbelief, as I have a hard time believing they would not leave the room without one good look at his face. Such a thing might have worked in, say, a 1950s-era production, but please, not in 2000.
O-Shin continues to extend herself selflessly for Fusanosuke’s sake, but it eventually backfires, and O-Shin is once again heartbroken. While all this has been going on, however, several other plot threads have been developing: a gentle-hearted local businessman (J-movie staple Renji Ishibashi) is considering buying out the mama-san’s contract (Yumiko Nogawa), but she’s currently stuck with a local yakuza (Eiji Okuda). And another fellow has been showing up, a glum-faced drifter (Masatoshi Nagase, one of my favorite Japanese actors) who eventually warms up to O-Shin. Both of them have had a hard-luck upbringing and so are drawn to each other, even if both of them also despise being pitied.
Sea works best when it's about daily details of life in the brothel,
less so when it deals with human behavior.
Kurosawa’s movies dealt with things in a specific social context, often a microcosm — like the homeless dive in The Lower Depths, or the farming village of The Seven Samurai. Here, it’s the brothel, and if Sea does any one thing absolutely right it’s make us feel that the brothel and its surrounding neighborhood is a real and lived-in place. The filmmakers achieve this not just with great photography (there’s a panoramic opening shot that is breathtaking), but also closely-observed little details. I loved a moment that showed all four of the girls sitting in a row, busy with their makeup, moving their hands in unison.
What the film does not do, however, is turn its observations about the brothel and the people there into the kinds of bigger statements that Kurosawa used as his subjects. It remains firmly on the level of sentimental melodrama. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but it’s disappointing to see something with Kurosawa’s stamp on it remain so obstinately stuck on that level. That said, it is well-acted and -directed melodrama, and also amazingly lovely to look at; I snapped over two hundred screenshots for the film while watching it and was hard-pressed to choose which ones to include.
The problems with the film become most evident in the final third, where the brothel’s quarters are threatened by a tsunami and the latent tension between many of the characters finally erupts into the open. Too much of what happens seems motivated by convenience and the need for the filmmakers to pontificate through their characters, instead of simply embodying ideas through their behavior. Kurosawa often fell into this trap late in his career: Red Beard was similarly didactic, but the underlying drama was so strong and compelling it made that issue nearly irrelevant. Here, the angst borders on becoming goofy, although there’s a kind of loony poetry in the closing scenes where O-Shin and Kikuno are stuck on top of a flooded-out house.
The Sea is Watching is from a script Kurosawa adapted from a Shugoro Yamamoto novel. The budget projected for the movie kept it from getting made, and so he wound up making After the Rain instead (a better movie than this one, which is saying something). Sea was directed by Kei Kumai, whose Sandakan 8 was an outstanding film about forced prostitution in Japan. He also directed the controversial and disturbing Sea and Poison, from Shusako Endo’s chilling novel about Japanese medical experiments on POWs during WWII. This film seems miles removed from his previous work — it’s almost compulsively sentimental, as if Kumai was treading lightly near Kurosawa’s shade and didn’t want to upset him by being too realistic.