海は見ていた (Umi Wa Miteita) [The Sea Is Watching] (2002)

Another foreign language film I picked up on a whim–this time because, of course, it was the last script written by Akira Kurosawa.

I didn’t know whether a Kurosawa script would guarantee a good film (and of course one could always deviate even if the script would near enough guarantee it). It was clearly, from the cover, yet another jidaigeki (period drama) film, which is no surprise with Kurosawa. Oshin (Nagiko Tono) is a prostitute who makes her home in the brothel in a red-light district (indeed there are other brothels next door and across the street, leading to inappropriate ponderings of ‘brand names’ and the like, or whether there are favoured brothels amongst their customers). She is warned not to fall in love with clients, but when young samurai Fusanosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) appears and avoids using her as a prostitute, begging to be hidden for disgracing himself by drawing his sword in a drunken–and guided–rage, she cannot help herself. When he asks her to cleanse herself by giving up her craft, suggesting that as with the physiological aspects of the human body, one can cleanse one’s soul through willpower combined with time, she mistakes this for a declaration of his own interest in her–making her an acceptable choice from a high-class person like himself. He finally returns a last time to tell her he has returned to the graces of his father, only to reveal that in fact he is also continuing his arranged marriage. Heartbroken, Oshin only manages to fall again–but this time for the absolute class-disgrace of Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase) who was a beggar, an unpaid cook and–this seems to be a cultural horror–best friends with nothing more than a dog he found and slept next to for warmth. He suggests an exit of suicide, but Oshin stops him and the two begin to find something more in each other, even as the clash of the other clients of the brothel–as well as the incalculable element of weather–begins to bring their private emotional abode into a veritable tempest.

At first, I was not sure what to make of the film. I had carefully planned not to expect a Kurosawa film–Kei Kumai, no disrespect intended, is not Kurosawa, even if I were to find out he was his equal in talent, he is simply a different man–but to see some elements of one. Performances do continue with Kurosawa’s draw on Japanese theatre, it seems, with a more pronounced physicality than one would expect from a Western film. The period nature and the way of the characters themselves, thoroughly tortured by circumstance and decisions that revolve around honour and class, were very reminiscent of the old master, but Kumai’s style is somewhat less pronounced as a director, with less to give this film standout qualities. Perhaps, though, this was intentional, being done to guarantee the preservation of Kurosawa’s writing without the presence of his directorial control and style.

The film does not suffer dramatically for being the writings of one director in the hands of another–performances by Nagase, Tono, Yoshioka (as well as those of the other prostitutes and clients, especially Misa Shimizu as Kikuno, elder prostitute eventually left in charge of the brothel when the madam leaves temporarily) are solid if not overtly exceptional, filming is perhaps somewhat static, but not distractingly or exhaustingly langorous, serving to film the story rather than interpret it in most cases. Images and events remain just as fascinating and engaging though, a solid viewing experience, as well as a relatively good emotional one. Nothing stands out enough to sing the praises of the film above and beyond others, but there is little to detract from it, either.

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