"You can go…you're free…the sea's come and swallowed up everything. It's like the sea's been watching and it's come to save you."—Kikuno
When Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai) died in 1998, he left behind a number of unfilmed scripts, one of which was The Sea is Watching, for which he'd also created detailed production notes and storyboards. Based on the novel by Shugoro Yamamoto—whose fiction had inspired Kurosawa films like Yojimbo, Red Beard, and Dodes'ka-den—The Sea is Watching would have fit logically into the contemplative style of Kurosawa's later films, while also taking him in new directions. Unfortunately, time ran out before he could shoot it himself.
When the decision was made to shoot the script, Kurosawa's son Hisao selected veteran filmmaker Kei Kumai (Death of a Tea Master) to direct because he'd proven himself insightful when telling stories about women and was known for deliberately paced, emotionally delicate melodramas in much the same style as The Sea is Watching. (The fact he's a technically competent journeyman who lacks the sort of independent vision that might tempt him to undermine Kurosawa's intent probably helped him land the gig, too.) Under the guidance of Kurosawa's obsessively detailed production notes and hand-painted storyboards, Kumai has delivered a film that has many of the earmarks of Kurosawa's late-period style, even if it mostly lacks the great director's visual aplomb.
Facts of the Case
Oshin (Nagiko Tono) is a prostitute in 19th century Japan. When a young samurai named Fusanosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka, Madadayo) arrives at Oshin's brothel having fled a drunken brawl in which he injured a man, the girl hides him from the authorities. Fusanosuke is subsequently banned from his father's house for having drawn his sword in the fight and must hide his identity as he moves about the streets of the city. In the course of his frequent visits to her, Oshin falls in love with him, but when his status is restored, he marries his betrothed, breaking Oshin's heart as well as those of the other girls at the brothel who'd tied their own hopes to the fantasy that Oshin might escape the prostitute's life.
When a desperate itinerant named Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase, Mystery Train) empties his soul to Oshin, she begins to fall in love with him, much to the chagrin of Kikuno (Misa Shimizu), an older, more savvy prostitute who is herself in love with a violent yakuza. A massive storm that brings up the sea, flooding the brothel district, sets up the story's climax as Ryosuke and the yakuza have it. Left on their own, Oshin and Kikuno climb atop the brothel's roof to escape the rising flood waters and await rescue or death.
Remove the Kurosawa pedigree and The Sea is Watching becomes a melodrama of little distinction. As a script penned by Kurosawa, it makes one wonder if much of the filmmaker's late-period output was a conscious attempt to answer critics who complained his works appealed too readily to Westerners. His most artistically successful later works are the samurai epics Ran and Kagemusha, logical extensions of the work he did in his prime. Films like Dodes'ka-den, Rhapsody in August, and Madadayo seem to mimic in some ways the languid, keenly observed dramas of Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story). They're less successful overall than the samurai works because Kurosawa, working against his own strengths, is less adept at avoiding sentimentality than Ozu, for whom simple, realist dramas were a natural mode of expression. While the humanism central to Kurosawa's art as well as his deep understanding of his characters make a film like Madadayo mostly successful despite its straining against the filmmaker's natural voice, The Sea is Watching is far more problematic. In it, he appears to be aping director Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff), whose films display a fascination for the travails of women in feudal Japan. Critics and academics frequently take Kurosawa to task for the lack of female perspective in his films. The Sea is Watching was his first script dominated by women since 1944's propaganda dud, The Most Beautiful. The result is fairly entertaining but hardly up to Kurosawa's standards: there's no sense he knows Oshin and Kikuno with the same depth as he does male leads like Madadayo's Professor Hyakken or even the mentally handicapped boy, Rokkuchan, in Dodes'ka-den.
Still, the film is recognizable as Kurosawa's in some ways. The formal but unconventional two-part structure (major characters disappear halfway in and new characters are introduced) is a major Screenwriting 101 no-no, but is a technique Kurosawa used before, albeit to better effect, in 1963's High and Low. The film also marks the return of the filmmaker's fascination with and compassion for the suffering of Japan's lowest classes, a subject he'd previously explored in The Lower Depths, the second half of High and Low, Red Beard, Dodes'ka-den, and even aspects of Seven Samurai.
Kei Kumai's direction and the cinematography of Kazuo Okuhara isn't bad, but it's nothing special either—it's certainly not the way Kurosawa would have shot it. And that's the real problem with this movie: it feels in many ways like a hollow imitation of the master. The DVD presents the film wonderfully, with Kumei's vivid color palette accurately rendered in the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Kimonos jump right off the screen, and their ornate detail is completely stable. The Dolby 5.1 surround track in the film's original Japanese presents a well-defined, natural soundscape. The score is sparse and mostly isolated to the front soundstage, but its lusher moments do reach into the rear stage. The massive storm at the center of the film's final act makes excellent use of the entire stage, and thunderclaps reach deep into the low end. One couldn't ask more of the DVD's presentation of the film.
An eight-minute featurette provides background on the script's origin, but is frustratingly brief and lacking in detail. The film's theatrical trailer is the only other supplement.
The Sea is Watching is a valiant attempt by the Kurosawa family and director Kei Kumai to finish a work the master filmmaker couldn't. Whatever Kumai's failures, there's not much chance it would've been anything but a lesser work had Kurosawa managed to make it himself. And it is an entertaining melodrama.
The Sea is Watching is for Kurosawa completists only. Everyone else should go check out a movie he actually directed. I find it guilty of not living up to expectations, but since there was little hope it could, I'm letting it off with a slap on the wrist.
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• Making-Of Featurette
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