August 21, 2009

The Sea is Watching

2002 film
directed by Kei Kumai
written by Akira Kurosawa
based on the novel by Shugoro Yamamoto

With the success of posthumous efforts AFTER THE RAIN and DORA-HEITA, it was only natural that an unproduced screenplay Kurosawa penned in 1993 would be filmed. However, instead of the project being helmed by a colaborator of the legendary director, it was handed over to a filmmaker who, while largely unknown in the states, is held up alongside Kurosawa in his native homeland as a peer of equal skill.

Late one night, a young samurai (child Kurosawa vet Hidetaka Yoshioka) dashes into the red-light district of a 19th century town. In a drunken brawl, he slashed a man and is on the run from both the law and a dishonored father. He ducks into a brothel, handing over a healthy portion of cash, and the girls disguise and coach him into passing as a regular, a peasant.

I know what you're thinking, another solid Kurosawa story about a wandering samurai seeking redemption, but there's a twist. This isn't the warrior's tale, it's the balad of O-shin (Nagiko Tono), a beautiful woman who slipped into prostitution to care for younger siblings and frequently ill mother following the death of her samurai father. O-shin is sharp, compasionate, and has a tendancy to fall for her clients. As is the case here.

Ah, but the samurai isn't the only one who tempts her away from the world's oldest profession. There's also Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), a poor, suicidal drunk bitter about all the hardship life keeps tossing in his path. While the earlier fellow swoops in like a shining knight on his white steed, this man stirs up her deeper compasions and a desire to fix what has long been broken.

I've yet to see another film by Kumai, but he more than lives up to the challenge here. Instead of trying to emulate Kurosawa's directorial technique, he and his regular crew add their own flavor to the mix; a calm camera and flowing editing that drift like the steady waves O-shin occasionally pauses to watch outside her window.

Given the visual, structural, and thematic simularities to RED BEARD, I sincerely have to wonder what this story would have been like under Kurosawa's direction. Though a largely female cast and point-of-view were rare in his works, he'd proven capable of such material early on with THE MOST BEAUTIFUL and NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH. It's the frank sexuality that has me the most intrigued because, while he wasn't one to shy away from the topic, Kurosawa never once had it as openly on display as it is here. Now, that's not a criticism of the film, as it's handled beautifully, but merely a speculation of one master filmmaker's technique verses that of another.

If I have one criticism, it's a sacrifice near the end that really doesn't feel necessary. While I can see where they're going from a dramatic perspective, the presented situation offers up too many alternate possibilities.

But that's a minor flub in this gorgeous, heartfelt film that approches its subject intelligently, perfectly paints the world around her in all its beauty and horror, and even slips in a fantastic demonstration of how trivial all of humanity's squabbles can be in the face of a watching, angry sea.

Sadly, this would be the final work of Kumai, who passed away in 2007. Thus, it not only caps the legacy of one filmmaker, but two.


(internet movie database)

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