Written by Akira Kurosawa complete with production notes regarding its culture, society and detail in 1993, director Kei Kumai adapts his screenplay in 2002 for “The Sea is Watching”. We all remember Kurosawa for his works in Jidai Geki films such as “Yojimbo” and “Seven Samurai”, but the acclaimed filmmaker is far more than that. Unlike his previous samurai period films, Kurosawa portrays unlikely heroes in this screenplay; it features prostitutes as the main heroines. The film chronicles the lives of two women who work and live in a brothel (different from a geisha house) in ancient Japan during a not-so prosperous period in the 19th century.
A small inn is booming with business. Working men come and go to be in the company of beautiful women after a days work. Peasants, businessmen, criminals, samurai and common men all come to this remote area. Kikuno (played by voluptuous Misa Shimizu) is an experienced woman who supposedly grew up in a samurai household. She uses her womanly charms and wiles to juggle her customers and her two suitors--a gentle older man and a shady one who has links to the yakuza. O-Shin (beauteous Nagiko Toho) is a very compassionate young woman who has a heart of gold. She has a habit of falling for her not-so fortunate customers while supporting her family.
Japanese screenplays aren’t as well-detailed or scoped out as American ones, so while the “Sea is Watching” was written by Kurosawa; the screenplay is pretty much open to interpretation. It is said that Kurosawa abandoned this expensive project before his death and there isn’t much of the Kurosawa signature style to be seen in the film. While some of the set designs, location are reflective of Kurosawa, the cinematography plays more like a Kenji Mizoguchi film. Kurosawa would never use a bird’s eye view in the opening act (which became a stereotypical style to period films) and Kurosawa would’ve fleshed out the characters of O-shin and Kikuno much more. The film while good, feels more like an everyday routine in the lives of our two protagonists.
Kurosawa originally intended the film for actress Mieko Harada in mind, and it would have been awesome to see her play Kikuno. Kind of the same way that it makes me wonder as to how “Kagemusha” and “Ran” would have played out if Toshiro Mifune didn’t fall out of Kurosawa’s graces and Tatsuya Nakadai took over the lead roles; Nakadai did tremendous performances in those films, but it still makes me wonder. Harada became famous for her role as Lady Kaede in “Ran” and played a prostitute in “Ame Aguru”; while Shimizu does a decent performance as Kikuno, her features reflect a fashion model and she is just too flawless to become a heartsick prostitute. Kumai’s tastes are exposed in her personality. Kurosawa’s own daughter, Kazuko took charge of the film’s costumes.
But enough about wishful thinking as to how this film would’ve turned out if Kurosawa was at its helm; let’s stick to the basics of the movie. Kurosawa did bring its “Red Beard”-like historical accuracy, something I doubt Kumai could’ve achieved himself (not putting his talents down but it does feel like Kurosawa). The first half of the film brings the hopes and humanity of our brothel women as O-Shin becomes attracted to a young samurai. The other women are very supportive to O-Shin’s potential suitor but those hopes would later be dashed as the samurai was already betrothed to another. Kikuno has a relationship with an old businessman called Zenbei (Renji Ishibashi) who is more than willing to buy out her contract from the brothel’s keeper (Yumiko Yagawa) but Kikuno is also attracted to a yakuza type most probably because of his skills in bed. O-shin’s life becomes more complicated when a stranger named Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase) comes into the mix.
One may say that Kikuno is O-shin before she became more cynical. You can see the parallels to their characters, O-shin is still a bit naïve and generous while Kikuno tries to be more smart; not that Kikuno’s decisions bring better luck, it’s just that fate always deals them a difficult hand. Kumai does try to bring the two parallels in their characterization to bear, but it wasn’t fully realized. The film more like a melodrama about the lifestyle shared by women in this type of work. Despite this misstep, the script is pretty good and the film is well-acted. Much of the film’s burden falls on Nagiko Toho who played O-Shin but things begin to change when we get to the film’s second half. Kikuno’s character takes center stage as we learn more about her.
Shimizu and Toho do play their characters with the right tone and feel. They do act like they are ‘fallen women’ with a very unfortunate past which ended with them working in a brothel. I was touched by Toho’s performances (although some of it felt a little too melodramatic) and Shimizu had that somewhat cold feel to her character. The supporting cast isn’t too bad either as Nagase (who plays Ryosuke) exhibited that edgy balance in the script. Ginji (Eiji Okuda) is Kikuno’s good for nothing yakuza boyfriend who makes the ‘villain’ in the movie and he just made me feel repulsed by his character. The movie is about a brothel, so expect some nudity and mild sex; Toho and Shimizu both did their share of the scenes, and the scenes looked somewhat erotic and enthralling.
“The Sea is Watching” is a film about fate, love and friendship. It may have some strong similarities to Mizoguchi’s “Streets of Shame” in 1956 but I thought it was a very good film despite some missed opportunities in fleshing out the parallels of its main protagonists and they never reached their full potential. O-shin and Kikuno felt like they were simply “stock characters” at times that the movie isn’t really about them, and felt like it is a movie about the brothel’s daily life. We can’t be sure as what Kurosawa’s intentions were in the writing of this script, but I am still glad that this film has been made. “The Sea is Watching” has many redeeming points in its execution that I would give it a recommended rating.
Recommended! [3 ½ Stars]
watching the film in its original Japanese language is advisable.