Sea is Watching, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/15/07 22:44:45
(Worth A Look)
In the early 1990s, Akira Kurosawa began work on what eventually became his final project: an adaptation of Shygoro Yamamoto’s novel “The Sea Is Watching.” Kurosawa never got around to filming, but he did leave behind a screenplay and a heavy stack of production notes. It was up to director Ken Kumai to translate Kurosawa’s ideas onto the screen, kinda like how Steven Spielberg took over on Stanely Kubrick’s “A.I.” And now, the movie has finally been made and released Stateside, allowing us one last chunk of movie magic from one of history’s greatest filmmakers.The result’s a bit of a mixed bag, hindered by the expectations Kurosawa’s name adds to the project, yet still consistently absorbing. While flawed in parts (most notably a middle section that tends to drag and a final twenty minutes that, while effective, seems to come out of left field), the movie has moments of amazing beauty and crushing heartbreak. It’s not only worth seeing as “Kurosawa’s last story,” but also simply as a good, solid drama.
The story follows the lives of a houseful of geishas living in Japan in the mid-19th century. At the center of the drama is O-Shin (Nagiko Tono), a young prostitute who’s prone to falling in love with her clients. Into the brothel one night comes a samurai (Hidetake Yoshioka) who just killed a man he shouldn’t have and now needs a place to hide. The ladies of the house provide such hiding, and naturally, O-Shin falls for him.
Soon he begins returning to the brothel, day after day, but he’s only going there to spend time with O-Shin, not to go for the reasons anyone actually has for going to a brothel. And yet, despite her love, O-Shin refuses to see him. A samurai and a prostitute? It’s just not possible in this caste-driven society.
And then, well, the story begins taking unexpected turns, never leading us where we’re certain it will go. The focus moves away from O-Shin and onto the others, mainly Kikuno (Misa Shimizu), the house madam, and then back to O-Shin again. Time wanders on, characters come and go, and the story becomes less a singular look at one romance than a quietly intricate look at life in this house at this time in history.
There are moments where things go over-the-top, mainly in the acting department (entire scenes work out with actors screaming in overacted fierceness), but this is forgivable; the drama unfolds in such a way that we become drawn into this sometimes soapy, always compelling story. More importantly, Kumai manages to balance out the screaming with moments of silent elegance - a beautiful piece of cinematography, or a quiet minute of a character all alone. This is one of those movies that’s a beauty just to watch.
It’s been mentioned that this project was chosen by Kurosawa as a means of apologizing for a lifetime of films that seldom focused on women; the criticism, then, is that it’s a bit condescending for him to have chosen prostitution as a way of showcasing the power of women. I agree, but only slightly. Had this story not come at the end of a long, famed career, the same comments about a patronizing view of women would perhaps not have been made. That’s because the film works fine on its own, and while the “hooker with the heart of gold” bit has been played too many times before, it still hits some powerful notes here.As such, “The Sea Is Watching” is effective melodrama that serves one final reminder of how much talent the world lost when Kurosawa left us.
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