The Sea is Watching

on July 18, 2003 by Wade Major
There's considerable risk in Japanese director Kei Kumai's latest effort, a 19th century morality play entitled "The Sea is Watching." Set in a coastal village during the Edo period, the film would have been Akira Kurosawa's swan song had he lived just a few years longer--and that puts Kumai in the unenviable position of inviting comparisons to the most iconic Japanese director in history. The good news is that Kumai is up to the task. The bad news is that Kurosawa's screenplay isn't.

In both narrative tone and visual texture, "The Sea is Watching" is appealingly dated--it feels like a Japanese movie of the early '70s; colorful, passionate, almost ethereal in its theatricality. Set primarily in and around a brothel, it centers on a young prostitute and the two relationships through which she is able to finally define and redefine her life. As the lovelorn O-Shin, actress Nagiko Tohno totes some weighty emotional baggage, conveying feelings of profound pain and soaring elation with touching profundity. But Kurosawa's script, adapted from a Syugoro Yamamoto book, is episodic--the initial relationship with an insecure young samurai and a second encounter with a troubled wanderer gain little from their juxtaposition. As the movie awkwardly stutter-steps from one to the other, it risks fumbling its pace and losing the interest of the audience.

Still, "The Sea is Watching" is not without its merits. Technically, it's an impossible film to fault--performances, cinematography and art direction are all first-rate (though some will invariably quibble with the peculiar score), coalescing in a finale that is impressively deft. If only Kurosawa had lived long enough for a rewrite. Starring Nagiko Tohno, Masatoshi Nagase, Misa Shimizu and Hidetaka Yoshioka. Directed by Kei Kumai. Written by Akira Kurosawa. Produced by Naoto Sarukawa. A TriStar release. Period drama. Japanese-language; subtitled. Rated R for some sexuality. Running time: 119 min.

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