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Umi wa miteita (The Sea Is Watching)

(2003) *** Unrated
119 min. distributer. Director: Kei Kumai. Cast: Misa Shimizu, Nagiko Tohno, Massatoshi Nagase, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Eiji Okuda.

Before his death in 1998, the master director Akira Kurosawa made thirty films, and yet legions of film fans--including those working in the industry--hunger for more. The 1999 film Ame Agaru (After the Rain) found Kurosawa's assistant director of 28 years, Takashi Koizumi, team up with Toshirô Mifune's son Shiro and most of Kurosawa's regular crew to film his last screenplay. Now, respected director Kei Kumai has taken on another unproduced Kurosawa screenplay (written in 1994 but abandoned due to lack of funding), based on a book by Syugoro Yamamoto. The film is Umi wa miteita, or The Sea Is Watching, a pleasant reflection of the director's especially lyrical late-period work.

Kurosawa was said to be keen to direct this period piece (set in the Edo period of pre-1868 Tokyo), with its uncharacteristic love stories and focus on remarkable, though oppressed, women. The film takes place in and around the "Ashi no ya" brothel, where a sisterhood of prostitutes do their best to protect each other and themselves from the ravages of a class-conscious, male-dominated society. O-Shin (Nagiko Tono), the youngest and most innocent of the women, has a tendency to fall for clients. This vulnerability proves a double-edged sword, allowing the possibility of love, but also opening the door for hurt. In particular, Kikuno (Misa Shimizu) plays the role of older sister, warning O-Shin while also feeling a touch of jealous longing at O-Shin's hopefulness.

Inevitably, the master's sure directorial hand is sorely missed. In Kumai's hands, the episodic tale can seem a bit clumsy at times; for example, a curious choice of musical theme--evoking Angelo Badalamenti's '50s pastiches for David Lynch--arguably upsets the tone established by more traditionally lush scoring elsewhere in the film. The acting, meanwhile, is sturdy, though never quite transcendent.

Still, The Sea Is Watching benefits from the unmistakable storytelling allure of Kurosawa. Kumai does best by playing it straight-ahead, giving life as best he can to Kurosawa's memorable images both verbal and visual. Kurosawa's affinity for images of seasonal change also informs The Sea Watches, with trademark rain and snow and waves and wind (in the wheat, natch). Kumai has been described as "blessed by the film gods" for eschewing digital effects to capture neccessary natural authenticity on film (the largest blizzard in 35 years followed the crew's prayers, and Kumai strategically availed himself of Hurricane 11's battering of Tokyo for climactic flood footage).

Kurosawa emphasizes the inseparable bond of nature to humanity, elliptically warning of the dangers to buds which have yet to bloom; one character notes, "The young sometimes die before the old." By the same token, appearances and expectations can be deceiving in Kurosawa's deceptively simple world view. Another character describes the promise of renewal in the human body, which changes with shed hair, nails, and teeth: "That's what the human body is like. It'd be too horrible for words if it weren't." The limitations of the caste system and gender are, then, merely fallacious human constructs in the way of irrepressible individual freedom. The nature of purity--represented ultimately by the cleansing power of the sea--promises clean slates for tainted characters.

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