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2 reviews, 1 rating

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Sea is Watching, The
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by Brian McKay

"Kurosawa didn't live to direct it - sadly, he didn't live to see it, either"
5 stars

Using the late Kurosawa's script, production notes, and storyboard sketches as his bible, director Kei Kumai renders a moving and vivid image of life in Edo-period Japan, focusing on the lives of two young women who work in the brothel of a small seaside village. While one can't help but wonder what kind of deft little touches Kurosawa might have added to the film had he lived to direct it, one can't help but feel that he would approve of Kumai's beautiful rendition of his script.

O-Shin (Nagiko Tono) is a prostitute who had to resort to selling her body after her father and brother died and left her with a little sister and an ill mother to support. Not only is she achingly beautiful, she has a heart of gold, too. Unfortunately, she has a bad habit of falling in love with her customers, and usually gives her heart away to the wrong kinds of men. However, when she helps young samurai Fusanosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) hide from his pursuers after a drunken altercation, she finds herself falling for the young man, who returns to visit her on many occasions afterward. Unfortunately, she mistakes his gratitude and friendship for something more, and ends up heartbroken once again (And although I truly felt for the girl, maybe the fact that he kept paying her for her services without ever actually utilizing them should have been a clue that he really wasn't into her romantically).

Meanwhile, the older and more world-wise Kikuno (Misa Shimizu) carries herself with a regal manner, claiming to be from a fallen Samurai family. She performs a balancing act between her two most regular clients - one a ruthless Yakuza thug who often mistreats her and would like to pimp her out for his own gain, the other a kind and lonely old businessman named Zenbei (Renji Ishibashi) who would like her to come live with him. Learning of the old man's intentions, the Yakuza threatens to kill Zenbei should she dare to take him up on his offer.

Meanwhile, no sooner has O-Shin's heart healed from the fiasco with the young samurai, when she falls in love with Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), a good man who is on the verge of becoming a criminal after suffering numerous cruel setbacks in his attempts to earn an honest living.

Taking place mostly within the walls of the brothel, or in the surrounding village, The Sea is Watching presents some stunning vistas as the characters behold the ocean or a star-filled night sky. The limited number of sets never grows claustrophobic, and the character-driven dramatics never grow tiresome. Tono, Shimizu, and the other actresses play their roles with beauty, dignity, and poise, giving us a fascinating look at their characters' lives behind the facade of the smiling courtesan. Ishibashi and Nagase are also sympathetic as the men who love O-shin and Kikuno. Zenbei acts as a fatherly figure to all of the girls, while Ryosuke proves himself a most unlikely hero when trouble arrives.

Like its heroines, THE SEA IS WATCHING is lovely to look at, but even more enjoyable to spend time with. Their portrayal of "fallen women" is sad and compelling, yet laced with an underlying message of dignity and hope. Perhaps Kumai is no Kurosawa - but I don't know if Kurosawa could have done it much better.

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originally posted: 06/08/04 02:42:23
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  18-Jul-2003 (R)



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