The Sea is Watching opens with a gentle tracking shot, gliding down from the sky into the hectic streets of a red-light district in 19th-century Okabasho, Japan. It’s a sweeping introduction that’s common to films, a gesture that discloses time and place, and also, by its very virtuosity, the fact that this magical portal into another world is an allusive construct. This duality of purpose is entirely fitting for a film that is at once a straightforward narrative, an “Akira Kurosawa story,” and a story about stories, how they affect people who tell and hear them. It initiates not only an empathic relationship between the viewer and characters, but also a relationship with storytelling itself.
The primary story in The Sea is Watching is a romance, with a distinctly melodramatic tinge. It concerns two prostitutes in Edo-period Japan: O-Shin (Nagiko Tono), a naïve girl prone to falling in love with her clients, and Kikuno (played by the exquisite Misa Shimizu), an older woman who looks upon her situation and the world about her with distinctly less optimism.
A wayward young samurai Fusanosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) drops into O-Shin’s life. Having disgraced himself and his family in a drunken fight, the less than worldly samurai purchases her services in order to hide from the local constabulary. Having found a safe harbor of sorts while he attempts to return to the good graces of his father, Fusanosuke proceeds to visit O-Shin over the next few weeks, revealing “deeply poetic” feelings from his young heart.
O-Shin’s ingenuousness and desire to escape her poverty follow from generic conventions: the “fallen woman” always seems to fall for the knight, especially if he displays an attractively flawed character. So, it’s not long before she’s completely in love with the young man. Fusanosuke, for his part, feeds the flames of love by implying that the two might achieve mutual redemption.
But this story isn’t Pretty Woman. The binding laws of the Japanese caste system, and Fusanosuke’s immersion in that system, are far too powerful to allow such a fantasy. In Kei Kumai’s adaptation of a script by Akira Kurosawa (who died before he could film it), O-Shin’s changed circumstance forms the basis for a second chance encounter with another “wounded” customer, Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase). This man, a virtual untouchable, tells of his miserable existence in series of flashback sequences: he has been a beggar, abused cook’s assistant, and unsuccessful thief. Ryosuke offers a less sentimental “salvation” than that offered by the first samurai.
The Sea is Watching evinces a certain utopian bent in its tales of redemption and salvation. Utopias are, essentially, just stories — they don’t exist in reality. But they serve two important real world purposes: one is to imagine something new and better; the other is to indicate the limitations of the present. The prostitutes, for example, read to each other from books offering visions of a better, more beautiful world.
That said, The Sea is Watching isn’t uncritically utopian. After all, it is precisely O-Shin’s desire for a happy ending (advancement in the caste system, as embodied by Fusanosuke) that makes her so miserable midway through the film (when Fusanosuke rejects her in favor of an arranged marriage). But correctly understood, these stories provide a lifeline (they’re something to hold onto when you have nothing else). As Kikuno says, “It’s one long, sad day after another. You can’t go on without something to prop you up.” The film itself comprises another kind of narrative, offering momentary escapism and a utopian promise, but it’s smart enough to disclose and reflect on its own project in these stories within the story (as it does with Kikuno here, and at it’s closing moments).
“Story” means more than utopian impulse in The Sea is Watching, however. This is Kurosawa’s film as much as it is Kumai’s. The DVD’s only extra, a short film describing the efforts of the cast and crew to make the film following Kurosawa’s death, reaffirms the fact that the production is more about finding Kurosawa — his intent, his “vision” — than interpreting the script. This gesture to Kurosawa, the Author, as the fundamental center of meaning seems an odd little back-step for a film so concerned with stories, readers, and interpreters. Still, perhaps it’s unavoidable, given Kurosawa’s renown as auteur. The man who made Yojimbo and Ran casts a long shadow — sometimes even over the stories he tells.