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Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Love in the time of samurai

Umi wa Miteita

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Kei Kumai
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Most Hollywood directors never get to have a late period; when they can no longer make movies that appeal to the teenagers who buy most of the tickets, they might as well write their memoirs. A case in point is Billy Wilder, who died this year at the age of 95 without having completed a film in two decades, but not for lack of trying.

News photo
Nagiko Tono in Kei Kumai's "Umi wa Miteita"

Akira Kurosawa must thus be counted fortunate. In his 50 years as a film director, beginning with "Sanshiro Sugata" in 1943, he traced a career arc like that of Renoir or Picasso. After the vigor of his early work ("Yoidore Tenshi," "Nora Inu"), the masterly virtuosity of his creative peak ("Ikiru," "Shichinin no Samurai") and the monumental classicism of his late middle age ("Kagemusha," "Ran"), Kurosawa began to make films that were smaller, more personal.

Often criticized at the time of their release as "minor" and "geriatric," films such as "Madadayo" nonetheless expressed Kurosawa's central concerns with an intimacy and directness that make them a valuable summing up. It was as though, in his old age, Kurosawa was speaking his mind freely, without regard for the critics -- or the box office.

After his death in September 1998, his son, producer Hisao Kurosawa, decided to film two scripts that his father had written as follow-ups to "Madadayo," but never made. "Ame Agaru (The Rain Lifts)" was filmed by former Kurosawa assistant director Takashi Koizumi. Released in 1999, this look at a wandering ronin's search for redemption was an attempt by members of Kurosawa's filmmaking "family" to channel the master's spirit on the screen.

The second, "Umi wa Miteita (The Sea Watches)," also tries for a Kurosawa look, using Kurosawa's continuity drawings and production notes in telling its story of Edo Period prostitutes. But in place of Koizumi, the director is Kei Kumai, who has had a long and successful career, winning recognition abroad for such humanistic-problem films as "Shinobugawa" (1972) and "Umi to Dokuyaku" (1986).

Rather than make another Kurosawa film by proxy, Kumai brought his own directorial personality to the project, using several key staff members from his previous films. The result is Kurosawa's in concept but not slavishly imitative of his style.

Based on two short stories by Kurosawa favorite Shugoro Yamamoto, "Umi wa Miteita" has women as its central characters and a star-crossed romance as its dramatic focus, both rarities in the Kurosawa filmography. But the film's message -- that the nobility in human beings can triumph over circumstance, if not always nature -- is classic Kurosawa. Kumai's presentation of this message is direct to the point of baldness, but it is not, I think, a botched job.

While lacking the intensity and sweep of the best of Kurosawa, "Umi wa Miteita" does hit strong emotional notes, while bringing its period to vivid, particular life -- both Kurosawa specialties. It is also in the line of Kurosawa's latter films, with its air of saying farewell. I could criticize it for being over-simple and over-ripe, but after seeing so many characters in recent Japanese films who have had moral lobotomies (if they're not already monsters to begin with), I found the ones in "Umi wa Miteita," most of whom still have hearts, a welcome change. A sign of critical senility? Perhaps.

The time is the Edo Period, the place, the Fukagawa pleasure quarter near the Sumida River, where prostitutes ply their trade. One night, Fusanosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a young samurai, runs into a house in the quarter. He tells one of the prostitutes, the gentle-hearted Oshin (Nagiko Tono), that he has been in a quarrel and cut someone he shouldn't have. Now the injured man's comrades are coming to get him. Oshin, with the madam's approval, hides him from his pursuers -- and love blooms.

The samurai, a gentle-spirited sort, is unfazed by Oshin's lowly status and occupation. "If you quit this job, you can make this dirty body clean again," he assures her. He visits again and again, with seemingly the purest of intentions. Oshin imagines marriage; Kikuno (Misa Shimizu), a veteran of the trade, warns her never to lose her heart to a customer.

Kikuno herself is being pursued by Zenbee (Renji Ishibashi), an avuncular sort who wants her to move in with him, and the testy, dissipated, but free-spending Ginji (Eiji Okuda). An elegant beauty from a samurai family, Kikuno is not anxious to become entangled with either of these two commoners; the only thing she really trusts is money. At the same time, she is something of a wise older sister to Oshin and the house's two other working girls. Her heart is in the right place, even though she tries to hide it.

Eager to help Oshin win her samurai, Kikuno and the others volunteer to take her customers, so she can "cleanse" her body in preparation for her entry into wedded bliss. Reluctantly, Oshin agrees. Would it be a spoiler to say that things don't work out as planned? Only if you are ignorant of the ancient Japanese fictional convention that love between the classes leads inevitably to disappointment, tragedy, doom.

All is not lost, however -- Oshin still has her "sisters," as well as a young man, Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), who comes from her class and is more passionate than the complacent Fusanosuke. But before they can unite, a typhoon intervenes. What, if anything, can survive this most perfect of storms?

Kumai, who usually drains tears from audiences with a solemn implacability, uses a lighter touch in "Umi wa Miteita" (while going right to the edge of melodrama and beyond). Even notorious over-actor Nagase reins it in more than usual as the hot-tempered Ryosuke. Shimizu, as always, shines, with at least three scenes that rank with the best of any in her career (see "Okoge," "Unagi" or "Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu" for proof). In her last, saying goodbye against a star-filled sky, she gives us a true Kurosawa moment. A last call from the master to live life in the moment, because the moment is all we have.

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