Prostitutes in 19th century Japan really were the lowest of the low - desperate women who lived degraded and often brutalised lives.
The Sea is Watching doesn't seek to glamorise their lot. But neither does it portray it with the sordid detail the subject deserves. This story is centred around a group of prostitutes in one low-class brothel, and one girl in particular - but strangely, everything is squeaky-clean and the girls are very, very beautiful. And glamorous to boot, with kimonos to die for...
This was to have been one of Akira Kurosawa's final movies, had he lived long enough. And he left behind him the final screenplay, production notes and storyboards. All was there except for his own hand at the helm.
With all that detailed instruction on hand, Kurosawa's son chose veteran journeyman director Ken Kumai to film it as if Kurosawa was in fact making the movie.
It doesn't really come off. The evidence of a lesser directorial hand is there in the overall lack of resonance, depth and emotional meaning in the film. But there are moments - and the Felliniesque closing ten minutes are very unreal, almost surreal, and quite fine.
The story is centred around prostitute O-Shin (Nagiko Tohno) who falls in love with a young and helpless-looking Samurai named Fusanosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka), who has come into the brothel not looking for fun, but for refuge after a tavern brawl.
Her love is not requited, and Fusanosuke departs the scene leaving O-Shin sadder but not really much wiser. For along comes a morose, taciturn drifter in Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), and she falls in love all over again.
Will things work out this time? And what about the tortured course of life of her best friend, the street-wise but golden-hearted prostitute Kikuno (Misa Shimizu), who has her own cross to bear in the shape of a brutal boyfriend who wants both her money and her gold?
Everything comes out in the wash, during a violent storm which sees bridges destroyed and a river flood combine with a flooding from the sea to bring the waters lapping to the very rooftops of the red-light district. Kikuno and O-Shin are alone, save for the mighty but impersonal Milky Way above them. And the water is lapping, slowly mounting higher and higher.
It's a very surreal sequence. And the ending is expected and unexpected at the same time. The closing sequence does go a long way towards redeeming the basic ordinary nature of the movie that has gone before. At this point, it seems more European than Japanese in its cinematic sensibility, but while Kurosawa might have drawn a lot more from it, it is still strangely effective.
This is virtual demonstration-quality.
The movie is only a couple of years old, and this anamorphic transfer is very fine, with sumptuous colour detail and no flaws or image degradation evident of any kind.
The quality of the image in fact emphasises the unreal nature of the ending - the surrealistic effect is aided by the dreamlike nature of the finely honed, super-accentuated detail of the night sky. The stars, the Milky Way are as finely drawn as in the famous night-time ocean-liner sequence in Fellini's Amarcord.