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Film Club: The Sea Is Watching (Kumai, 2002)

The Sea Is Watching
A young samurai stumbles into a geisha house in the middle of the night, seeking refuge from a group of men that he is fleeing from. After a kind hearted young geisha protects her, an affection develops between the two. This is the premise of Akira Kurosawa‘s final screenplay The Sea Is Watching, which was directed in 2002 by Kei Kumai and will be our film club‘s movie of the month this July.

The Sea Is Watching is a relatively quiet story that in many ways resembles the first posthumous Kurosawa film After the Rain, which we watched last month. Both take place in relatively similar settings, and in both films water plays a key element in the story. Structurally, The Sea Is Watching is somewhat more episodic, closer to the narrative design of Kurosawa’s final film Madadayo.

That the tones of Kurosawa’s two posthumous films are so similar is no doubt partly due to both films being based on works by Shūgorō Yamamoto, whose novels and short stories also served as the basis for Sanjuro, Red Beard, Dodesukaden and Dora-Heita. What differentiates The Sea Is Watching from After the Rain, however, is that it is not an homage in the same way as the earlier film had been. Although still produced by Kurosawa Productions, starring Hidetaka Yoshioka (memorably the older boy in Rhapsody in August, also appearances in Madadayo and After the Rain) and with costume design by Kazuko Kurosawa, the cast and the crew were this time largely made up of people who had never worked with Kurosawa. Kumai apparently also had more say over the screenplay than had been the case with the Takashi Koizumi directed After the Rain.

The Sea Is Watching has been released outside of Japan with English subtitles. For more information, check out our listing of films with Kurosawa’s involvement.

This is the last month of the film club’s current cycle but fear not, we are already discussing future films. Join us to shape the club’s future!


Discussion

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Shintsurezuregusa

Just ordered my copy!

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Ugetsu

*spoiler alerts for those who haven’t seen it*

I watched this last weekend and I was genuinely surprised by how, despite having a setting quite different from previous Kurosawa films (and in particular the almost entire focus on female characters), the film has a very definitive late Kurosawa feel about it. Unfortunately, Kei Kumai just wasn’t as good a director as Kurosawa which weakened certain elements, but AK’s touches are obvious right through the film. There are definite echoes of Red Beard, Dodeskaden and Madadayo about it (unsurprising of course as two of those three are adaptions of Shugaro Yamamoto books). What most surprised me is that the film presents us with a classic ‘Kurosawa Hero‘, something which we never really see much of in his later films, but is of course a constant theme of his earlier films. And most surprisingly, this hero isn’t the obvious protagonist of the film.

First of all, my overall impressions. In some respects the film is quite disappointing. Films set in brothels/geisha houses are of course pretty much a genre in its own right throughout Japanese film history, and its interesting that its one that Kurosawa never indulged in until late in life. So to an extent this film has to be compared with classics of that genre by directors such as Mizoguchi and Naruse. And to a large extent it doesn’t match up. As so often with Kurosawa, the characters are archetypes more than ‘real’ people (deliberately I suspect), so it lacks the touch of realism which those two directors would have brought to a similar story. My understanding of the background to the film is that Kurosawa was conscious of his reputation as a director who wasn’t always comfortable with female characters, and wanted perhaps to show he could do it. But to an extent this film shows why its probably just as well he didn’t – archetypes are fine I think for action films or the type of formal, presentational films AK preferred, but less useful for films which intend to give more personal, human insights. While I’m pretty sure it was a deliberate choice in writing the screenplay, it does mean the film is handicapped with somewhat underdeveloped and not always believable characters (despite a number of fine performances).

The film also, unfortunately, has a running thread of sentimentality. We’ve seen a certain amount of sentimentality in other later AK films, so I don’t doubt it was there in the screenplay. But I suspect that in shooting it AK would have perhaps toughened up the film, something Kumai failed to do. Its not a fatal flaw in the film, but it is a bit sugary when it should have been a little more vinegary in my view – and reading though various reviews I don’t think I am alone in thinking that. However, the film is largely saved by the very beautiful ending.

There are also a number of structural problems in the film. Perhaps because of its origin (so far as I understand) from two different stories, there are some odd elements to the film. Most strikingly, it is only near the end that we realise the true protagonist and ‘hero’ of the story is Kikuno. For most of the films I thought Oshin, the young prostitute who is always falling in love with clients was the protagonist and main character and Kikuno was a secondary character – but in the end it is clear that the film was truly all about Kikuno. I have no idea whether this ‘switch’ was deliberate, or is the result of an underdeveloped screenplay and bad direction. Perhaps this could be a topic for its own thread.

The film is also handicapped by what I can only describe as a bizarre flashback sequence about two thirds of the way through. The sequence is beautifully shot, but it features the male character Ryosuke, and purports to give him a sad background story (it is reminiscent of at least one of the flashbacks in Red Beard). The flashback first of all seems unnecessary, as with or without it, he’s not a very interesting or important character. But worst of all, it breaks the continuity of the film, which before and after is set entirely within the brothel and the street beside it, and is entirely shot from the point of view of the female characters. I can’t believe that such a scene would survive a final screenplay draft, or final cut, without someone saying ‘we don’t need this, its entirely unnecessary and pulls the story away from the most important characters!’. I would imagine Shinobu Hashimoto would have been furious with Kurosawa for even considering it. Unless I’m missing something, it seems an almost amateurish decision to include it in the final cut.

I mentioned above the films ‘Kurosawa hero’. The saving grace of the film is the final, almost magical realist scene with Kikono on the roof of a flooded house. Her little speech to nobody in particular, where she revels in the freedom of being alone seems a rather wonderful final statement by Kurosawa, and the culmination of the journey made by so many of his ‘heroic’ protagonists, as they seek self-affirmation through action and individualism. Thinking it over, it may well have been a deliberate decision, a ‘mcguffin’ by Kurosawa to make us think Oshin was the protagonist and hero, while it was really quiet, seemingly doomed Kikono all along.

All in all, I think this film is much richer and more interesting than I’d been led to expect from what I’ve read about it. I’m looking forward to finding out what everyone thinks about it.

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Vili Maunula

It indeed feels like a natural continuation to Madadayo, doesn’t it? Also After the Rain has a similar feel to it.

Personally, I think that Kumai does a decent job with the story, although I do agree that especially the second half is something of a failure, at least until the very end. I think the weakest links in the story are the two male leads who play Oshin’s two love interests. As much as I like him, I don’t really rate the performance of Hidetaka Yoshioka (who we first encountered as the older boy in Rhapsody in August) very highly here. Meanwhile, Masatoshi Nagase as Ryōsuke feels too much like a carbon copy of Yoshioka’s Fusanosuke. Reading between the lines, the screenplay would seem to contrast the timid but ultimately unreliable Fusanosuke with the second half’s dangerous but good-for-his-words Ryōsuke, only the completed film doesn’t really do this. The script, as much as I can interpret from the film, would seem to call for a more Toshiro Mifune type of an approach for the knife owning Fusanosuke, one that is ready to explode into an all consuming rage at any moment. Instead, he doesn’t feel like a mad dog at all, but more of a self-pitying lap dog. This, to me, is the film’s biggest fault and the reason that the second half fails to take the story to the next level like it should. You talked about the need to “toughen up” the film, and this I think is where Kurosawa would have done it.

Had Ryōsuke been more of an unknown quantity, I think the flashback sequence describing his growing up with a wolf-like dog would also have made far more sense and contributed to the character. Now, as you say, it feels superfluous, just another sentimental moment of self-pity.

While I too recognise Kikuno as the film’s true hero, your observation about her also being the archetypical “Kurosawa hero” is something that totally escaped me. You are right though, and the more I think about it, the more convinced I feel that Kurosawa would have presented her more prominently. She is given a lot of screen time also by Kumai, which I love because Misa Shimizu is such a talented and beautiful actress, but the story as Kumai presents it is definitely not centred on her. Yet, Kikuno is the one we learn most about, who is the enigma and the moral core of the film, and the situation with the love triangle that she is part of is actually way more interesting than Oshin’s story. Now that you have planted the seed of seeing her as a typical “Kurosawa hero”, I cannot but wonder if Kumai actually read the screenplay wrong. I don’t think that the “switch” in protagonists, as you describe it, is necessitated by the script. It is more because of the film’s presentation that Kikuno seems more of a secondary character until the very end.

All in all, I think that Kumai’s only major failure with the film is with the characters, but there he really stumbled. In addition to the above, also the minor roles of the two younger geishas come across as needlessly undeveloped. The dialogue seems to offer enough to make them the kind of memorable secondary characters that Kurosawa typically had in his films, but they don’t really become that through action in this film, and instead largely remain part of the background.

The other place where the film stumbles somewhat is with budget, which is especially apparent in the outdoor scenes that so often look like studio sets. The cheap looking starry background of the final scene is even nearly enough to ruin the wonderful ending that the story presents us. Almost.

For the most part though it’s a beautiful film, with lots of wonderful shots and some good blocking. This must have been my third or fourth time seeing it, and I think of it very fondly, even if I’m always slightly surprised and disappointed by the toothlessness of the second half.

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Ugetsu

Vili

I think the weakest links in the story are the two male leads who play Oshin’s two love interests.

I think this is very true. I suspect the two males, in particular Ryosake, were meant to be much stronger, more defined characters, but somehow this didn’t come out. In particular, I found it hard to see why Oshin would have fallen for such a (self admitted) loser. The part needed a really big character who could convince as a man who a woman like Oshin would immediately fall for, despite his apparent weakness. Nagase just doesn’t do it. As you say, he’s a lap dog when he should be a mad dog. But then again, very few actors could match Mifune as being able to be magnetic and incredibly attractive, even while playing an unpleasant character. But there is also a directorial issue too I think. For example, the fight scene on the stairwell annoyed me. It started well, with the camera moving up the stairs, with Ryosake obscured by the timber detailing. But then the camera movement and editing fell apart and the actual fight looked quite stupid. It reminded me of the scene in Rashomon where the two men have a flailing fight with both too terrified to actually fight properly. Except of course in Rashomon it was deliberate, in this I think it was just bad fight choreography. Something of course Kurosawa would never have gotten wrong.

I cannot but wonder if Kumai actually read the screenplay wrong. I don’t think that the “switch” in protagonists, as you describe it, is necessitated by the script. It is more because of the film’s presentation that Kikuno seems more of a secondary character until the very end.

After thinking about this for a few days, I think you are absolutely right. It makes no sense for me that it would have been deliberate to switch from Oshin to Kikuno as main protagonist, especially as Oshin is really a much less interesting character than Kikuno. I suspect that it was intended that Kikuno would gradually emerge from the four women as the main character, but overall balance was wrong, and the film concentrated too much on Oshin.

The other place where the film stumbles somewhat is with budget, which is especially apparent in the outdoor scenes that so often look like studio sets. The cheap looking starry background of the final scene is even nearly enough to ruin the wonderful ending that the story presents us. Almost.

I was wondering about that. We had a discussion with Madadayo that the cheapness of some of the sets was actually deliberate, to heighten the unreality. I thought that the staging of the final scene was done to deliberately echo a theatre set – but perhaps I’m being too kind to them.

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Shintsurezuregusa

I just finished watching the film this evening for the first time and I am still digesting it (as well as the comments Vili and Ugetsu have made here), but here are some of my impressions, not fully fleshed out.

Ugetsu and Vili both said that there is something about this film that feels like a continuation or progression from Maadadayo. I think Vili said on the Maadadayo discussion that for him the film felt very cosy or familiar – I felt that way about this film; I wanted to spend more time in that brothel, getting to know these characters, sitting around the kotatsu eating sweets.

I agree with Ugestu’s comments about sky in the final scene. It looks very artificial but I don’t think that it was an issue of budget; it didn’t look like money was an issue in depicting the brothel after the flood with just the rooftops visible – I thought that was very well done (a real “floating world”). In the featurette included with the film the director says that the ending is a kind of fantasy scene in that it probably won’t end well for Kikuno, but that the story ends on a high note, with her “liberation.” For me it was also reminiscent of the artificial painted sky at the end of Maadadayo. It also reminded me of the legend behind Tanabata (the seventh day of the seventh month) – which is today, incidentally – when the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, represented by the stars Vega and Altair, are no longer separated by the “river” of the Milky Way (Kikuno and O-Shin even reference it) and can be reunited; this would appeal to the romantic Oshin who seems to keep hoping that a Prince Charming will carry her away, and Ryonosuke literally does so in the end.

Ugetsu’s observation about Kikuno as a classic Kurosawa hero is spot on. Her speech telling Ryonosuke and Oshin to flee together on the boat reminded me particularly of the scene in Yojimbo where Sanjuro tells the peasant couple to escape; Kikuno even strikes a samurai-like (or Mifune-like) pose on the roof-top with her fists clenched.

In the featurette the script writer (I think it was) talks about how this film depicts the “horrible reality of these women” (or words to that effect). However, it’s about as realistic as the representation of prostitution in Pretty Woman. There is no grit to it. It isn’t the world of misery depicted in, for instance, the Lower Depths. I think the problem arises from wanting to mix “iki” – style, chic, etc. – with the suffering of these women; it’s stylized suffering – sentimentality. That’s okay, but it isn’t real. It isn’t “the world of women that we don’t want to acknowledge” but a man’s fantasy; The prostitutes are all extremely naive willing to sacrifice themselves for Oshin’s chance at love – they’re “mother-whore” figures; more likely, given their experiences, they would be lecturing her not to ever trust men.

Whose eyes are we seeing this movie through? If Kikuno is the “hero” I feel like we should have seen Oshin’s experiences from Kikuno’s perspective more often. When Kikuno is beaten by her gangster client/boy friend, why do we see it from a distance, from Oshin’s (and the other prostitutes’) perspective, not from Kikuno’s perspective. Is this a common “flaw” in Kurosawa’s movies/scripts? The protagonist of Scandal was unclear, shifting halfway; in Red Beard it works because rather than Nishida being the protagonist we are viewing Nishida through Kayama’s “eyes.” In The Sea is Watching, it is unclear again.

Ryonosuke’s flashback – I feel like this would have been more interesting if it was delivered as a monologue instead – like the daughter’s monologue in Red Beard after her father dies (names are escaping me right now) – with us watching O-Shin’s reaction. Perhaps some of Ryonosuke’s “wild dog”-like personality could have come out in his monologue.

These might seem like harsh criticisms, but there was still something about this film that I enjoyed (I think it goes back to that “comfy” feeling that it I mentioned before). It’s easy to watch, unlike The Lower Depths or Maadadayo.

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Ugetsu

Shintsurezegusa

These might seem like harsh criticisms, but there was still something about this film that I enjoyed (I think it goes back to that “comfy” feeling that it I mentioned before). It’s easy to watch, unlike The Lower Depths or Maadadayo.

I’ve been critical in my comments, but like you I did enjoy the film. I just feel a little frustrated by it because I think its a good film with a potentially wonderful film just trying to get out. The obvious thought is that if Kurosawa had directed it, then it could have hit real heights. Of course, you could also argue that his later films showed signs of self indulgence and were not as sharp and dynamic as his best period, so even if his lived and kept his health, he may not necessarily have done better than Kumai. But I am inclined to agree with Vili that Kumai may actually have misinterpreted the script in giving too much focus to Oshin.

For me it was also reminiscent of the artificial painted sky at the end of Maadadayo.

When I was watching it I couldn’t help wondering if Kurosawa would have used a painted backdrop just like in Madadayo – and given his fondess for Van Gogh, would he have painted it like Starry Night? Now that would have been interesting.

Whose eyes are we seeing this movie through?

I think you’ve put your finger on another issue with the film – it doesn’t have a clear point of view. For a while, I thought the older man (I can’t recall his name) was meant as something of an audience stand-in, but he’s not really in enough scenes for this. I think the film could have worked if it was intended that we were seeing Oshin through Kikuno’s eyes, or vice versa, but the film never quite gives us this.

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lawless

I haven’t even checked to see if this movie is available from Netflix (I’m still in the middle of Madadadyo), but I wanted to make the following comment:

Shintsurezuregusa wrote:

In the featurette the script writer (I think it was) talks about how this film depicts the “horrible reality of these women” (or words to that effect). However, it’s about as realistic as the representation of prostitution in Pretty Woman. There is no grit to it. It isn’t the world of misery depicted in, for instance, the Lower Depths. I think the problem arises from wanting to mix “iki” – style, chic, etc. – with the suffering of these women; it’s stylized suffering – sentimentality. That’s okay, but it isn’t real. It isn’t “the world of women that we don’t want to acknowledge” but a man’s fantasy; The prostitutes are all extremely naive willing to sacrifice themselves for Oshin’s chance at love – they’re “mother-whore” figures; more likely, given their experiences, they would be lecturing her not to ever trust men

Based on that, it would have been interesting to see what you would have made of our discussions of certain elements of The Human Condition, Rashomon, The Outrage, A Woman Ascends the Stairs, and Seven Samurai. I brought up similar concerns, although perhaps not expressed as well. The one movie I’ve seen that shows prostitution fairly realistically is Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame, which has also been discussed here. That the movie is given some of the credit for the passage of the 1958 (I believe — I know it’s in the late 1950s) law outlawing prostitution in Japan is some proof that it depicted real conditions.

I also probably didn’t say hello when you first posted. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who find it hard to engage in the equivalent of small talk until I know someone better. Before that, it’s an uncomfortable thing for me to do. I’ve also been less active here than I had been previously, which makes it even more awkward. I hope you don’t mind.

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Ugetsu

I’ve been trying to put together a new topic thread, but I keep getting waylaid before I get a chance to put my thoughts together. So I’ll throw out what I’m thinking in case I don’t get it done before the months out.

There are elements of the film that could be described as ‘portmanteau‘ in the manner of Red Beard or Dodeskaden, and this may well have been the interpretation of the director, but the more I think about the film the more convinced I am that the script was intended to be more linear and focused on Kikuno than the final resulting film. I think the key element is the relationship between Oshin and Fusanosuke in the first act. Structurally, this almost seems like a small story in its own right, with little relationship to the rest of the film. But I think a key element of the story shows that it was in fact intended as a crucial moment leading to Kikuno’s final epiphany, when she realises she is actually better off alone and faces her fate in the manner of a true Kurosawa hero.

The crucial element of the Oshin/Fusanosuke is that the young samurai is not the cliched male liar who breaks the heart of a young girl. In fact, he is, in the context of his feudal position, entirely honest and respectful of her. He behaves impeccably towards Oshin, treating her with respect and with friendship as a good Samurai should treat an honest commoner. The reason this all turns out so horribly is that unlike the women in the brothel, he is so subsumed within feudal thinking that the notion that he could marry Oshin is, quite literally, unthinkable. It simply never crosses his mind that they could marry.

Kikuno of course watches this from something of a distance – she does not seem quite so enthused with the notion that Oshin will run away into the sunset with her handsome rich prince, but she does buy into the general excitement. But as the most mature of the women, she most clearly sees the reason why it went wrong. It wasn’t because of a deceitful samurai – it was because a feudal society simple does not permit such fairytales to come true.

The other two key relationships for Kikuno are of course with her criminal lover and the kindly merchant. She does not seem to have many illusions about the yakuza – when he is first introduced we already know he is a liar and a cheat, and Kikuno, if she ever thought otherwise, seems to realise it. When she first gently brushes away the merchants proposal we can perhaps think that she did it because she still has hopes for her lover. But she does it again later in the film, even when it was clear that she had no future with the yakuza either. It is left to us to wonder why she turned down what would have been a very reasonable and good offer for a woman in her position. It might not be a love match, but its made pretty clear that the merchant is a kind and generous man, who at the very least would be an trouble-free husband for her.

Within the broader narrative of the film, we can see her growing disenchantment with any notion of life being fair, or of their being any right to a happy ending, at least in a conventional sense. Oshin and Fusanosuke showed that fairytales are impossible for women in their position. Nor did she seem to have the possibility of love with an ‘equal’, if you want to equate a gangster with a prostitute. She was not left without options – but she chose for whatever reason not to accept a relationship with the older man. She showed, however, her heroism in refusing either to give up, or to take an easy option. She chose independence and a freedom of spirit, and in doing so, made a heroic stand for her own integrity. As such, she reminds me of most of all of Watanabe, dying alone, but contented, at the end of Ikuru.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: The crucial element of the Oshin/Fusanosuke is that the young samurai is not the cliched male liar who breaks the heart of a young girl. … The reason this all turns out so horribly is that unlike the women in the brothel, he is so subsumed within feudal thinking that the notion that he could marry Oshin is, quite literally, unthinkable.

That’s actually a very good observation. Yet, I definitely get this feeling while watching the film that Oshin is betrayed. I wonder, is it because the camera presents the story from her point of view (or at least this part of the story — I agree with Shintsurezuregusa that there doesn’t appear to be a consistent point of view), or because the director himself leaned more towards the “male liar” aspect, even if the script doesn’t really call for it?

I know we haven’t been entirely kind to Kumai’s interpretation of the script and it’s perhaps a little convenient to point a finger at him, but now that you raised the subject, there does seem to be a discrepancy between the story and how at least I ended up interpreting it based on how it was presented to me.

Somewhat related to this, I don’t know if this is intentional or something that just a non-native speaker would point out while a native would pay no attention to it, but some sort of a value judgement seems to be present in the names of the two young men who court Oshin and which already appear to be linked by the phonologically but not orthographically identical endings to their names.

Ryōsuke’s name is spelled 良介, with the first character having meanings like “good” or “skilled” and the latter ones like “intervention” and “mediation”. A “good intervention” is obviously exactly what Ryōsuke does at the end.

Fusanosuke is spelled 房之助. While 房 carries meanings like a “tuft of hair” and a “room”, 助 has ones such as “assistance” or “help” (之 is basically a possessive particle). Again, these do kind of come together if you think about him in the story and how he is helped by Oshin to conceal his samurai identity (that tuft of hair) by bringing him to her room.

As I said, this may well be stretching it much further than the structure of metaphors can really bear, but if we want to follow this line of thinking to its natural conclusion: one is identified as “good” while the other is a “samurai” (tuft of hair)?

Ugetsu: Within the broader narrative of the film, we can see [Kikuno’s] growing disenchantment with any notion of life being fair, or of their being any right to a happy ending, at least in a conventional sense. … She showed, however, her heroism in refusing either to give up, or to take an easy option. She chose independence and a freedom of spirit, and in doing so, made a heroic stand for her own integrity. As such, she reminds me of most of all of Watanabe, dying alone, but contented, at the end of Ikuru.

The ending, while quite magical, bothers me somewhat, especially in the very context that you lay out above. I suppose I am as a viewer supposed to drift into the domain of magic realism and accept what is presented without questioning it too much, but it is still difficult for me to suspend my disbelief in face of the given parameters.

Based on what we are shown in and running up to the final scene, the water doesn’t seem to be rising any longer with that great a speed. There appears to be no danger for the house, which seems stable. Ryōsuke says that he will come back to fetch Kikuno, which can either be interpreted as wishful thinking or that he knows that he will be able to do it. He seems to know where he is going and how to get there, so it is entirely possible that he will be able to come and get Kikuno as well.

Yet, Kikuno seems very determined to be a martyr. Even her decision not to board the boat seems too quick and too convenient. I suppose that despite her telling Oshin that they will make it, she has resigned to a different fate by the time she tells Oshin that the stories of her samurai background are completely made up.

While it is true that both can be seen as dying alone and contented, I see Kikuno and Ikiru‘s Watanabe quite differently. Watanabe doesn’t simply accept his fate but chooses to do something about it. Kikuno, on the other hand, comes across a little too eager to give up and embrace a heroic ending that is worthy of her fictional samurai past.

I do wonder if her refusal to accept either the merchant or the gangster is at least partly due to the same reason, that her made-up samurai past is not only a convenient survival strategy but also some sort of a delusion of grandeur that she really identifies with? Is she in a sense the female version of Fusanosuke, especially towards the merchant?

She’s a fascinating character.

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Ugetsu

Vili

That’s actually a very good observation. Yet, I definitely get this feeling while watching the film that Oshin is betrayed. I wonder, is it because the camera presents the story from her point of view (or at least this part of the story — I agree with Shintsurezuregusa that there doesn’t appear to be a consistent point of view), or because the director himself leaned more towards the “male liar” aspect, even if the script doesn’t really call for it?

I’m not sure if its the films fault that we automatically see Oshin as a victim of a deceitful man – I think that is the narrative cliche we expect. For me, its pretty clear all along that the young Samurai never intended to deceive her – he was always acting as he would have been brought up to think a Samurai should – he was respectful and friendly to the girls, and considered them friends so assumed they (including of course Oshin) would be delighted to learn that he was getting a good marriage arrangement. I think its the audience who makes an assumption based on narrative cliche – whereas the script is actually making the point that it is the feudal nature of the society which has betrayed Oshin. Kikuno, as a ‘fake’ Samurai woman, sees this more clearly than anyone else.

The ending, while quite magical, bothers me somewhat, especially in the very context that you lay out above. I suppose I am as a viewer supposed to drift into the domain of magic realism and accept what is presented without questioning it too much, but it is still difficult for me to suspend my disbelief in face of the given parameters.

I would agree there that the transition from ‘realism’ to ‘magic realism’ isn’t handled so well – I was wondering when watching it if it was more obvious on the big screen in the cinema that we were seeing a transition from ‘reality’ to a ‘theatrical’ type setting, which I’m pretty sure was the intention. There is nothing realistic about her, sitting on a roof, simply assuming she was doomed. There are all sorts of ways she could have escaped.

While it is true that both can be seen as dying alone and contented, I see Kikuno and Ikiru‘s Watanabe quite differently. Watanabe doesn’t simply accept his fate but chooses to do something about it. Kikuno, on the other hand, comes across a little too eager to give up and embrace a heroic ending that is worthy of her fictional samurai past.

What I see as the common link is not so much that Watanabe actually did something positive, but that both defined their own fates – they refused to have the script of life written for them, they achieved a freedom by declaring their own individuality and integrity. In the greater scheme of things, a playground is a small and unimportant thing – what is important is that Watanabe decided it was important to him. Kikuno of course also gave money to the young couple, giving them the possibility of a good life.

I do wonder if her refusal to accept either the merchant or the gangster is at least partly due to the same reason, that her made-up samurai past is not only a convenient survival strategy but also some sort of a delusion of grandeur that she really identifies with? Is she in a sense the female version of Fusanosuke, especially towards the merchant?

I think you are right about this – its not entirely clear if her pretence of being a Samurai was purely pragmatic, or if it related to her own self-worth. If the latter, then casting it off was an important part of her casting off all her illusions about life, and declaring her independence from it. Looking back, it was the young Samurai’s actions that perhaps persuaded her that any ‘honour’ attached to having come from a Samurai family was as illusionary as the possibility of Oshin marrying into that family.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: I’m not sure if its the films fault that we automatically see Oshin as a victim of a deceitful man – I think that is the narrative cliche we expect.

That could actually well be true.

Ugetsu: What I see as the common link is not so much that Watanabe actually did something positive, but that both defined their own fates – they refused to have the script of life written for them, they achieved a freedom by declaring their own individuality and integrity.

Indeed, put that way, I can definitely see a connection between Kikuno and Watanabe.

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Ugetsu

Ugetsu: I’m not sure if its the films fault that we automatically see Oshin as a victim of a deceitful man – I think that is the narrative cliche we expect.

That could actually well be true.

Just to elaborate on this, the more I think of it, the more I think this part of the story was a deliberate attempt by Kurosawa to undermine the audiences narrative expectations. In this sort of film, when an attractive young woman meets a dashing young man from a very different background, we are, from innumerable films, stories and books, conditioned to expect one of two things to happen:

1. The dashing young man turns out to be a liar or cheat and breaks her heart, or,

2. They do fall in love, but some tragedy separates them, leading on to the final act where this tragedy sets up a denouement or revelation.

I think that the film instead ended up as showing Oshin being betrayed not by the young Samurai (who did nothing more than make natural assumptions based on the rigid norms of the time), but by the unfair and feudal nature of the society was intended as much to upend the audiences expectations as much as drive the narrative – and as such set us up to ‘accept’ a more magical realist ending.

It also in a narrative sense provided the key character – not Oshin, but Kikuno – the demonstration to see clearly how delusional she has been in her claims to be descended from Samurai stock. It sets up her decision not to play by societies written and unwritten rules, but to transcend them, and so become a Kurosawa ‘hero’. I think that this element didn’t quite work in the film because a more subtle director would have worked harder to show that the Oshin story was witnessed from Kikuno’s perspective, and after that happened, we would then focus on her life and story.

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Vili Maunula

That sounds like a solid theory, Ugetsu. However, this part remains a little unclear to me:

Ugetsu: I think that the film instead ended up as showing Oshin being betrayed not by the young Samurai (who did nothing more than make natural assumptions based on the rigid norms of the time), but by the unfair and feudal nature of the society was intended as much to upend the audiences expectations as much as drive the narrative – and as such set us up to ‘accept’ a more magical realist ending.

Could you explore a little more what you mean by Oshin being betrayed by feudal society preparing us for the film’s ending? I’m not sure if I see the connection. Do you mean that this link comes through Kikuno’s claims of samurai past, which she confesses to be lies at the end?

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Ugetsu

Vili Could you explore a little more what you mean by Oshin being betrayed by feudal society preparing us for the film’s ending?

What I mean is – and this goes back his examination of feudal conventions in Seven Samurai – is that a ‘proper’ Samurai would have been expected to be polite and respectful to the lower orders – but of course there would always be certain things a good Samurai would never consider doing – such as sleep with (or marry) the daughter of a peasant or commoner (presumably prostitutes and geisha were excluded by this as it was a professional transaction). The young Samurai had internalised this so much that he was completely clueless that Oshin could even consider that they might marry – hence he caused at least as much damage to her as if he had deliberately seduced and then dumped her. This seems a mirror image to the failed relationship between Shino and Katsushiro in Seven Samurai.

In narrative terms, I think Kurosawa intended to lure the audience into expecting a love story/tragedy involving Oshin and the young Samurai. But it seems to me that by subverting the genre conventions and instead showing instead that even the nobler aspects of Samurai behaviour could have terrible consequences when applied at a human level, he was setting the audience up for a different type of story. I think that this is demonstrated by Kikuno’s casual later admission that her supposed Samurai background was just an invention. Kikuno had become disenchanted with the notion of being even a fake Samurai, and I think the audience was expected to be similarly disenchanted. In narrative terms, I think the only way out of this disenchantment would have been either an extremely down beat and pessimistic ending, which is something I think Kurosawa did not want to contemplate at this time of his life – or an ending with a more magical realist element – an ending which was uplifting, but not in a false or sentimental sense, but an uplift rooted in the human spirit. Something similar to Rashomon and the baby, or Ikiru and the playground. Both of these had, I think, a slightly magical or mythical sense to them – this film added an element of deliberate theatricality.

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Vili Maunula

Thanks Ugetsu, that makes sense! I like this reading of the film a lot.

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