Kurosawa adapted his script from two short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto about a brothel in a seaside village during the Edo period (Tokyo before 1868). The Sumida River runs through Okabasho, separating the red light district from the gentry and allowing men certain freedoms from social restraint. Into this island of ill repute, and into our brothel, comes Fusanosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) a rather puny looking Samurai, fleeing from an altercation in which he wounded a senior Samurai. Besides having that Samurai's colleagues and local police on his tail, he's been ostracized from his father and family for the affront.
He lands in the arms of O-Shin (Nagiko Tohno -- Okoge, Unagi), a geisha whose story this is. Against the advice of her prostitute mentor and friend Kikuno (Misa Shimizu), O-Shin harbors the fugitive, hides his presence from investigating police and proceeds to fall in love with him. The entire "staff" is aghast at the development but comes around to accepting it and honoring the slim warrior when he returns for continuing visits with O-Shin -- visits which do not include anything more than conversation. In one visit, Fusanosuke gives O-Shin the advice to cleanse herself by giving up her line of work. Believing this is what has been his requirement for their betrothal, she turns her customers over to her willing cohorts, believing in a return to virginity.
The ladies are in for a huge disappointment when the Samurai informs O-Shin, with obvious delight, that he's finally been reconciled with his family and that he's getting married -- and not to O-Shin. Enforcing the traditional notion that romance between the classes in this feudal society is all but impossible, the interlude ends with her throwing him out of the house.
Enter Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), another puny looking traveler, but down a few notches in social class than his predecessor. This makes him a truer soul mate and, seeing the process start up again, Kukuno warns her love-needy sister to come to her mercenary senses about getting emotionally involved with the clientele. But O-Shin follows her heart once more and dedicates herself to teaching the hot-tempered, downtrodden Ryosuke something about the meaning and fulfillments in life, setting up the film's message of triumph over weakness and adversity.
But wait -- not so fast. Just when emotional issues seem to be stabilizing, there's nature to deal with, as the title portends. O-Shin's hopes get dashed when the fury of a typhoon batters the red light district, destroying all the brothels on the street and sending most of the working girls fleeing for their lives. In the storm's wake, the sea rises to levels never seen before. O-Shin and Kikuno choose to ride out the flood until they're on the roof of their establishment looking death in the face.
It's not that Kurosawa has never brought exaggerated natural forces into his stories. But inconvenient elemental power doesn't do much to fulfill these characters or help this story rise above the artificial. There is too much coincidence and pretend emotion reaching for larger meanings. In terms of casting, one wonders why a spiritless O-Shin falls so mechanically for two guys with about as much appeal as rice. The formalized protocol and behavior of a geisha house, while probably conveyed with some accuracy, further dampens empathy for the inhabitants.
Would the Kurosawa sensibility have assembled a better cast and engaged us more viscerally in the character relationships? As it is, it seems more a framed tribute than an involving experience and the memory of it is likely to fade halfway across the lobby as we hardcases leave the theatre.
Aka Umi wa Miteita; The Sea Watches.
Four little maids.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 27th July 2002
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 58%
Fresh: 15 Rotten: 11
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Ken Kumai
Producer: Naoto Sarukawa
Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa
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