Sea of Revival (Japan, 2019) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2020]

Ikuo (Shingo Katori) is working in Tokyo as a punter, but gets fired. He has a serious gambling problem, wasting all his money and time with a local pal at a velodrome, which irritates his life-in-partner Ayumi (Naomi Nishida). More problems are caused by Ayumi’s daughter, Minami (Yuri Tsunematsu), who skips school and stays home playing video games. When Ayumi learns that his father has cancer, the whole family relocates to his home town Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture, on the north-eastern coast of Japan.

At first life in the new place seems to be going well. Thanks to Ayumi’s good reputation in Ishinomaki, Ikuo soon gets hired by a printing factory. A man named Onodera (Lily Franky) befriends Ikuo. Minami meets her elementary school classmate (Takumi Otoo), and Ayumi opens up her own beauty salon. Even Ayumi’s fisherman father (Ken Yoshizawa), who has refused cancer treatment and decides to die at home or at the sea, seems content to have a family in his house. Everyone seems settled, until Ikuo’s workmates take Ikuo to a illegal gambling establishment, run by gangsters, where televised cycling games are broadcast on numerous screens and bet on. Once Ikuo loses all his money, the place lends him some, with a high interest rate. They also have violent ways of getting the money back. Soon Ikuo is up to his ears in debt. At the same time, the printing factory manager notices some cash missing, and suspicion falls on Ikuo. Ikuo is saved by Onodera, but what are his motives for being so helpful?

The setting of Sea of Revival, Ishinomaki, has a sinister echo to its name. It’s famous as one of the worst hit places of the March 2011 tsunami, which wiped half of the town into the sea, and caused the deaths of over 3000 Ishinomaki residents, including 70 students and 9 teachers from the local Okawa Elementary School. Kazuya Shiraishi’s film comments on these tragic events as well. In one scene, Minami says that in her Tokyo school she was bullied for being radioactive, although Ishinomaki is far away from Fukushima. The nuclear accident has metaphorically sent its ash over everyone in the tsunami-affected area, even though they even hundreds of kilometres away from the nuclear plant. Ayumi’s mother drowned in the tsunami, and her father feels a sense of guilt for not being there to save her.

Guilt is the common feeling for all the characters of the film. Once Ayumi disappears, both Ikuo and Minami blame themselves for her fate. Minami runs away from away after a fight over her friend, and Ikuo and Ayumi go around searching for her as tragedy falls over the family. The person who keeps things together amidst the mess is Ayumi’s father. With his own shady past, he can understand Ikuo. His own salvations have been his wife, his boat, and the sea. And now he is ready to help.

Ikuo is played by Shingo Katori, who was a member of the Heisei era (1989-2019) definite boy band, SMAP. Besides singing and dancing, this popular group’s members did act in TV dramas and films, but due to the restrictive policies of their talent agency, Johnny’s Jimusho, these roles tended to be cliched hero roles or comedic acts. Since the death of the agency’s owner, Johnny Kitagawa, and the dismantling of SMAP, its members have been able to take acting roles which would have been denied during their heyday. For instance, Inagaki Goro appeared naked in the lead role in Tezuka’s Barbara (2019), directed by Macoto Tezka, which would have been a definite no-no during the SMAP years. In Sea of Revival, Katori is able to play a despicable lowlife who, despite numerous offers of help, has to go through hellish lower depths until he can start the healing process. In a supporting role, Lily Franky gives one of his typical friendly and chatty turns, but this time with a little twist.

Sea of Revival is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2020, which is showing at selected UK venues from January 31 to March 29.