Sea (Japan, 2018)
Years ago, I used to teach in in a media school and we used to joke that graduation films have three main interlinked topics – suicide, depression and rage. Kensei Takahashi’s debut feature Sea was his final work for university, but unusually for a student film, was presented at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Sea is an intense examination of the life of a young man after he witnesses his female friend been raped by two of their peers. The silent introspection of a man spurred by violence is not a new topic but Sea is certainly a good example of what a young director, aided by a talented cast, can achieve.
The film opens in a school where Hiroshi (Satoshi Abe) meets his career counsellor and peruses college advice books, musing on what adulthood will bring. In the case of Hiroshi, his pathway takes an unexpected direction when he makes the ill-fated decision to allow school bullies Tatsuya (Seiya Okada) and Kengo (Seijyuro Mimori) to force him to accompany them to the beach, and, key to the plot, get his friend Rie (Arisa Sato) to join them. The inevitable happens and Hiroshi is unable to defend his friend or himself from the two stronger boys. Kengo, the slightly portlier figure, and Tatsuya, sporting fashionable bleach blond hair, are shown as repugnant on all levels. We see them bully Hiroshi by taking his bike and forcing him to buy them drinks while they also frequently threaten other characters with physical harm. The attack on Rie is shown to be both measured, premeditated and something they have both done before.
This film was made during the rise of the Me Too movement and the film makes it clear that Kengo and Tatsuya have thus far escaped punishment for their actions due the acquiescence of their male peers. Fellow students continue to look away and avoid confrontation. In the pivotal scene, Hiroshi is advised to wait to use the men’s bathroom in an izakaya by his fellow classmates who are aware that Tatsuya is assaulting another girl in there. This casual cruelty of those who are convinced of their own inviolability becomes unbearable to Hiroshi and he erupts with extreme violence at a coming-of-age celebration. The film then moves to twelve years later and the aftermath of that night.
Although this film has undoubtable strengths, the female victim operating as a defining moment in a young man’s life raises some important questions about the role that abuse narratives play in cinema. Rie is the one who is brutally attacked and yet her story vanishes with the focus on Hiroshi’s emotional journey. The final scenes of Rie comforting Hiroshi as he sobs in her lap, raises some awkward questions about the director’s inability to fully comprehend his female characters. This is a film about Hiroshi’s feelings and responses to his impotency in the face of Kengo and Tatsuya’s aggression. Rie is both the cause of his feelings of disempowerment, and the pathway to redemption. This results in her as a symbol rather than a character in her own right. Her end statement that she feels the attack has ‘led her’ to her husband and her current life really hits the wrong note given the current climate or awareness raising about sexual abuse.
Created on a budget of around 500,000 Yen, the film is visually well-constructed with Takahashi mixing handheld and interestingly-angled set pieces. He seems to have affinity for filming from above and in longshot which perhaps speaks to the film’s student origins. Pacing and editing are good throughout with the film’s style testament to his skill. The ending in particular is especially strong and it is clear that Takahashi is a director to keep an eye on.