As a costume drama, it is elegantly and elegiacally shot. You are led into a computer-generated model village, cut off from the more respectable quarters of the city by a river - if you wished to sin in the 19th century, you had to cross a bridge, symbolically leaving behind the moral restraints of normative society! Within this self-contained but still male-dominated community, the girls aggressively tout for business on the streets, or, in quiet times, sit listening to one of their number read from a romantic novel, dreaming of a different world.
O-Shin (Nagiko Tohno) is the youngest, most romantic girl in her brothel. She yearns for love. Two men enter her life - the one a disgraced young samurai, the other a mere peasant who feels his life has been a failure. Finally, wind, rain, and sea will transform O-Shin's life.
"The Sea is Watching" is a study of moral and social boundaries. The rich, the poor, men and women, all have prescribed and proscribed lifestyles. Change is conceivable, within limits - O-Shin is told she can regain her purity by ceasing to work. But change is easier in fantasy, in dreams, or in romantic novels than it is in real life. In the real world, a dramatic sea change is needed to transform life - and then, only with the destruction of the old, and no little personal sacrifice.
"The Sea is Watching" echoes many of Kurosawa's themes, yet paradoxically stands in contrast to them. His historical epics are about males - this is about women. There is posturing and aggression, but the one fight in the film portrays the antagonists as incompetent and not as the professionally adept samurai whose fighting skills are more usually beautifully choreographed. And, while Kurosawa often made use of the natural phenomena of wind and rain, here the sea is a quiet onlooker, until the storm breaks and it is revealed as an irresistible force ... like morality and social structure.
"The Sea is Watching" is a charming, thoroughly engaging and highly watchable film, beautifully shot and neatly realised. The DVD offers an informative extra on the making of the film and insight into Kurosawa's intent. But, overall, you are left feeling just a little dissatisfied ... feeling that there is some missing ingredient which might have made this a superb film. The missing ingredient, of course, is Kurosawa's genius. Nevertheless, a film which deserved to be made, and a film which is well worth watching, as an absorbing piece of drama and as a visual spectacle.
Apparently the women in the film are Oiran (prostitutes not Geisha) although they live in similar communal groups in a kind of sex village, but tout for business in a very aggressive fashion.
The main character is Oshin (Nagiko Tono) an Oiran who has a habit of falling in love with some of her less fortunate clients, in the story first a disgraced Samurai and secondly an ill educated and criminally exploited man. The two romances are very slight and the plot really revolves around the friendships between the girls and their interactions with the men who visit them.
I found all the production values high, but it failed to totally capture my imagination, except for the ending which suddenly erupts and just keeps going.