In every culture, one force can unravel social structures, topple potentates and sweep away entrenched civilizations. It isn't war. On the contrary, it is an unexpected alliance, an act of kindness, an unlikely love affair. In Okabasho, a town surrounded by the guardian sea, downpours and the rising tide mark these transforming events. The affection of a samurai warrior for a prostitute sends gentle ripples through the undulating god. But when a young woman's faith is shattered, white caps froth. Then the aqueous chimera imbibes the bruised spirits of the women at Ashi no Yo brothel, the heirs to a moraine of male brutality, and its tidal force awakens. In Kei Kumai's effulgent film, The Sea is Watching, based on a script by Akira Kurosawa, nothing is destined to endure but the purifying sea.

Who could have anticipated that in the samurai-loving heart of Kurosawa there fluttered the dream of capacious, Felliniesque prostitutes like O-Shin (Nagiko Tohno) and her hardscrabble pal Kikuno (Misa Shimizu) from the Ashi no Yo brothel? In the Japanese master's script, when the sea watches, it does so through the window of O-Shin's atelier, where it witnesses the affection between the beautiful young woman and the handsome samurai she rescued from an angry mob. The sea god also observes, through the window of Kikuno's room, the local b'te noir, a misognystic samurai who rapes Kikuno when she refuses to submit to his perverse desires. O-Shin is heartlessly abandoned by her young samurai, and the hopes of every young woman in the brothel are dashed. Kikuno shrugs. O-Shin sheds her make-up and kimono and, for a time, looks only to the sea. Resilient and sanguine, she eventually recovers and entertains Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase from Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train), a luckless soul who puts off suicide when O-Shin unselfishly offers him her savings to begin a new life. Kikuno, wary of Ryosuke and concerned about O-Shin's well-being, warns her that he is just more bad luck.

The social structure that subjugates O-Shin and Kikuno--and the men as well--in Kumai's Edo-period Japan won't be undone by retribution, by the rising up of the prostitutes or the samurais. Even the sea god's thundering tidal wave cannot prevent the postlapsarian swing back to patriarchy. Okabasho's last hope, and humankind's only enduring legacy, is the redeeming power of love. One simple act of selflessness, O-Shin's relinquishment of all her worldly goods, temporarily shifts the orbit of the earth; afterward, in what for others becomes a watery grave, O-Shin, Ryosuke and Kikuno find new life. Okabasho has been purified. Floating on the remains of the brothel, Kikuno says, "I'm alone at last and it's fine." That is Kurosawa's tocsin, the spirit of the master filmmaker in Kumai's delightful and surprisingly feminist film.

--Maria Garcia