Uni to Dokuyaku (1987)
July 22, 1987
FILM: ‘SEA AND POISON,’ FROM JAPAN
By Walter Goodman
Published: July 22, 1987
LEAD: EARLY in ”The Sea and Poison,” the harrowing Japanese movie now at Film Forum 1, a surgical team performs a lung operation on a young woman. It is probably the most graphic view that most of its audience will ever have had of the scalpel and forceps doing their work, and you may find yourself joining the young intern Suguro, who confesses, ”Today in the operating room, I had to close my eyes.
EARLY in ”The Sea and Poison,” the harrowing Japanese movie now at Film Forum 1, a surgical team performs a lung operation on a young woman. It is probably the most graphic view that most of its audience will ever have had of the scalpel and forceps doing their work, and you may find yourself joining the young intern Suguro, who confesses, ”Today in the operating room, I had to close my eyes.”
That episode prepares us for another operation, the climactic scene in which a captured American pilot is subjected to vivisection experiments. Again, there is the feeling of being trapped in an operating room; you can’t watch, but you can’t stop watching. In these scenes, the director, Kei Kumai, proves himself a master of a kind of super-realism.
Mr. Kumai’s script, drawn from a novel by Shusaku Endo, is less gripping. Mr. Endo based his controversial work on an atrocity committed in the spring of 1945 by doctors at the University of Kyushu medical department. Under orders of the military, they performed fatal experiments on eight American fliers. Twenty-five of those involved were convicted of war crimes.
Mr. Kumai tells the story through three participants in the operation -two interns (including Suguro, sympathetically played by Eiji Okuda) and a nurse. Their reasons for cooperating – careerism, weakness, jealousy – smack of a kind of fiction that doesn’t rise to its momentous subject. Perhaps the characters were better developed and more convincing in Mr. Endo’s novel.
At the end, Suguro’s friend Toda (Ken Watanabe) says, ”You never know what those who would punish us would do if they were placed in the same position.” Resonant words, but there’s not enough here to back them up. And Mr. Kumai seems to lose control altogether whenever military types are brought on; the American interrogator seems to have been borrowed from Japan’s wartime propaganda movies, and the cackling Japanese officers from Hollywood’s.
When he is directing his camera at the operating table or into hospital wards or along the hospital’s heavily shadowed corridors, however, Mr. Kumai is very much in charge. His vision, in black and white, is strong, steady, serious. The poignantly beautiful image we are left with, the residue of the experiment on the operating-room floor being washed away to the sea, suggests the depths of a deeply troubling theme. A Tragic Experiment THE SEA AND POISON, written and directed by Kei Kumai, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo; in Japanese with English subtitles; photography by Masao Tochizawa; music performed by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra; produced by Kanou Otsuka. At Film Forum 1, 57 Watts Street.