“Seven Seas, the first of Shimizu’s great silent films of the 30s, was scripted by Kogo Noda, Ozu’s close associate, from a novel by Itsuma Maki (a pen name of the noted writer, Umitaro Hasegawa). The film is a lengthy work interweaving characters from different backgrounds and social strata in a narrative centered around the experiences of its heroine, Yumie Sone. Over two hours long, Seven Seas was released theatrically in two parts, with the first part entitled “Virginity Chapter” coming out in December 1931, while the second part, “Frigidity Chapter,” followed in March 1932. Near the beginning of the narrative, at a garden party given by the wealthy Yagibashi family in Tokyo, Yumie meets Takehiko, the Yagibashis’ playboy son and the brother of Yumie’s fiancé, Yuzuru. Yumie, a young middle-class woman, lives with her ailing father, a retired ministry official, an older sister, and a younger sister still a child (played by a very young Hideko Takamine). Takehiko, who has just returned from a trip to Europe, is attracted to Yumie and contrives to have her stay overnight at his family’s mansion where he takes advantage of her. Disgraced by Takehiko’s actions, the Sone family suffers twin tragedies: Yumie’s father is so shocked to learn of the seduction that he dies from a stroke, a loss that, in turn, leads to the mental breakdown of Yumie’s older sister, Miwako. Yumie breaks off her engagement to Yuzuru and, determining on a course of revenge, marries the man who had wronged her. Angered by his family’s treatment of Yumie, Yuzuru leaves home. He finds work as a French translator and moves into an urban middle-class neighborhood near his friends, Ichiro, the owner of a sporting goods store, and Mr. Yamanan, a tailor.
Once she is married to Takehiko, Yumie refuses all sexual relations with him, sleeping in a separate bedroom and insisting on a large monthly allowance. Unbeknownst to the Yagibashis, she spends part of her money on Miwako’s hospital care while also providing Takehiko’s mistress with a stipend. The Yagibashis’ downfall comes about when another of their sons, Ohira, failing to obtain money from Takehiko he needs to support his geisha mistress, sells an exposé of his family to the newspapers. Faced with public shame, the Yagibashis order Yumie to leave, telling her she is divorced. She retorts that she has revenged herself for the wrong they did to her and her family. Meanwhile, Yuzuru, continuing to live apart from the Yagibashis, takes care of Yumie’s younger sister, Momoko, and writes a best-selling autobiographical novel entitled Seven Seas. On the wings of his good fortune, he is reunited with Yumie. The film ends happily in the couple’s new home with Miwako restored to mental health and Momoko also sharing in the joy. Interwoven with Yumie’s story is a subplot involving Ichiro’s good friend, Ayako, a female newspaper reporter who secretly loves Yuzuru from a distance. She is suddenly reunited with her father who had abandoned her mother to run off to America with another woman before she was born. Towards the film’s conclusion, Ayako goes overseas with her father to start a new life.
For all the twists and turns of the complicated plot reminiscent of a classic 19th century novel, Shimizu’s film is similarly convincing in its lifelike realism. This is due in large part to the power of the direction, the naturalistic playing, and the detailed settings. The director’s mise-en-scène conveys a vivid sense of the environment in which the characters live and work – the simple middle class homes of Yumie and Ayako with their traditional Japanese furnishings; the lavish, Westernized mansion of the Yagibashis; the neighborhood sporting goods store of Ichiro and Mr. Yamanan’s adjoining tailor shop in the Ginza district; the newspaper office where Ayako works; the newspaper owner’s home in the peaceful countryside.
Shimizu in Seven Seas continually shows himself a master of his craft, skilfully using traveling shots to follow the characters or explore the setting and demonstrating his sensitivity to composition and imagery throughout the film. For example, when Ichiro visits Ayako in the country as she is recovering from a disturbing incident in which a man killed himself over her, the camera pans across a creek in the woods, their reflections appearing as Ichiro tosses a pebble in the water. Much later in the film, when Ichiro meets with Ayako in a field, Shimizu uses a long shot that places them against a timeless background of huge clouds appearing like a vast sea on the horizon.
Thematically, the film is dominated by the implied class conflict between the rich, decadent Yagibashis and their prey, the far less prosperous Sone family. Shimizu’s film is thus closely related to the leftist Japanese “social tendency” films of the time denouncing the inequities of a rapidly industrializing, urbanized capitalist system in which the wealthy class exploited the struggling middle class and proletariat. The film repeatedly arouses the spectator’s ire against the Yagibashi clan, such as the scene in which Yamanan the tailor suddenly appears in the family’s exclusive club to insist it is their responsibility for Takehiko to marry Yumie in order to rectify the injustice done to the Sone family.
The rich gallery of characters enables Shimizu to develop his thematic concerns. Like his social class and his family, Takehiko, the principal villain, shows himself to be a hypocrite. In the very first scene when he returns from his tour abroad, he speaks disapprovingly of a short-skirted Japanese flapper on the train, calling her the kind of girl that is giving Japan a bad reputation. The Yagibashi family demonstrate not only hypocrisy but callousness and outright cruelty in their attitude towards the humbler Sone family. Particularly insensitive are the disrespectful comments of Takehiko’s brother, Ohira, on the death of Yumie’s father in front of the grieving family. Takehiko, later speaking to Ohira at their club, says, “It was quite a show – the old man died, the beautiful lady cried,” further illustrating the maliciousness rooted in their class conscious snobbery. Their avarice and arrogance is all the more glaring when contrasted with the honesty and humanity of the middle-class characters, Ichiro and Yamanan, the kind of hard-working tradesmen who are the backbone of Japanese society.
Yuzuru stands apart from the rest of the Yagibashi family. Spurning the life of a parasitic idler, he takes an upstairs flat in the same building in which his friends, Ichiro and Yamanan, have their businesses. There, when not working as a translator, he devotes his time to writing. In an ironic juxtaposition, while Ohira’s lust for money brings about his family’s public disgrace when he provides the tabloids with lurid details of their private lives, Yuzuru mines his experiences in an artistic manner that restores luster to the Yagibashi name. The film thus takes a clear stand in favor of honest, creative work over the predatory pursuit of monetary gain.
Through the actions of his heroine, Shimizu deftly combines feminist assertiveness with Japanese traditionalism, infusing his film with much of the same sympathy for women rebelling against male rule that is also found in many of the contemporary works of Mizoguchi and Naruse. Yumie, refusing to be a passive victim of male aggression, takes a revenge that is magnificent in its sheer audacity. Indeed, in one scene, her manner of exacting retribution adds a touch of humor to the story. With the couple installed, at Yumie’s orders, in separate rooms in a luxury hotel during their honeymoon, Yumie teases Takehiko unmercifully. She telephones him and, although fully clothed, coyly tells him she is taking a bath. When an expectant Takehiko tries to enter her room, she threatens to scream. She continues to assert herself throughout the film. In a later scene in their home, she frightens him off with a pistol when he comes into her bedroom. On one level, Yumie embodies a modern woman of independent spirit defying a class-bound, patriarchal society bestowing privileges and license on the male heir as she undermines the arrogant power of the Yagibashis. At the same time, she is loyal to centuries of Japanese traditional filial piety, defending the honor of her family by avenging her father’s death and the assault on her virtue, and using part of the money she extracts from the Yagibashis to aid her older sister. Because of her indomitable spirit, Seven Seas, unlike many dramatic Japanese films of the era by Shimizu and others, has a positive resolution.
Still another leitmotif that Shimizu develops through the experiences of the characters is the idea of foreignness, implied in the film’s very title. This thematic undercurrent is present in the opening scene in which Takehiko, returning from Europe, is depicted as a corrupt product of Western influence who apes the ways of wealthy gaijin, puffing on a long cigarette holder. Shimizu further underscores the gulf between East and West when, early in the film, Ayako’s editor, an Englishman obsessed with her, commits suicide after she rejects his proposal of marriage. The shocking scene with the young woman returning to find his lifeless body after hearing the gunshot could serve as a metaphor for the West’s disruptive intrusion into the calm pattern of traditional Japanese life. As a professional influenced by Westernization, Ayako is representative of the new working woman that was beginning to revolutionize Japan. Her experiences with the English editor, her discovery of a father who had abandoned her for an illicit affair in America, and her later effort to reconcile with her parent by traveling abroad exemplify modern Japan’s ambivalent relationship with the outside world viewed both as a destroyer of its culture and a possible restorative.
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