Following the second world war, a captured Japanese doctor is facing interrogation by an American officer for his role in the live vivisection of 8 American captives during the war. Suguro (Eiji Okuda), the well-meaning junior doctor recounts his time working under doctor Hashimoto (Takahiro Tamura) at a medical facility, leading up to their infamous experiments. His fellow junior doctor, Toda (Ken Watanabe), does not share his qualms about the goings-on at the hospital, including lying to patients about deaths in surgery, or their live autopsies, all of which he believes furthers medical knowledge. The doctors and nurses at the facility continue with their jobs under constant threat of air raids and influence from the military.
Following the Second World War, many of the war crimes committed by the Japanese army, including the infamous Unit 731 were uncovered. In “The Sea and Poison”, based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, director Kei Kumai attempts to shed light on this, creating a moral drama that is chilling in its revelations and implications. Masao Tochizawa’s black and white cinematography creates a stark visual metaphor in the darkness that gathers in pristine white operating theatres. The hospital, ostensibly a place of hope, is nevertheless swarming with the shadow of death which seem to grow darker as the place is overtaken by concerns other than the health of the patients. The characters themselves are caught between the worlds of medicine and war, of helping to save life and taking lives. Eiji Okuda’s performance as Suguro captures the character’s anxieties and discomfort at what he is witnessing, along with his sense of impotence to stop it. The two scenes where we see operations are shown in gory detail, with exposed organs and viscera reminiscent of the most brutal horror films. Largely dialogue free save from the particulars of the operation, the actors explore the complex emotions of the staff as they witness these events, scientific curiosity; a vicarious sense of revenge from the soldiers; and the moral complexity of doing something so heinous for the greater good. The score by Teizo Matsumura has elements of the macabre and theatrical, with warped melodies alongside operatic arias that reflect the contrast in the film itself of terrible acts and the higher moral concerns of some characters.
“The Sea and Poison” is an important film that discusses the immoral acts carried out under the veil of war and in the name of scientific inquiry. Suguro is not a heroic character, failing to stop what happens or even to decline taking part in the experiments. Nurse Hilda, a German married to the head doctor, asks another nurse about god’s justice, and this is a theme that is repeated throughout the film. The idea that humans are operating without a set moral code, or with one that is flexible enough to accept such atrocities as a natural or unavoidable part of progress is a terrifying one. We see in the film that the military encroach on the hospital, later physically as they crowd into the operating theatre, suggesting that evil is intermingled with good and occasionally overpowers the better natures of people. In its cold, clinical, dissection of human nature the film finally settles on a chilling conclusion, that perhaps evil is as much a part of human nature as good. It offers a faint hope in the character of Suguro, who in his strolls by the sea is able to see society for what it is, suggesting that individuals have within them the power to ignore orders to do evil and are instead able to think morally and rationally outside of the system.