The Sea and Poison (1986) by Kei Kumai

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.

An Adolescent (2001) by Eiji Okuda

A middle-aged policeman and a teenage schoolgirl begin a relationship in this drama based on a short story. Tomokawa (Eiji Okuda) works as a police officer, largely abusing his position of authority as seen early in the film when he sleeps with a woman whose missing cat he is returning. He is later propositioned by a high-school girl named Yoko (Mayu Ozawa) out of the blue while at a cafe. They go to a hotel and spend time together, but the girl later refuses payment from him. The two later begin a sexual relationship which is complicated not least by the girl’s age as Tomokawa discovers that she is only 15. Yoko is also the sister of Tomokawa’s young friend Sukemasa (Akira Shoji), a mentally handicapped young man. Yoko and Sukemasa’s father was a suicide and their mother (Mari Natsuki) no longer lives with them. Instead they are taken care of by their grandfather, Shozo (Hideo Murota). It transpires that Yoko’s grandfather created the large tattoo of a single male bird on Tomokawa’s back, while Yoko’s mother (Tomokawa’s former lover) left him after promising she would have the female counterpart tattoo drawn on her own back.

Based on a short story by Mikihiko Renjo, with a script by Katsuhiko Manabe and Izuru Narushima, the difficult subject matter of “An Adolescent”, will no doubt deter some from watching and it is certainly a film that should be appreciated as a work of fiction. Mention is made of Tomokawa’s perversion in chasing after a teenage girl, but for many this acknowledgement may be insufficient explanation to what happens. If you can get beyond that the film is an intriguing look at adolescence, aging, and relationships. The performances, especially from Mayu Ozawa as Yoko, whose behaviour may not always be understandable but are always believable. It is a nuanced portrayal of a girl who has suffered various tragedies, such as the death of her father and abandonment by her mother, but maintains a determination to follow her desires. Okuda’s Tomokawa appears to be a boy trapped in a man’s body, slowly coming to accept the responsibility of adulthood. Intimate handheld camerawork helps us connect with the characters and the use of background details and staging helps enliven the action. Towards the end of the film Ozawa has two incredible moments with Yoko’s mother and Tomokawa, delivering passionate dialogues that speak to the maelstrom of emotions she is experiencing. Despite the subject matter, there is a lot of humour in the film, with Tomokawa being a ridiculous man-child figure, working as a policeman but at heart still very much a good-for-nothing tearaway. The score by Shigeru Umebayashi features sombre strings that lend weight to the drama, framing it as a timeless love story as opposed to something more seedy. The film features sex and nudity, but it works in the context of the film, showing the eroticisation of Yoko by Tomokawa and also in parts, such as bathing sequences, making it something commonplace adding to a sense of realism.

One of the central themes of “An Adolescent” is that of aging and regret. Tomokawa is a man who wears the respectable uniform of a police officer, but underneath is still marked as a delinquent by his tattoo. Yoko could perhaps be seen as the inverse, whose school uniform is concealing her desire to be considered an adult. We learn later in the film that Sukemasa’s intellectual disability was due to witnessing his mother having sex, following his father’s suicide. This link between carnal knowledge and maturity is interesting and ties in to the relationship between Tomokawa and Yoko. The significance of the tattoos is something that harks back to ancient legends, suggesting that there is something transcendent about the couples’ relationship, that it is not simply about the physical world. They are lost souls searching for one another across time. The film is telling the story of Tomokawa and Yoko attempting to grow up, their relationship seemingly being the missing piece that allows them to move forward. An interesting film with some great performances if you can get over the subject matter.