One of the most surprising things about the 1978 novel When I Sense the Sea is that its author was only 18 years old when the book was published. Though the protagonist begins as a 16 year old high school girl, author Kei Nakazawa follows her on into adulthood as the damage done to her teenage psyche radiates like a series of tiny, branching chasms stretching far back into a difficult childhood. This 2015 adaptation from Hiroshi Ando, Undulant Fever (海を感じる時, Umi wo Kanjiru Toki), maintains a distant and detached tone which, while not shying away from the erotic nature of the discussion, is quick to underline the unfulfilling and often utilitarian nature of the central couple’s relationship.
Beginning in the “contemporary” 1970s era of the film, Emiko (Yui Ichikawa) and Hiroshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) enjoy a strangely lonely trip to the zoo and later an intimate, if odd, love making session at home. They seem a fairly settled couple but there’s something not quite right between them. On flashing back to their teenage years we learn how they met – as members of the high school newspaper club when Hiroshi was a year above Emiko. The pair quickly embark on a messy sexual relationship but when Emiko declares her love for him, Hiroshi coldly tells her that he was never interested in her as a person but merely as an anonymous body which could easily be replaced by any other female form. Despite his harsh treatment of her and her mother’s eventual discovery of the affair, Emiko continues to pursue Hiroshi until finally he does come to feel something for her which might be described as love. However, at this late stage of the game Emiko’s notions of love, sex, and desire have become so hopelessly confused that she is unable to comprehend the emotional landscape of her life.
It would be easy to read the case of Emiko as one of the “God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later” blues (to borrow a phrase from Sondheim), but it’s a little more complicated than that. After her father died at a young age Emiko was raised alone by her widowed mother who seems to cut an austere and somewhat distant figure. Her reaction to finding out about Emiko’s relationship with Hiroshi, which only occurs in the first place due to an extreme betrayal of trust, is veering into Carrie territory and only further emphasises how little emotional support Emiko has received from her central parental figure.
After having battled so hard to win some kind of attention from her cold and distant mother, Emiko learns to allow herself to be used and abused by uncaring men in the hope of one day winning their love. Hiroshi is not the focus of the narrative and his problems are less well addressed but no less interesting. His constant pleas with Emiko to simply leave him alone because he because he doesn’t care about her take on a passive aggressive quality in which one starts to wonder if it’s an oddly sado-masochistic way of ensuring she does exactly the opposite. The more he ignores her, the more she is committed to staying by his side. Though Emiko seems to be aware of how cruelly he treats her, she is unable to stop needing him even if she ruins her own life for nothing more than the simple reward of remaining in his general vicinity.
Undulant Fever is a deeply probing exploration of sex and desire and particularly how early relationships can forge the course of a person’s life. An earnest character drama, the film moves at a considered pace which leaves ample room for its protagonists’ complicated emotions. The cold and dispassionate approach is a perfect match for the heroine’s depressed and confused emotional state which leaves her doubting her entire concept of self as she travels from unloved teenage girl to a confused adult woman approaching an unsettled middle age. The surprisingly astute observations of the novel also ring true in the film which captures the book’s late ‘70s feminist leanings whilst at the same time painting a fairly bleak picture of the troubled emotional life of a flawed and damaged modern woman caught in a confusing maelstrom of love and desire.
The R3 Hong Kong DVD of Undulant Fever includes English subtitles.