Some things can’t be forgiven, and there are those for which it becomes impossible to forgive oneself. Inaction is one such crime, as the hero of Kensei Takahashi’s Sea (海抜, Kaibatsu) discovers as he attempts to atone for his failure to oppose wrongdoing followed by a huge overcompensation born of rage towards his own impotence more than a desire to protect. Takahashi’s film is, somewhat problematically, yet another which paints a woman’s rape as something that happened to a man, but does its best to be even handed in assessing damage done to those whose lives were touched by violence of which they were not the direct victim.
Takahashi opens in the present day with the melancholy Hiroshi (Satoshi Abe) going about his mechanical newspaper delivery job. A sad and silent figure, he is not well liked by his colleagues and mostly keeps to himself though his boss appears to be sympathetic towards whatever it is that he’s doing through. Flashing back almost ten years previously, we discover that high school Hiroshi was a nerdy loner and outcast mildly bullied by delinquents Kengo (Seijyuro Mimori) and Tatsuya (Seiya Okada). “Borrowing” his bike, they keep him hanging around on the beach before convincing him to invite a passing young woman they knew in middle school to join them. While Hiroshi is dispatched to fetch some drinks, the boys force Rie (Arisa Sato) into a nearby boat shed and rape her. When Hiroshi returns mid-act, he is too afraid to do anything to stop them and becomes an accidental accomplice to his friend’s degradation.
Some years later, Hiroshi runs in to Tatsuya at a reunion and catches him assaulting another woman at which point his rage boils over. It is not, however, protective instincts which motivate him so much as revenge – he does what he couldn’t do before, which is to say that he avenges the damage done to his own self image rather than acting in deliberate defence of the woman Tatsuya is currently terrorising or an attempt to make him pay for what he did to Rie.
Tatsuya and Kengo are, it has to be said, thoroughly unpleasant people and few will object to seeing them pay for their crimes even if the extent of the violence and its motivation in some sense make Hiroshi no better for being on the side of “right”. Believing the world was about to end (Hiroshi’s high school days took place at the turn of the Millennium), Tatsuya and Kengo thought they could do as they pleased because their actions had no meaning. Hiroshi shows them they were wrong, but damns himself even further as he does so.
Nevertheless, years later Kengo comes calling to plead with Hiroshi not to ruin the “respectable” life he’s built for himself as a conventionally successful husband and father. Admitting his wrongdoing but insisting it’s “all in the past”, he can’t understand why Hiroshi might not be willing to let it slide. Hiroshi, rightly, tells him he’s apologising to the wrong person and should probably attempt to make some sort of atonement towards Rie though she herself might prefer to not to have the past dragged up again. Meeting her again by chance, Hiroshi discovers she too has been able, to an extent at least, to move on and build a happy life for herself while he alone remains locked in a purgatorial cycle of self punishment and isolation, unable to live with his twin crimes, the first of inaction and the second of rage.
Powerlessness continues to dominate his life as natural disasters bring sunken feelings to the surface just as they were about to settle. Supported by a loving girlfriend (Misaki Matsuzaki) who attempts to bring him back to the world, Hiroshi finds himself unable to reconcile the twin sides of his fractured masculinity as man who failed to protect and then received the gratitude freely given to a saviour when he only sought to save himself. An artfully composed character study, Sea is a bleak meditation on the impossibilities of redemption as its hero finds himself unable to escape the past while wallowing in his own sense of wounded male pride in a society which continues to stigmatise victimhood and reward silence rather than attempt to address the destructive effects of entrenched patriarchy.
Original trailer (English subtitles)