As triumph-of-the-human-spirit tales go, Kon Ichikawa's 1963 Taiheiyo hitori-botchi (distributed in some countries as My Enemy The Sea; the producers of this Eureka!/Masters of Cinema DVD editon go with the more accurate translation Alone Across The Pacific), is darker, more textured, more layered than most. It opens with: the film's young protagonist Horie Kenichi (Yujiro Ishihara) and a friend/co-conspirator sneaking out into a harbor so Kenichi can board his small yacht for a solo jaunt across the Pacific Ocean. The stealth is necessary, as it's illegal for Japanese citizens to leave their country via such crafts. For Kenichi, that's part of the point. It is not just the spirit of adventure that's motivating him here; it's the crush of Japanese society, evoked by master filmmaker Ichikawa in a few shots of evening motot traffic at the film's very beginning, and amplified in flashback scenes.
Watching the film for the first time, I thought—hoped, in fact—that there wouldn't be any flashback scenes. How interesting, I thought, if this were to be a film only about the young man and his voyage, without backstory. As it happens, after Kenichi boards his yacht and exchanges near-ominous farewells with his pal, the voyage doesn't exactly rev up. Kenichi's yacht, which he designed himself, is built to run solely on what goes into its sails. It's an unusually still night, and his boat sits inert in the middle of Osaka harbor, as Kenichi ponders whether to leave his lantern on so as to be visible to larger ships that might otherwise crush him, or to snuff it out so as to avoid detection from the harbor patrol, and subsequent arrest.
It occurs to us at this point that Kenichi is quite a bit more of a sad sack than most daredevils are (as far as we know). So when the flashbacks start coming, their existence doesn't disappoint, because they're genuinely intriguing. Once the wind does push Kenichi out of the harbor, his journey becomes more of an obstacle course than an exhilarating flight into freedom; running parallel to his oceanic difficulties, the story of how he conceived his trek and created his yacht is a narrative of one thing after another going wrong. Kenichi's disapproving father, the young fellow's lack of a social life outside of sailing, his money problems and how they affect the final form of his vessel; at every turn Kenichi's having his face ground in the dirt. And still he goes on.
In a soul-searching conversation, his older friend (Hajime Hana) tells Kenichi just what his problem is: "What you are is a maverick. You always do exactly what you want, and you do it your way. There’s nothing wrong with that. When you’re the only one you can trust, you have to believe in yourself. Having said that, in order to protect all that’s important to you, surely you have to treat those around you with respect."
Kenichi's response is a blank. His friend says, "It's almost as if you want to die out there." And for the first time in the movie, Kenichi breaks out into a big smile. "I realize that, too!"
As the voyage goes on Kenichi starts to get his act together a bit, but as conveyed in Ichikawa's vision, this isn't due to any marshalling of heretofore untapped resources on Kenichi's part; it's more that he literally has no choice. Perhaps there's finally no difference between the two, but the filmmaking insists on articulating the nuance and letting the viewer make the final call. And it's during these sections that the film becomes phantasmagorically beautiful and also terrifyingly still and alone. It's a genuine tour-de-force for Ichikawa and cinematographer Yoshihiro Yamazaki, and really, one of the very greatest widescreen films ever made.
Once Kenichi achieves his goal, the film's tempers his triumph with a few pungent ironies. The city he lands in is even more of a nightmare than the one he left. Speaking to reporters in Japan, Kenichi's father assures them, "When we get him home I’ll make sure he apologizes to everyone."
What makes this all the more startling is that this is no fictional tale; there was a real Kenichi, and he really did do as the film shows, a mere year before this film was made. Also worth noting is that Yujiro Ishihara had made his showbiz name in Japan playing far less hapless characters, in the "sun-tribe" film Crazed Fruit, for instance. He was also something like the Jimmy Roselli or Al Martino of his day, as he was a huge success singing enka ballads, the sentimental pop favored by Yakuza tough guys.
The Region 2 Eureka!/Masters of Cinema disc is a typically excellent presentation, featuring a gorgeous transfer of the film and an informative booklet.