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Alone Across The Pacific
cast: Ishihara Yujiro, Mori Masayuki, Tanka Kinuyo, and Asaoka Ruriko

director: Kon Ichikawa

97 minutes (PG) 1963
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail
[released 23 February]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
Kon Ichikawa, notorious for having a peripatetic eye for cinema subjects, chose to make a film based on the book by the first Japanese man to sail solo across the Pacific (which, incidentally, led to the first Japanese film to be shot on location in the United States). The voyage had only happened the previous year and the events would still be very fresh in the minds of the public. Anyone who is familiar with the recent Deep Water documentary (about Donald Crowhurst's solo attempt to sail round the world) will already be aware that most long distance solo sailors are barking: they are eccentric, driven, and deeply-selfish people, all of which makes them ideal dramatic subjects.

Unfortunately the nature of the adventure presents dramatic problems for the film-maker, but Alone Across The Pacific (aka: Taiheiyo Hitori-Botchi) conquers the solitary narrative problem through two techniques. One is a voiceover by Horie Kenichi (Ishihara Yujiro) as he narrates the book (which isn't explained to the audience as it is assumed that they will be familiar with the book's existence), and Horie's constant prattling as he talks non-stop to himself. He even starts to imagine that there are two of him on board. The film is also fractured by frequent and lengthy flashbacks that lead up to Horie's voyage. His run-ins with his parents (Mori Masayuki and Tanaka Kinuyo), whose despair about their boy's lack of conventional ambition turns to fear as they realise that he is really determined to go ahead with the voyage. Even his sailing friends think he is crazy and start to ostracise him.

But, for all of Horie's flaws, Ichikawa makes us appreciate his viewpoint. Post-war Japan is portrayed as a stifling, claustrophobic place where the imperial dream has been replaced by repetitive drudgery. Horie is only 19 (or younger, in some of the flashbacks, although Ishihara is a decade too old for the part) and is part of a new, gentler generation that has arisen since the war. They are desperate to fill the void left by Bushido and make a place for themselves in the world. The war is only mentioned once, when Horie notes that it is exactly 20 years since men fought and died at the Battle of Midway 1,000 to the south of where he had reached that day, but the defeat and subsequent American occupation is something that hangs over all of the Japanese characters.

His planning, albeit on a very tight budget, is meticulous except for one thing. He doesn't have a passport. He goes to the office, intending to apply, but loses interest. It is an unconscious denial of his nationality. Horie's father (Mori Masayuki), uncompromising in his opposition to the voyage even after Horie has succeeded and is being lauded by the press, represents the collapse of the patriarchal system. His mother (Tanaka Kinuyo) is equally against the voyage, but mostly out of concern over the dangers. Realising that she is powerless to stop him, she gives him a gift to help him on the voyage. Horie's offhand treatment of her comes across as spoiled and almost rude, but such is the personality of the long-distance sailor. It is hard to tell if this is caused by a 21st century perspective, unlike the times when he casually tosses rubbish over the side of the yacht.

One of the highlights is when Horie calculates and lists the supplies that he will need for the voyage, and they are show on screen beside his handwritten list. It may sound dry, but as it unfolds, the viewer starts to believe for the first time that, just maybe; this man knows what he is doing. It's a masterful piece of filmmaking. After all, at the start of the film Horie had sneaked on to a tiny, wobbly yacht that only managed to drift a few hundred yards on its first night. The voyage looked impossible then, especially since it was illegal for him to sail any great distance from the coast. The filming of The Mermaid (named for a sponsor) is excellent throughout: one or two seconds of the storm scenes feel like they were shot in a studio lot, but for the rest of the time it feels that Horie is indeed the only person for hundreds of miles. Strange moments of tension that are generated solely by a skilful use of the score sneak into the voyage; but Ichikawa is always aware that we know how the film ends. This is no Valkyrie.

There is even a great little joke that may go over the heads of many western audiences. Horie has taken a transistor radio with him, mostly for the weather forecasts, but there is one occasion where he tunes into a Japanese-language station that is broadcasting pop music from Hawaii. He listens to a song about a man playing a game of go, thinks how it could apply to him and his boat, and sings a verse or so with his own lyrics while regretting that he hasn't the voice to do it justice. The joke is, Ishihara sang on over 200 albums.

The DVD gives you the option of turning off the subtitles but apart from that only contains a trailer and two teasers. There is, however, a booklet that comes with it that has a short biography of Ishihara, and a lengthier analysis of the film by Brent Kliewer that you might not always agree with, but is certainly valid and informed.

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