Alone Across the Pacific (Masters of Cinema) Review

Kon Ichikawa's Alone Across the Pacific, written by his wife and frequent collaborator Natto Wada, is certainly a spirited, highly engrossing film that once again displays the couple's keen ability to needle potentially serious material with welcome and balanced levity. It takes the true story of a young man's 1962 solo voyage from Osaka to San Francisco in a small, nineteen-foot sailboat (termed a "yacht" throughout the film) and makes it compelling without falling into either the suspense-filled potboiler trap or the lachrymose, triumph of the human spirit canyon of sentimentality. It also furthers the question as to what exactly a "Kon Ichikawa film" is, given how diverse and wide-ranging his career spanned across various genres and periods. Lazy, auteurist-minded writers may struggle to box Ichikawa in to a particular expectation much the same way versatile directors like John Huston or Louis Malle are sometimes swiped at for less obviously leaving themselves in their pictures. Regardless, Alone Across the Pacific catches Ichikawa during a superb period for the filmmaker and it's really the touch he and Wada contribute more than the actual story that elevates the film into a majestic piece of work.

Using sort of a split narrative between the protagonist Kenichi Horie's actual time spent in the Pacific Ocean, which amounted to three months, and selected events that occurred during the lead-up to his departure, Ichikawa's film reminds us, in much the same way movies as varied as Billy Wilder's The Spirit of St. Louis, Sean Penn's Into the Wild and James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire have, of the deeply human desire to accomplish, to test boundaries, to simply achieve the impossible. Horie's motivations seem astoundingly ordinary throughout the preparation and the actual journey. He exhibits an interest in the water and sailing, going in with nine other young men to purchase his first boat, but the idea of actually sailing alone for such a momentous adventure builds with little assumption. Horie's parents, especially his vocal father, resolutely disapprove of the entire business. Slowly but surely, however, Horie, barely even an adult, diligently prepares to set out for a voyage to what must seem like another world.

Ichikawa initially disorients the viewer by going straight to Horie's departure when the film opens. The somewhat claustrophobic setting of the yacht, dubbed "The Mermaid," is used for optimal effect during the majority of the picture. Necessary tasks, from the tedious use of a makeshift "flush toilet" (really just a bucket with a bow tied on it) to more exciting happenings like a fierce typhoon, never allow the viewer to forget how small this boat is amid the seemingly infinite expanse of the ocean. Ichikawa favours returning to images of the serene and beautiful water with its single sailboat passenger. One particular cut seems to contrast the bustling and crowded desk where Horie ideally should've applied for a passport with a breathtaking shot of the sheer openness and freedom of this awesome body of water. It's not man against nature, though. It's more man with nature, and it's done with pleasing subtlety.

These frequent reminders of Earth's persistence set up the key struggle Horie faces in his journey. He must adapt to his environment both in the most basic sense and from a psychological standpoint, foreign terrain for anyone considering this particular journey had never been done solo before. Some of Wada and Ichikawa's characteristic wry wit helps to place Horie in a little hermetic seal for the audience. He likes to talk to himself, often saying things one might consider eccentric, but which nonetheless come across as endearing in the film. Sometimes these self-motivations lead to flashbacks which set up what we'd just heard Horie say while other ramblings, like that the large hole in his boat will require a drop in his asking price, reveal the character's calm, slightly cracked mindset. I don't think we're meant to get a good handle on Horie, as evidenced by an exchange he has with a friend who confides that he sometimes thinks Horie has a death wish. The would-be sailor smiles a wide grin and replies that he's been thinking the same thing.

By the time Horie arrives in San Francisco, with Ichikawa paying little attention to the breadth of the three months' worth of perseverance and instead allowing Horie to gaze wide-eyed at the Golden Gate Bridge, he's treated almost like an alien creature. English is loudly blurted out all around as Americans crowd around the young man, whose legs must be akin to jelly at this point, in a frenzy. It's a much different scene on the other end of the ocean where Horie's father is apologetic for his son's actions, not realising - or caring about - the magnitude of his achievement. The enigmatic final scene, despite allowing for several different paths to possibly be followed, seems telling in regards to Horie's primary motivation behind his voyage. Ichikawa and Wada tease the notion that perhaps, like countless other young people living at home, he just wanted to get away from his parents.

The Disc

Eureka's Masters of Cinema line is releasing Alone Across the Pacific at the same time as Kokoro, another Kon Ichikawa film made for the Nikkatsu studio in Japan. The disc, as was the case for Kokoro, is single-layered, encoded for all regions and in the NTSC standard.

Alone Across the Pacific is a short film at just under 97 minutes and the digital supplements are minimal so the smaller bitrate that results from this being a single-layered disc doesn't seem to have too large of a negative impact on the image quality. Furthermore, the folks who put together Masters of Cinema releases are generally on top of things enough to maintain an impressively high standard. As such, it's not that surprising to report that the anamorphic 2.40:1 transfer on Alone Across the Pacific looks quite good. The image is clean, suffering no damage aside from mild white speckles which become especially noticeable when stock footage has been used in the film. It also appears natural and largely immune from any unnecessary fiddling. You may see some digital noise during the darker scenes, but it's minimal and I didn't spot any in the frequent shots of the sky or the water. Though the colour palette is drab, reproduced faithfully here, the appearance of the sparkling blue ocean and a bright red cushion show that the otherwise muted shades are intentional. Some improvement in detail might be possible, and near the end of the film there are a few minutes when things get a little hazy, but it looks more than fine for my tastes.

The Japanese Dolby Digital mono track is presented across two channels. A small, hardly audible crackle seems to come and go during the film. Dialogue, optionally subtitled using a white font, comes through without incident. A couple of scenes late in the film feature some English language exchanges and the Japanese subtitles remain burned onto the print, though they are, at worst, a brief distraction. There's a bit of a music score, which is all over the place in terms of style and sounds more like a conventional Hollywood film than one from Japan. The entirety of the audio emerges at a reasonably strong and consistent level of volume.

A couple of teasers (2:46 and 1:38) and the original Japanese theatrical trailer (3:43) can be found on the disc. Definitely give a look to the first teaser because it concludes with some behind the scenes footage shot on the American Pacific coast. There's also a 24-page booklet inside the DVD case, which has an interesting and thoughtful essay by Brent Kliewer that originally appeared in James Quandt's 2001 book on Ichikawa. Another couple of pages in the booklet are given to Tony Rayns, writing about Yujiro Ishihara, who plays Horie in Alone Across the Pacific.

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Last updated: 26/04/2018 18:35:34

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