Based on events that took place only a year earlier, Ichikawa's 1963 film, Alone Across the Pacific, details Horei Kenichi's amazing 94-day solo voyage from Osaka, Japan to San Francisco in a engine-less yacht. Kenichi, played by pop star and matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara (Crazed Fruit), is a headstrong and unapologetically individualistic young man, which puts him at odds with every aspect of Japan's post-war society. There is a popular proverb (kotowaza) in Japan that says, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Kenichi, knowing that he is the nail sticking up, decides to put all of his effort into escaping from Japan and, in turn, from his own Japanese-ness. He puts every scrap of money he has saved from working odd jobs into the construction of a 19-foot yacht, The Mermaid, to get him across the ocean. The film begins with Kenichi sneaking off to his yacht in a row boat under the cover of darkness, as a law that restricts non-commercial sea craft from leaving Japanese waters is in place. As he gets his yacht out on the open waters, Kenichi is immediately beset by problems. First he is stuck adrift in Osaka Bay as no wind will come along to blow him out to sea. Then, a day-and-a-half later, when a wind finally shows up, it is followed by a storm of typhoon-like conditions. It is here that the film seems to be veering off into a man-against-nature type of story, but in actuality that is not the concern of the film at all.
As Kenichi sails along we get flashbacks of recent events leading up to his trip. We see him act the rude taskmaster with a couple of shipbuilders working on The Mermaid; we also see him callously and pointedly creating strife within his family when talking about his plans to sail to San Francisco; most revealingly though, we see a fellow sailing enthusiast of Kenichi reprimand him for being a "maverick" who doesn't understand the price others have to pay for him wanting to do things his own way. These moments, along with a tour de force, mid-film scene (shown in split screen) of a scrolling supplies list matched by shots of the said items' acquisition, use or bulk physicality, paint a full picture of this young man's make-up that we would not get otherwise by just watching him sit in the claustrophobic hull of his yacht. Ichikawa paints Kenichi as an obsessive, who in his single-minded determination comes across as alternately mired in an existential funk and propelled by a quixotic urge to sail to San Francisco.
This type of character will, of course, sound familiar to people who have followed the films of Werner Herzog, but Ichikawa mined this territory first (and I would argue better) with his films The Burmese Harp, Enjo, Odd Obsession, An Actors Revenge, Tokyo Olympiad and this one. Where Herzog tends to emphasize the idea that obsession leads people to peer into the abyss of their own destruction or madness, Ichikawa views it as a great focusing agent. As Kenichi's voyage drags on, he begins to discover his own self-worth through his constant attention to the mundane tasks of survival. By the time he pulls into San Francisco Bay, he has gone through an almost Zen-like transformation. He left Japan to get away from the burden of Japanese societal obligation. He even went so far as to leave his Japanese identity behind him by refusing to get, much less carry a passport. But when he arrives in San Francisco, Kenichi finds himself transformed by his experience into a man who has found his place in the world. He has forged his own inner fortitude, and it is with this newfound strength that he has found a sense of harmony with and dedication to his surroundings. As in the film, so it was in real life. Horei Kenichi went on to be a kind of sailing activist, taking on waterborne challenges to promote environmentally friendly technologies and the use of recycled materials.
One final note about this film is that it has an interesting take on the core conflict in most Japanese storytelling, the conflict between giri and ninjō. Giri is, in simplified terms, the Japanese idea of an individual's obligation or duty to the group and/or social hierarchies. Ninjō on the other hand, is one's own personal emotions or attachments. In the classical mode of Japanese storytelling, the themes and plots arise from a conflict between giri and ninjō. But in Alone Across the Pacific, Ichikawa seems to be saying, in a similar manner as he does in The Burmese Harp, that the rejection of social obligations (giri) in favor of one's personal feelings of conviction (ninjō), if taken seriously, will lead a person to a more far reaching, inclusive and humane state of giri. If you ask me, that's an alright message coming from what could have easily been just another uplifting "man vs. nature" film.