A Scene At The Sea (Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi)
Japan (1991) Dir. Takeshi Kitano
“Beat” Takeshi Kitano’s first two films as director, Violent Cop and Boiling Point, are, as the titles suggest, gritty dramas with a strong Yakuza presence in the plots, not surprisingly involving scenes of bloodshed. So, it comes as quite a shock that this, his third film, is as far removed from its predecessors as it can possibly get.
Told with scant dialogue, it concerns deaf mute Shigeru (Kuroudo Maki) , a rubbish collector one day finding a broken surfboard and crudely fixes it up. Along with his also deaf girlfriend Takako (Hiroko Ôshima), Shigeru heads down to the sea and teaches himself how to surf, to the amusement of the other local surfers watching.
Despite his patchwork board and lack of a wet suit, Shigeru’s tenacity and perseverance pays off, catching the attention of local surf shop owner who not only gives Shigeru a wet suit but also enters him into a surfing competition. Shigeru gradually starts to improve and gain acceptance by the others, but it comes at the price of his relationship with Takako.
The original Japanese title, which translates as That Summer, The Calmest Ocean (sounding like the beginning of a haiku) reflects the mood and style of this film far more accurately than the given alternative, which itself conjures up evocative images. It might the lack violence, aggression and inherent darkness of the Yakuza drama milieu but Kitano’s idiosyncratic touch is evident, even if the man himself doesn’t appear on screen.
It is this distinctive and immediately recognisable style that is as imposing and palpable as Kitano’s on screen presence, as if we are watching the story through his eyes and not our own. The long shots, the pondering silence, the ambiguity of the thoughts and behaviour of the characters – all present and correct, played out almost as a mime but with a lyrical quality to it.
Much of the story is easy to follow despite the lack of dialogue from the two leads, appearing to communicate telepathically, with helpful details added via the supporting characters. Kitano has never been one for backstory so what made Shigeru fancy surfboarding upon finding the broken board is not revealed while Takako, the dutiful girlfriend giving her unconditional support shows no surprise at this development.
While Shigeru spends more time in the water than on his board, Takao faithfully watches from the beach, folding up Shigeru’s discarded clothes. To the other surfers, Shigeru is a source of amusement and derision, the interesting twist being that Takao unable hear their mockery can’t leap to Shigeru’s defence as other girlfriends would. In Takako’s eyes, while she too laughs at Shigeru’s hapless antics she is also proud of his efforts
The first sign of the changes Shigeru’s acceptance by is surfing peers brings is via a possible surfer groupie, approaching Shigeru in Takako’s absence to peel her orange, something she later does with other surfers. Clearly a metaphor – unless oranges represent something kinkier in Japan – yet we don’t believe for a second Shigeru would betray Takako.
Elsewhere Kitano presages further rifts between the couple when a bus driver refuses to let Shigeru bring his surfboard onto the crowded bus, and with Takako already onboard, she travels alone leaving Shigeru to walk home alone. Don’t worry they soon reunite as Shigeru chases after the bus and Takako gets off and runs back to met him halfway, this brief separation too much to bear.
Whilst never depressing there is a pervasive sobering tone to this film born out its stillness and silent passages, that only reaches a level of melancholy in the final act. As dull as this sounds, it does in fact create an air of authenticity as opposed to the usual brisk and manufactured gung ho energy most films tend to possess reminding us of their fictitious nature.
Yet Kitano can’t resist to implement flickers of his trademark dark humour, supplied mostly through a pair of friends, akin to the comedy double act in Kids Return, who take up surfing because Shigeru does, arguing over who gets to use the surfboard and wear the wetsuit. Or there is the cheeky pathos of Shigeru failing his first competition because neither he nor Takako could hear his name being called!
As if he was playing a cruel trick on us, the ending Kitano gives us is wilfully oblique and ambiguous, jarring in its abrupt finality given how gentle, serene and relatively straight the prior 90 minutes are played. For spoiler reasons I can’t go into detail but the interpretations are plentiful, none of them sadly conducive to a positive conclusion, but with so many questions it is unclear if we are to mourn or celebrate.
Surfing fans will be disappointing by the paucity of water based action but this pastime is a means to end than a focal point, although again it is open to debate whether the theme is advocating hard work in achieving your goals, especially for the physically impaired, or to remind us not to let success go to our heads.
It is easy to miss any concrete message due to the hypnotic undulating of the sea waves and the tranquil lull of the unhurried life on dry land, supported by a typically evocative and whimsical musical score from Joe Hisaishi, slipping between relaxing accompaniment for the lovingly photographed picturesque vistas and jaunty little numbers to remind us of the playful quirks suffused within this stoic drama.
Whatever it may or may not all mean, A Scene At The Sea finds Kitano at his most reflective and introspective but I can’t help but feel I’ve missed something, obtuse ending notwithstanding, to be fully overwhelmed by its sedate charm. That said, this is a breezy and deceptively astute outing and I wasn’t disappointed to be introduced to this hitherto suppressed tender side to one of Japan’s most interesting and versatile auteurs.