A Scene at the Sea (Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi) (Takeshi Kitano, 1991)
I would like here to write about A Scene at the Sea, but I can only do so in a sketchy way. For I’ve seen the film only once, and that was a few years ago. I don’t have enough recollection of it to take it apart, to tinker with its structure, as I am inclined. So instead all I am left with are some fleeting memories: broken surfboard; still and wide-open sea; the elongated sad visage of the deaf and nameless teenage protagonist; and finally, the small steps of his quiet, self-effacing girlfriend.
I remember quite clearly the saddened high that the film gave me. Tempered elation. But of course, anybody familiar with Takeshi’s films will no doubt already understand this. The beauty of sadness, culminating too. A profile against a very earthy beach: overcast sky, small waves, limited expanse of grayish sand. And the boy, turning away.
This elation, however, was not just evoked by how the film ended, but in fact how it got me there: the relaxed pacing that it used and its dodging style of narrative. The Boy’s job as a garbage man is an issue. That’s how he finds the broken board in the first place, and it’s also where his deafness is a problem with co-workers. Conflict is built up – he becomes a surfy, which interferes with the job – but then suddenly deflated. Likewise, there are issues of prejudice and class, particularly within Japan’s surf culture, that are developed, and then quietly displaced. The surf shop owner who ripped the Boy off becomes a quiet supporter. While the trendy ‘surf-culture’ collective begins to accept him, after originally laughing at him (mind you, unlike the Boy, they only turn up when the sun starts shining). He earns their respect in spite of, rather than because of, any kind of victory at the big set piece: a surf competition where he doesn’t hear the PA cue and misses out. There is an element of kindness in this harshness: a lift is given, a few words of kindly advice.
This is all executed in an almost silent space that matches the mute patterns of the two key protagonists: set pieces of long walks, occasional flashes of humor, and people doing things with quiet humility. And in turn quietly humiliated as they struggle against the tides of life.
It seemed to me that Takeshi was not so much interested in the traditional conflict-resolution style of narrative, but rather something else: documenting the simplest struggles of life, albeit in an idiosyncratic way. For when the mute boy began to be accepted he also, in turn, began to change. He becomes cold and distant to the long supportive girlfriend, and she in turn must earn respect from him. The summer dwindles; the days get shorter and colder. The affluent and indolent surf-culture hibernates for the winter, abandoning the beaches once again to the persistent hero, and his equally persistent girlfriend (shuffling, as always, a little way behind him). Once again, his elongated features turn away from us and towards a cold gray space, leaving her to arrive later on in the scene (as she always had), with legs folded neatly, looking out at the sea.waiting patiently by some discarded crumbled belongings. And her profile at last coming into focus.