A Scene at the Sea
Back in 1991, anyone paying attention to the film career of Takeshi Kitano would have probably been surprised by his third film, A Scene at the Sea
(kind of like people primed on the video releases of Sonatine
were probably unprepared for Kikujiro no natsu
), a sweet love story and an ode to surfing without a whiff of the violence that Kitano was, and is, notorious for. Even without a storyline centering around cops and yakuza, the film is distinctly Kitano: there is a relationship where love is expressed via actions not words (quite literally, the central couple, Shigeru and Takako are deaf, and they do not utter one word of dialogue in the entire film); an emphasis upon the sea as a place of life, expressed through play, and death (there are two directors currently working today that I always associate with water: Kitano and his obsession with the sea, and the “darker” Tsai Ming-liang, whose films are dominated by torrential downpours, humidity, dripping faucets, dirty rivers, etc.); though still in an embryonic stage, the human form in a silent, motionless pose (in my opinion, Kitano is the best working director when it comes to creating tableaux’s with the human form); the elliptical cutting and barely there plot; and a film laced with Kitano’s off-beat, slowbuild brand of deadpan humor.
A Scene at the Sea
, Kitano’s first film in which he did not appear (he is credited as the writer-director-editor), begins when the deaf-mute sanitation worker Shigeru, finds a broken surf-board in the trash; the ever industrious Shigeru repairs the broken board, and with his doting girlfriend Takako in tow, attempts to learn how to surf. At first he’s a source of amusement to the local surfers and their girlfriends, as well as a pair of bumbling soccer players who eventually also turn to surfing (and who provide much of the film’s comedic content), but soon his perseverance and improving skills gains him both acceptance and the attention of a local surfing guru who encourages Shigeru to enter some amateur tournaments. At the end of the film, Shigeru drowns in an accident, though this tragedy is expressed in subtle, elliptical fashion which I was struck by and would like to describe:
1. The scene begins on a gray, overcast morning, in contrast to the normally sunny seaside town we are accustomed to. In an extreme long shot, we watch Shigeru, with board in hand, walk along the sea wall towards the beach (an action repeated many times throughout the film), with the camera panning to follow him as he exits frame right. There is a pause as the camera lingers on the shot, and then a noticeable jump cut as we then watch Takako from the same camera set-up. Sheltering herself from the drizzle with a blue umbrella, she also walks across the frame. As before, the camera lingers on the grey scene after Takako has exited the frame.
2. There is another cut, and from a new camera set-up, another extreme long shot, we watch Takako walk down the stairs leading the beach, taking her customary spot in the sand. She stands still for few moments, before Kitano cuts into a medium close-up of Takako, whose brightly colored, striped sweater is offset by the deep blue of the umbrella. With only her eyes she scans back and forth along the shoreline.
3. Kitano then cuts back to the extreme long shot of Takako, who is now noticeably centered within the lonely confines of the frame, before quickly cutting back to the medium-close up of Takako expressionlessly searching for Shigeru. She looks off camera to her left, and then Kitano cuts to a POV shot of the pounding surf, which he holds for several seconds, before cutting back to the medium close up of Takako
4. Kitano now holds the close-up on the mute Takako, whose eyes now seem sadder (though on further analysis, her expression really hasn’t changed that much, perhaps this is an example of the Kuleshov effect), before cutting back to the POV shot of the surf. Kitano breaks his established pattern ,cutting into a close-up of the surfboard, which takes up the entire length of the frame, being tossed around by the tide. Then he cuts back to the medium close-up of Takako, which is again held for several beats, before cutting back to the POV shot of the surf. This particular sequence finally, ends with another cut to the extreme long shot of Takako standing at the center of the frame, which is again held for several seconds, providing a sense of symmetry to the sequence of shots, before Kitano cuts to the next scene, Takako sitting alone on a ferry we saw earlier, with Shigeru’s surfboard leaning against the bench.
The payoff for this atypical sequence is one of Kitano’s most beautiful images. As life goes on in their seaside town, Takako visits Chiba, the site of Shigeru’s first tournament. She tapes a picture of the happy couple on the beach to his surfboard, and pushes it out into the water. This is crowned by another extreme long shot of the surfboard, floating calmly, silently on the placid, azure surface of the sea.
What comes next is equally surprising, as Kitano doesn’t end the film there. Instead, he cuts to a pre-credit montage, which reprises what was really the emphasis of the film: beaches, beautiful seascapes, sunny days, Shigeru and Takako playing together on the beach, friends and surfing comrades posing for pictures, minor characters being deftly defined in short sketches, all of which actually composed 95% of the movie. Kitano’s choice to leave the audience with a taste of what came before the drowning, is very appropriate, a bittersweet reminder of love and life.