Friday, July 3, 2009

REVIEW: A Scene at the Sea

あの夏、いちばん静かな海 (Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi)

Released: 1991

Takeshi Kitano

Kuroudo Maki
Hiroko Oshima

Sabu Kawahara
Toshizo Fujiwara
Susumu Terajima

Running time: 101 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

In the early 90's Takeshi Kitano was still finding his footing as a filmmaker. More by accident than design he'd been thrust into the director's position in 1989 for his debut feature "Violent Cop" when the original director Kinji Fukasaku either quit or fell ill (accounts vary as to what actually happened). Bucking his comedic persona Kitano made his character, a loose cannon police officer, nearly as psychopathic and brutal as the criminals he goes up against. The following year the violence continued wth Kitano's sophomore film "Boiling Point (3-4 X Jūgatsu)" about two bumblers who head to Okinawa to buy guns to take on the yakuza. Again Kitano played an unstable thug, but it also saw him branch out thematically and creatively. Kitano made his first attempts at editing (alongside Toshio Taniguchi) with "Boiling Point" and the film was the first time that he set at least some of the action at the seaside. When it came to his third feature, 1991's "A Scene at the Sea" Kitano has said that it wasn't so much influenced by creative ambition, but by practical concerns. Kitano wanted to work quickly and cheaply, a pattern he continues to this day. To save money on the screenplay he made the film's two main characters deaf mutes, and instead of building elaborate sets (and to avoid fans crowding on location city shooting) he filmed the story on the beach. Regardless of its entire lack of violence, gun play, and yakuza "A Scene at the Sea" marks, at least for me, the first real Kitano film, both creatively and conceptually.

One day deaf-mute garbage man Shigeru (Kuroudo Maki) finds a broken surfboard by the side of the road. Something sparks inside him and he takes the board home, repairs it and with no practical experience sets himself the task of learning to ride the waves. His sole support in this new obsession is his girlfriend, Takako (Hiroko Oshima). Through sheer persistence, practice, and love from Takako Shigeru overcomes his lack of skill, disability and the teasing of other beach bums and begins entering himself into local surfing contests. Complications arise, though, when surfing begins to come between him and Takako... and in terms of plot that's about it for "A Scene at the Sea". The original Japanese title for "A Secene at the Sea" is "Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi", or "That summer, the most quiet sea" and this perfectly describes this delicate and graceful film, but it's lack of bloodshed may have a lot of Kitano fans asking why I would call this the first real Kitano film.

First off, there are some basic thematic elements that instantly mark this as a Kitano film. Here the seaside and beach are primary locations for the action, a peaceful antithesis to violence in most of Kitano's films, but here it represents calm as well as something to conquer. Shigeru plays Kitano's ubiquitous underdog who must face the cruel pranks and ridicule of his peers. That cruel sense of humour had its roots in Kitano's stand-up and TV work and persists in his films to this day. Even the ending (although I won't go into specifics) is classic Kitano. Above and beyond these narrative points though it's the film's stylistic choices that really mark it as quintessential Kitano. "A Scene at the Sea" was the first film that Kitano edited entirely himself, a process that Kitano as director has spoken publicly as being his favorite part of the filmmaking process. The film also marks the beginning of a long collaboration with composer Jo Hisaishi who provided the instantly memorable if minimal soundtrack. In many ways "A Scene at the Sea" also introduces elements that detractors of Kitano have used to criticize his feature films. A good friend of mine hated this film for a lot of the same reasons that I love it: very minimal plot, deadpan acting, etc. I’d have to respond to him by agreeing that Kitano’s strength isn’t storytelling in the classic sense. Instead he constructs this, and many of his other films, in sequences, posing his actors more often than having them jump about and emote.

I view “A Scene at the Sea” as a beautiful silent film, a long, languid summer dream with its characters carrying out simple, focused goals, almost like puppets and because of this a direct predecessor to Kitano’s later film “Dolls”.

1 comment:

EasternMind said...

I absolutely adore this film, and have found that many others who I show it to see as nothing more than a Japanese "B-rater."

To me, the lack of dialogue kind of forces an appreciation for the scenery presented, which is beautiful and intriguing. I think in the United States, at least, people are too used to lots of action, and when they see a film like this, they just think it's boring.

I enjoyed the review! Such a great film, and one of my favorites!