A Scene At The Sea

And now for something completely different…

From Takeshi Kitano, whose two films previous are violent, angry and disjointed, comes the slow, nearly eventless story of a deaf boy who wants to surf and the deaf girlfriend who watches him.

A Scene At The Sea is devoid of “Beat,” but it does have elements for which Kitano is famous. The deaf boy, Shigeru (Kurouda Maki), is a perfect protagonist for the director. Because his silence needs no explanation, he can’t justifiably be called a distracting affectation. It forces Kitano to relate the character entirely in visual terms (though not as well as you might think).

Shigeru is a garbage man who finds a broken surfboard, takes it home and repairs it. With his girlfriend watching, he learns to surf. Eventually the surfboard proves inadequate, so he buys a new board. To the detriment of his work, he tries to become a great surfer.

And so the film goes, eschewing any kind of plot for a rhythmic observation of a young man’s strange struggle. Certainly, things happen: he and his girlfriend become estranged then reconciled, and the local surfers take notice of him – first as a joke and then as a fellow sportsman they can respect. Themes and motifs present in other Kitano films pop up: a comic duo whose struggle parallels Shigeru’s with much less success1; the owner of a surf shop who acts as a kind of mentor; the milieu of related individuals who are apathetic to the welfare of their compatriots – all of these find their way into other Kitano films. Here they seem nascent.

The entire film is nascent. It feels as if Kitano doesn’t want a plotted narrative, just a space in which certain elements live. He presents the events, but that’s it – a series of happenings in a life, with no greater moral or insight than “Here is this man.”

The problem is: we don’t care. Obviously, the boy’s deafness is supposed to distance him. But so is the manner in which he’s presented. He rarely smiles, he has no apparent communication with other people (even his girlfriend), and he doesn’t react to outside stimuli. He’s about as stoic as a lump of coal, and inspires as much emotional attachment. Surely, this is better than romanticizing him for the sole virtue of his disability (the most common way we get the deaf, blind and crippled in film), but it softens the impact of his journey. That he becomes a good surfer is laudable but not important, and so avoiding the heroic structure of storytelling makes sense.

But A Scene At The Sea plays so close to the chest that what happens to Shigeru is irrelevant. Empathy it generates is superseded by empathy we have within ourselves. “There but for the grace of God” is fine, but when I watch a film, I’d like to believe that I have an inside view of someone else’s life. I don’t want it to be a simple reaffirmation of internal emotions. A Scene At The Sea is like a story told secondhand. The details are there, but the emotion — the connection — is not.

1(Pretension alert) This sort of parallel structure is present in Western lit – the fool messing with Faust’s book of magic, a comic contrast to the Doctor’s own demonic dealings – but I don’t know a thing about its place in Japanese lit. How often in cinema/art that seems plotless do we find the structure in 3-act (or 9-act) breakdowns that speak to our current notions of “proper plotting”? It strikes me that, in looking for the cause & effect series of related, significant events in Kitano’s work, I might be barking up the wrong tree. I won’t let it bother me, but one has to recognize one’s own perspective, and where it may be a hindrance to understanding.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com