A Scene at the Sea

Japan 1991

Reviewed by Tony Rayns


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Shigeru, a deaf-mute garbage collector in a small seaside town, finds an abandoned, broken surfboard and takes it home. He repairs it and begins trying to teach himself to surf, supported and watched by his deaf-mute girlfriend Takako. Experienced surfers and members of a local amateur football club look on with derision, but Shigeru's determination silences them; two of the footballers decide to take up surfing themselves. When the surfboard breaks again, Shigeru buys a new one.

Annoyed to discover that he paid too much for the new surfboard, Shigeru perseveres and begins neglecting his job. Garbage truck driver Tamukai is ordered to drag him back to work. Nakajima (owner of the shop which overcharged him) watches his progress, gives him a wet-suit and suggests that he enter a surfing competition. Being deaf, Shigeru doesn't hear the call for his category and so fails to compete. Nakajima begins offering him tips on surfing technique. Jealous of the attention Shigeru is attracting from other girls, Takako stops turning up to help him; but Shigeru lays siege to her house to win her back.

Shigeru competes in the Chikura Surf Classic '91 and wins a trophy for getting through to the finals in his class. One rainy morning soon after, he goes out early to surf alone. When Takako turns up on the beach to look for him, all she finds is his drifting surfboard.


Kitano's third film as director - the first in which he didn't appear as an actor and the first on which he took an editing credit - is one of the most idiosyncratic commercial features of the 90s and by any standards in the world remarkable. Its vanishingly simple storyline and visual restraint represent a retreat into order from the messy complexities of the previous year's Boiling Point. But the conjunction of a minimal narrative and a narrowly focused vision produces a 'miniature' with huge emotional and even philosophical resonance. It also happens to be one of the least patronising and sentimental films ever made about people living with handicaps.

At heart, A Scene at the Sea is a fable about self-improvement through sheer persistence. Like Masaki in Boiling Point, Shigeru is on the very lowest rung of Japanese society: a deaf-mute in a thankless casual job, minimally educated and without prospects. Teaching himself to surf is his way of taking arms against a sea of troubles, an essentially solitary and physical response to his circumstantial exclusion from the success story of Japan Inc. And although he can swim, he has no 'natural' aptitude for the sport; it's his tireless readiness to go back and try yet again which impresses the pro surfer Nakajima enough to start equipping and coaching him. Kitano characteristically contrasts Shigeru's halting progress with other young men's efforts to get into surfing: one is an inept rich kid in an especially lurid wet-suit, whose bored girlfriend tries to strike up a friendship with Shigeru; others are the two footballers who jointly buy a cheap, second-hand surfboard (rejected by Shigeru himself) and then spend more time squabbling over turns to use it than they do in the sea.

As a fable, this is the precise converse of the later Kids Return - a connection cemented by the deliberate similarities between Joe Hisaishi's scores for the two films. More likely accidental than intended, Shigeru's off-screen death (like the suicides of several Kitano protagonists) provides a general closure, not only ending the narrative but also giving existential meaning and point to the character's modest achievements by terminating them. The two central boys in Kids Return lack Shigeru's will and persistence; they achieve nothing but defeats and humiliations, and wind up - alive - exactly where they started. Dying young, Shigeru checks out with his justified self-respect intact. He was dealt a bum hand, but won the game anyway; he probably wouldn't have gone on to win the match, but his death renders the issue academic. The film's emphasis on seascapes (the very first shot is Shigeru's point of view of the glittering sea through the windshield of the garbage truck) keeps this unassuming human drama in perspective. Kitano's fixation on the sea, no doubt the future subject of many graduate theses, underscores Shigeru's inevitably doomed attempt to master the waves; the sea here is the conceptual opposite of the stylised urban backdrop in Kids Return.

Kitano tells the story in images of startling simplicity, modulated by editing rhythms as distinctive as Detective Azuma's gait in Violent Cop. The great majority of shots are fixed-frame compositions (the only camera movements are lateral tracking shots following motion within the frame), which, taken with the frequent absence of dialogue, give the film the visual 'purity' Kitano's French fans are pleased to call "très zen". But Kitano is far more engrossed by the profane than the sacred, and he obviously enjoys the low-ish humour of observing petty human achievements and failures with a deadpan detachment that seems so overtly thoughtful. Still, it's the 'formalism' - the liking for frontal, tableau-style compositions and editing just slightly out of synch with audience expectations - which makes Kitano's work so distinctive and generates the feeling that more is going on than meets the eye.

There's no suggestion that Shigeru's relationship with Takako is fully sexual (the implication is that they are bonded by their disabilities), but Takako is left very much the bereaved lover in the closing scenes. The film ends with a montage of images from their time together, some previously seen, others not, but the effect is not to provide a sentimental affirmation of their love. Instead, the ending unexpectedly consolidates the film's underlying metaphorical thrust. A film about deaf-mutes with virtually no dialogue, made by a director then known primarily as a fast-talking comedian, closes (rather than opens) with its main title Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi - which means, literally, That Summer, the Quietest Sea.


Takeshi Kitano
Masayuki Mori
Takeshi Kitano
Director of Photography
Katsumi Yanagijima
Takeshi Kitano
Art Director
Osamu Sasaki
Joe Hisaishi
©/Production Companies
Office Kitano/Totsu
Executive Producer
Yukio Tachi
Takio Yoshida
Line Producers
Hiroto Kimura
Kimiyo Kataoka
Production Co-ordinator
Tatsuya Ishikawa
Production Manager
Shinji Komiya
Assistant Directors
Toshihiro Tenma
Masahiro Kitahama
Hideki Miyajima
Toshizo Kito
Akira Osaki
Script Supervisor
Hideko Nakada
Akira Kato
Hisoshi Takaya
Visual Effects
Isamu Minowa
Toshio Kayama
Set Decorators
Hirohide Shibata
Costume Co-ordinator
Machiko Shimada
Make-up Artists
Mariko Tanaka
Mikiko Hayama
Music Recording
Suminobu Hamada
Wonder Station
Sound Recording
Senji Horiuchi
Sound Timing
Yoshitaka Mori
Sound Effects
Yukio Hokari
Sign Language Instructors
Akihiro Yoneyama
Emiko Senou
Tetsuya Isaki
Kurodo Maki
Hiroko Oshima
Sabu Kawahara
Tamukai, garbage truck driver
Toshizo Fujiwara
Nakajima, owner of surfing goods shops
Susumu Terajima
man in pickup truck
Katsuya Koiso
Toshio Matsui
Yasukazu Ishitani
inept surfer
Naomi Kubota
his girlfriend
Tsuyoshi Owada
Kaku Sawai
Tatsuya Sugimoto
Tomomi Fukaya
Masako Chihara
Meijin Serizawa
boss of garbage collection company
Tetsu Watanabe
man practising gymnastics
Keiko Kagimoto
Suzinari Tayama
Romu Kanda
surf shop clerks
Kengakusha Akiyama
Akihito Osuga
Yoshiyuki Morishita
Yoshito Shiraishi
Mei Mikami
Take Akiyama
Kazuyuki Chiba
Tokio Furukawa
Kôji Tanii
Osamu Watanabe
Tomoya Kaneko
Shigeru Fujii
Yuzuru Takashimizu
Keisuke Matsuba
Kimihide Seko
Yukio Hasegawa
Masahiro Matsutô
Eiji Hiramoto
Kazuhiro Kobayashi
Yasuhiro Uchino
not submitted
9.213 feet
102 minutes
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011