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Watching The World Go By: On Takeshi Kitano's A Scene At The Sea
Blaise Radley , November 4th, 2021 12:20

Takeshi Kitano is often presented as the model gangster auteur, yet the apotheosis of his early period – turning 30 this year – prioritises the calm art of people watching above all else, finds Blaise Radley

A young man and woman sit on a granite wall, staring out across the man-made harbour in front of them. They don’t talk, silently watching the flow of the tide, the lens alternating between framing them against the water, medium close-ups on their shared reactions, and occasional perspective shots. Suddenly, a cyclist tips into the opposite side of the bay. They react with horror at first, craning forward with mouths agape, before switching to an assured calm as several people rush to help, and finally breaking into laughter as the man is dragged from the water, his suit drenched but otherwise unharmed.

The scene only lasts 60 seconds, but shows how important an audience can be in a scene. It’s an effect Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano employs frequently in his quiet seaside drama A Scene at the Sea (1991), driving our understanding of the characters and their relationships far more than their inane chattering, or a sauntering surfboarding plot. Reaction shots contextualise significant moments in cinema, but rarely happen with such regularity, and such wordlessness. In doing so, Kitano asks the question: what does it mean to watch and be watched?

Any creator has to contend with audience expectations, particularly when attempting to cross disciplines or genres. In Japan, Kitano is still most famous under his “Beat Takeshi” persona, a television comedian known for his whip-fast risqué jokes, as well as hurtling hundreds of revellers to watery graves as the General in Takeshi’s Castle. Predictably, his first “serious” role as Sergeant Gengo Hara in the Japanese-British war film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) didn’t generate the response he wanted:

“One day after the film was released, I snuck into the cinema to see the reaction of the audience. At the moment my character appeared on the screen, every single person in the cinema burst into laughter! Obviously I was shocked and humiliated because my character in the film was not someone to laugh at.”

Meanwhile in the West, Kitano’s reputation was built mostly on his work behind the camera; though his early output is often defined by critics by a handful of his most common stylistic choices. A slow serene atmosphere engendered by static wides and long, unobtrusive takes. A sardonic, tragicomic tone of voice. And, most infamously, a fervent interest in the Japanese criminal underworld (a remarkable seven of the eight films Kitano directed from 1989⁠ to 1999, his most prolific and acclaimed period, feature the yakuza in some capacity), alternating between the mundane minutiae of the lives of career criminals, and sudden, flatly-rendered moments of bloody violence.

It’s that latter preoccupation that tends to overwhelm critical discussion of Kitano’s oeuvre. Just as Japanese critics and audiences struggled with Kitano’s shift from small screen jokester to silver screen mobster, so too have Western audiences struggled to look past those same violent motifs. Last year, a blu-ray collection of Kitano’s essential early work by the BFI skipped over A Scene at the Sea, his third feature, instead highlighting his fourth, far more bloody picture Sonatine (1993). Alongside Violent Cop (1989) and Boiling Point (1990), this “Yakuza” trilogy ties together as a recognisable triumvirate of nihilistic humour and violence. But that’s only part of Kitano’s lackadaisical charm.

A Scene at the Sea plays out as its name suggests, with a serene sequence of slice of life vignettes down by the beach. It’s disarming in its simplicity, but it contains the same existentialism as Kitano’s more violent work, transposing it into a seaside resort where the main concern is scraping together enough cash for a surfboard, and the main preoccupation is people-watching.

Centring on deaf-mute dustbin worker Shigeru (Claude Maki) and his similarly deaf-mute girlfriend, Takako (Hiroko Ôshima) Kitano follows – or, rather, observes – Shigeru as he gradually teaches himself to surf, having found and repaired a busted-up board on his morning beat. Kitano’s frequent use of close-ups isn't only essential to understand Shigeru’s internal life through his facial expressions, but it also clarifies his fluctuating relationships with those around him. For Kitano, it feels akin to soul-searching, an investigation into how the act of watching changes the performance and the performer.

Such spectating is far from limited to Shigeru’s one eternal observer, Takako (wearing a supportive smile through it all), including a range of other characters who spend their days at the beach. We spend the most time watching the more seasoned surfers who, predictably, initially mock Shigeru. Kitano focuses his lens on their reactions more than on Shigeru's surfing, dwelling on their gradual shift from dismissive, to begrudging respect, to sincere camaraderie. Their initial stream of observations – “He doesn’t have a wetsuit?” “Rather dangerous.” “He’s trying hard.” “He’s dumb.” – immediately call to mind the responses any art tends to generate; a pre-internet rendition of a comment thread. Regardless, Shigeru remains, driven forward with a resolute stare. Given how much of Kitano’s own lead performances are defined by stoicism, it’s hard to not see him reflected in Shigeru’s persistence.

Throughout the film, Shigeru’s motives for surfing so avidly remain mysterious. His lack of ability suggests this is a new pursuit, and yet he’s beyond dogged in his perseverance, taking to the waves on a daily basis, and funnelling all his wages into surfing gear. Even stranger, the beginning of his surfing journey is more-or-less random. After Shigeru initially spies the board, he leaves it behind beside a pile of trash. But the camera holds it in the foreground, allowing the dustbin van to reach the edge of the frame before Shigeru dashes back through the negative space to claim it. In this way, Shigeru mirrors Kitano’s own spontaneity – Kitano only wound up directing his debut, Violent Cop, after the initial director, Kinji Fukasaku, stepped down. It’s no coincidence that Kitano frames surfing as a creative craft from the off, having Shigeru perform some minor carpentry to repair his board.

Given that Shigeru never speaks, our best understanding of his motives comes from what he holds in his gaze, and how he responds to others. Whether crossing a ferry, or waiting for his turn to hit the waves, Shigeru's eyes are forever glued on the sea. Kitano makes great use of expansive wide angles to convey the seeming stillness of such a stretch of sea, as well as its overwhelming enormity. Compared to the drudgery of his daily grind, Shigeru finds something liberating in that expanse – a powerful symbol of creative freedom, and the prospect of self betterment.

If the film has anything approaching a climax, it’s the second surfboarding competition – a far cry from the overblown finale of a typical ‘80s underdog sports feature, but still a chance for Shigeru to prove himself amongst his peers. The competition naturally comes with an increased number of spectators, and Kitano shoots their reactions carefully. There’s a huge range of facial expressions, from the stern calm of the judges, to the antsy fidgeting of the next contestants, and the relaxed mockery of those who have already performed – or never will.

The judges themselves, obvious stand-ins for film critics and other critical voices amongst his viewers, are elevated in a manner not dissimilar to a cinema-going audience, sat in chairs above the rest of the spectators in the perfect viewing position. When a surfer who failed to make it through the heats queries the perception of the judges, one retorts, “You saw them on the water. We saw you from our base.” Can an artist be too close to his work to see its shortcomings? What does a critic lose by being at such a distance? Shigeru’s own steady stare defines the contest, as he observes the Class A surfers from the beach with a quiet respect; respect that doubles as resolute aspiration. It’s a look we’ve seen dozens of times by this point in the film, but here, surrounded by his peers, and performing on the same footing as them, there’s a shift in belonging. He’s no longer a voyeur looking in; he’s a competitor in his own right – a feeling rooted in Kitano’s own confidence behind the camera, and the slowly turning tide of his reception in Japan. In the end, being able to observe and be observed without prior conceptions is the warmest acceptance of all.

A Scene At The Sea was re-released on Blu-Ray via Third Window Films earlier this year.