On Monday at 7 PM, the Chicago Film Society will screen a 35-millimeter print of the Japanese drama A Scene at the Sea (1991) at the Music Box Theatre. Along with Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (which plays from 35-millimeter at Doc Films on Sunday at 7 PM), it’s the best repertory screening in town this week—the film’s nuanced, small-scale storytelling provides a welcome antidote to the expensive bombast that’s crowding the multiplexes. A Scene at the Sea tells the simple tale of a young man who dreams of becoming a competitive surfer; his doting girlfriend supports his decision, and both characters are welcomed into the local surfing scene. Yet their relationships—with their new friends and with each other—fail to last more than a season, and the young man and woman go their separate ways. The film is less about narrative than it is about capturing certain universal experiences, specifically the love and friendships of one’s early 20s, and it succeeds poignantly in that regard.
Because the hero is deaf and his girlfriend is mute, there isn’t much dialogue in A Scene at the Sea. This isn’t the only aspect of the film that recalls silent-era cinema; writer-director Takeshi Kitano employs a deadpan visual style—rooted in long static takes and precise, linear camera movements—that might make you think of Buster Keaton. The later films of Yasujiro Ozu are another likely influence, as Scene falls squarely into the shomin-geki genre in which Ozu flourished. Shomin-geki (a Westernized shortening of the Japanese term shōshimin-eiga) refers to stories about ordinary working- or lower-middle-class people, and Scene gains its much of its poignancy from its vivid depiction of certain working-class milieux. Kitano depicts the hero’s work (he’s a garbage collector) and home life in a straightforward, unromantic way. In this context the world of competitive surfing (no matter how low the stakes) seems like a romantic alternative to the daily grind.
There’s also something comforting about the workaday world of A Scene at the Sea. Kitano grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Tokyo (his father was a housepainter, but was rumored to have had ties to the yakuza), and the winning affection with which he presents his characters reflects his deep understanding of them. Then there’s the matter of Kitano’s framing, which shows a clockwork, Keatonesque precision—everything in the frame seems like it needs to be there, and the organization of people is often unnaturally picturesque. Kitano’s style always makes me think of a line Manny Farber wrote about Ozu in 1970: “His long career never outgrows the Hal Roach idea of a movie image being naive and making you feel good.” Incidentally this silent movie-like approach to visual composition unites such disparate filmmakers as Hal Hartley, Jane Campion, Jim Jarmusch, and Aki Kaurismäki—all of whom were at their most popular around the time A Scene at the Sea came out.
Despite the stylistic similarity, Kitano stands apart from those other directors because of how came to make films. A popular stand-up comic since the mid-1970s, Kitano became a household name in Japan in 1980s as a TV personality, appearing on multiple shows every week. He gave his first serious performance in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), and became steadily more interested in film after that. When director Kinji Fukasaku left a Kitano vehicle, Violent Cop, over creative differences in 1989, the star rewrote the script and decided to direct it as well. Violent Cop finds Kitano’s directorial style fully thought-out; it’s one of the most formally precise debut features I’ve seen. The Keatonesque framing and camera movements seem to grow out directly of Kitano’s deadpan comic persona, resulting in a classical unity between form and content. Boiling Point (1990), Kitano’s second feature as writer-director, is even better than Violent Cop—an unpredictable black comedy about crime and punishment, it introduces themes that Kitano would explore in subsequent masterpieces Sonatine (1993) and Fireworks (1997).
Critics tend to describe A Scene at the Sea as an outlier in Kitano’s career because of its lack of violence and criminal characters. In Japan the film was widely viewed as the hobby work of a popular comedian; Kitano would not be taken seriously as a filmmaker until Fireworks won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Kitano has explored the more sensitive side of his personality in such films as Kikujiro (1999) and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008), but A Scene at the Sea remains virtually unique in his body of work in its relative simplicity. Tethered to only the slightest narrative, the film evokes the experience of early love and disappointment in a manner both sharp and tender.