A Scene at the Sea (Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi, 1991)

Director: Takeshi Kitano


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Takeshi) is a multi-talented performer and director whose range of vision is extremely broad. He made his reputation with such yakusa films as Sonatine and Boiling Point, but surprises with classically composed, quiet works as well. A Scene at the Sea tells a very simple story with extraordinary lyricism and heartbreaking understatement that compare favorably with the beautiful works of contemporary Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda and master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.

Kitano%207.jpgThe first ingenious clue of this assured film is complete silence as we find ourselves in the darkened cab of a truck with two men. A minute or so after the opening, we hear our first sound—that of the garbage truck the two men operate. One of them is a young man named Shigeru (Kuroudo Maki). He and his partner stop to pick up some garbage; other debris, including a broken surfboard, is strewn alongside the plastic garbage bags. The truck takes off. We watch it recede down the road, only to stop. Shigeru runs back to the debris and retrieves the surfboard. Later, we watch him carefully reattach the broken-off front tip of the board with dowels, glue, and the ever-useful duct tape.

In front of a home, a middle-aged man is performing some strange cross between tai chi and calisthenics while a young woman watches him silently. He utters the words “a date?” rather cryptically. At just that moment, Shigeru emerges from the house with his surfboard. The woman, Takako (Hiroko Oshima), matter-of-factly and rather amusingly turns away from the man and follows Shigeru along the road and down to the beach. Was the older man her father, referring to Shigeru? Was he just trying to ask Takako out? We’ll never know because from this moment on, the film devotes itself to the young people and what happens to them as Shigeru teaches himself to surf.

His first attempts, watched with deadpan concentration by Takako, are pathetic, and more experienced surfers on the beach laugh at him. But he keeps trying day after day, only to have his board from the trash return there when it finally breaks for the last time. Pricing new boards is a painful experience, but Shigeru determines that he needs one. Takako tries to negotiate a lower price on one, but the store owner refuses. So Shigeru saves and finally gets his new ride—only to discover he could have bought it at another shop for much less. The look of frustration on his and Takako’s faces communicates a lot, more than what anyone in that position would feel. For, you see, it has become quietly clear from the sound cut-outs and one scene in which Takako gestures to Shigeru in a deliberate way that Shigeru and Takako are deaf.


Shigeru begins to neglect his job, his friends—everything—for surfing. As he becomes more skillful, his detractors on the beach acknowledge his improvement and worry that without a wet suit, he must be very cold. Nakajima (Toshizo Fujiwara), the shop owner who sold Shigeru his board and a former champion surfer, shows up at the beach one day. As the community of surfers comment on how cold Shigeru must be, Nakajima goes over to the couple and hands Shigeru a wet suit to use. He urges him to enter a surf contest that is coming up. At home, Shigeru carefully fills out the application; Takako looks at what he wrote and makes corrections with the same care she always uses when she folds his clothes on beach after he takes them off to enter the water.

Because Shigeru has never been in a surfing contest, he doesn’t know where to look to see the line-up of surf contestants; because he can’t hear, he doesn’t know when his group is called. The contest ends without Shigeru stepping a toe in the water. Nakajima takes the other surfers to task for not looking out for Shigeru. When another contest comes up, Nakajima personally ensures that Shigeru enters and has the chance to compete.

This graceful film is uses dialogue sparsely, but it is far from silent. The sounds of the surf permeate our senses, hypnotizing us in much the same way that the white caps and rolling water captivate Shigeru. The film employs many long shots, mimicking the wide expanses of shoreline that form the overarching mise en scene. Kitano also makes wonderful use of close-ups, particularly on his two protagonists. Shigeru has a handsome, warm face, and Takako is an unusual kind of beauty. Both actors convey a sense of purpose and serenity in their chosen loves—the water and each other—through the thoughtful gaze of the camera.


At one point, Takako believes Shigeru has taken up with the girlfriend of another new surfer—a comic character who falls every time he runs with his board toward the sea. We see her in a long shot as she comes down the now-familiar steps to the beach behind Shigeru, who has arrived there ahead of her and is seated with the other woman. Takako is little more than a shadow at this distance, but we see her hesitate and reverse direction. Her hurt registers, nonetheless, and the single tear that runs down her cheek when she finally agrees to see Shigeru is extremely eloquent.

The careful observation of these and other moments creates a dramatic drive that defies the absence of dialogue. The film is also helped along considerably by an effectively dreamy score by Joe Hisaishi. The lack of extreme highs and lows, the inclusion of several comic characters (particularly two young men who decide to emulate Shigeru and buy a cheap surfboard Shigeru had rejected for himself), and the dips in and out of the soundless world of Shigeru and Takako create a sense of day-to-day life that makes even a dramatic ending seem part of the endless flow of existence. This is a film to be enjoyed, savored, and held close to one’s heart. l

  • Renan Flores spoke:
    3rd/07/2012 to 10:08 pm

    I love this movie. One of my favorites. It’s so beatiful and touching, so warm. I read this post with joy. Thank you.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/07/2012 to 8:44 am

    You’re welcome, Renan. It is a very gentle and loving film indeed.

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