Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sink or Swim

I have always believed that it is foolish to argue that there is any such thing as a distinct Japanese sensibility. Even when great Japanese artists, like the late composer Toru Takemitsu, make such a claim, I am just as incredulous. A Japanese mystique, maybe. It is far more likely that the Japanese are incapable of recognizing faculties in the rest of us that may only be latent but which make us perfectly capable of appreciating qualities in Japanese poetry, art, music, and film that are supposed to make them peculiarly Japanese.

On the subject of suicide, however, the Japanese would seem to be well ahead of the Western perception of it as the act of an unbalanced mind. The number of Japanese writers, for example, who have taken their own lives is a veritable Who's Who. Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Osamu Dazai, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, four of the most illustrious Japanese authors of the 20th century, all killed themselves. The Japanese filmmaker of wry comedies, Juzo Itami, threw himself off a tall building to protest a tabloid story alleging his affair with a woman other than his wife. Kurosawa attempted suicide. And Takeshi Kitano, popular Japanese television personality, called his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1994, an "unconscious suicide attempt."

It would be convenient if his filmmaking career were divisible into the two periods, before and after the accident. Except that there is no appreciable difference between the films he made in either period. He appears to enjoy alternating between films involving cops and yakuza and films about ordinary men and women. It is in the latter, needless to say, that I am interested.

Curiously, one of the connecting threads in Kitano's films is suicide. Whether he is personally preoccupied with it or it is just a dramatic device in unclear. But three of his first six films end with a protagonist committing suicide.

A Scene at the Sea (1991) is a badly Englished title for Kitano's third directorial effort. "That Summer, the Calmest Ocean" is closer to the title Kitano came up with, Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi. It is an idyllic film about a young man named Shigeru who works as a garbage man in a coastal city. One day he finds a broken surfboard in somebody's trash. (The words "Sink or Swim" are printed in English on the edge of the Blue Bunny surfboard.) He takes it home and repairs it with a chunk of styrofoam, chopsticks and some box tape. With his girlfriend - or simply a friend who happens to be a girl - he takes up surfing, with sometimes funny, often wry results. And incidentally, Shigeru is a deaf-mute, as is his friend.

Japanese filmmakers have always walked a fine line between pure sentiment and treacly sentimentality - a difference that Donald Richie characterized as earned and unearned emotion. Kitano's use of the silence of his principle characters doesn't exactly exonerate him from the charge of sentimentality, but it spares his film alot of the mawkishness that mars his later Kikujiro. You can tell it's a dramatic device simply because the two actors who play Shigeru and Takako - Claude Maki and Hiroko Oshima - are not deaf-mutes.

Pervading the film is a placidity that makes it, if nothing else, a rather pleasant viewing experience. The placidity is, however, ultimately impenetrable, like the dumbness of its hero and heroine. The necessarily unspoken feelings between Shigeru and Takako remain a mystery until Kitano sweetens their relationship with two scenes. Deciding to catch a bus after a day of surfing, the driver won't admit Shigeru, carrying is serfboard, because the bus is crowded. Takako boards the bus alone, gazing forlornly at Shigeru, abandoned on the sidewalk. As the bus drives away, Shigeru starts to run home, the surfboard under one arm, but gives up after a few blocks. Meanwhile Takako stands holding onto a pole, refusing to sit even when ample seats become available. When she gets off the bus, she runs back to meet Shigeru, as Joe Hisaishi's music rises to an emotional climax, most of which we must infer.

The other scene takes place after Takako has seen Shigeru on the beach with a strange girl (who isn't aware that he's deaf). When Takako fails to show up the next day, Shigeru has to go to her house and, to get her attention in her upstairs room, he tosses his shoe in front of her window. When this doesn't work, he throws stones until he breaks the window. He runs away, but she catches up with him and, a tear running down her cheek, hands him the stone that broke her window. I would be reaching, I think, if I were to call this symbolism, but there is really little else to go on.

Shigeru enters a surfing competition in Chikura and, after an initial blunder, places high enough in the judges' estimation to win a small trophy. He and Takako return home and one day Shigeru goes alone to the beach where he learned to surf. He takes off his street clothes, folds them neatly on the beach, and enters the surf. By the time Takako arrives and finds Shigeru's clothes, only his surfboard returns from the sea.

What if a device could be implanted in everyone's heart at birth. When each person reaches his peak in life, the moment until which his life presents to him only rising ground toward a high point he cannot foresee but which existence itself promises. At the exact moment of attaining that point, the device activates and stops his heart.

There are some gifted souls who have no need of such a device. When Shigeru ventures out on his surfboard for the last time and only his empty surfboard comes back, we are left to infer that, in discovering a degree of success and fulfillment in surfing, he decided that it was a good time to quit, so to speak, while he was ahead. In the film's closing coda, Takako takes Shigeru's surfboard all the way back to Chikura, the scene of his triumph, and releases it to the outgoing tide.

How very Japanese. But saying so doesn't make it any more explicable or satisfying.

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