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Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2005

Surfing into Shibuya on a big wave


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Thomas Campbell
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

When a movie like this drops out of the sky and lands, of all places, in Shibuya, there's really nothing else to do except kneel at the Altar of Ocean Sensations (A.O.S.) and bow one's head in utter gratitude. What did I do to deserve this? Isn't it enough that there's a wonderful sport called surfing and one gets to do it pretty often, even if it is only in Chigasaki and one comes up spluttering mouthfuls of brown Shonan seawater? We get to see a surfing documentary as well? It makes me think there IS a God out there, and He's very likely shaving a longboard in the backyard.

News photo
A surfer gets on one in "Sprout"

"Sprout" is a thing of beauty, with an appeal that extends far and beyond mere ocean worshippers like myself, who roll over and start barking at the sight of a white-capped wave with silky smooth banks. Directed by surfer/skateboarder Thomas Campbell, it's the sequel to a movie called "The Seedling," released in 1999, which for surfing fans everywhere marked the start of a whole new era of ocean documentaries. Campbell's style was relaxed, chic and laid back; liberated from no-pain, no-gain sports aesthetics, "The Seedling" spoke of surfing as a way of life and introduced a particular vision of the world that can only be nurtured by seeking and riding big waves. "Sprout" has the same spirit, but this time Campbell goes out on locations as varied as Morocco and Costa Rica and Ceylon, uses 16 mm film only and does things like split scenes into four different frames, showing as much ambience (beautiful ocean scenery, colorful surfboards laid out against the sand) as serious surfing. Plus, the whole package is set to a soundtrack that everyone should go out and buy immediately.

"Sprout" also recalls a time when surfing was not yet a major industry, with corporate-sponsored contests and brand-name boards (though it must be noted that Converse sunk a good chunk of money into the making of this movie); when it simply meant sticking a board under the chest, paddling to meet the waves and coming back to shore riding on one. In the 1960s and '70s most surfers had no funds whatsoever and eked out a living washing dishes or waiting on tables. When the shift was over they went out to surf. It was hard to convince nonsurfers why such a lifestyle was credible or deserved any support -- surfers were considered lazy-ass beach bums with nothing better to do. The whole concept of professional surfing seemed like an oxymoron, which is exactly why there was so much freedom surrounding surfers and surfing. They had nothing to sell, and therefore they could not be bought. The wave riders depicted in "Sprout" (Joel Tudor, Dan Malloy, Alex Knost, Kassia Meador, Ozzie Wright, Skip Frye, Gerry Lopez and Rob Machado, among others) are giants and celebrities, whose names grace the pages of surf magazines and draw the crowds at contests all over the globe. But in Campbell's lens they are, at first glance, lazy-ass beach bums who would rather wait for waves than hit computers or talk to clients on cell phones or do any of the businesslike things that modern businesspeople usually do. And the waiting for waves can take hours or weeks or months. During that time, well, they hang around at the beach, being "mellow" (one of Campbell's most favorite words).

Mellow does seem to be predominant tone and color of "Sprout," which sets it apart from other surf movies such as "Riding Giants," which is now also playing and traces the history of big-wave surfing from its height in the 1950s concentrating on legends like Greg Noll, Jeff Clark and Laird Hamilton (of American Express TV ad fame).

Contrary to their laid-back image, many surfers are governed by an aesthetic that deems they ride ever bigger and more challenging waves, and they stick to their chosen turfs (longboard and shortboard being the two main camps). Typifying this macho attitude is "Billabong Odyssey," another surfer flick now showing in Tokyo theaters. Directed by Philip Boston, it's a documentary that follows big-wave surfers as they travel the world searching for ever-larger walls of water.

But for land-lovers who would prefer a more laid-back viewing experience, "Sprout" is without doubt the flick to go see.

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