Director: Takeshi Kitano
Tokyo, the 1990s. Murakawa is a jaded yakuza, tired of a life of crime he’s been part of too long. He’s sent to settle a feud between two rival crime syndicates. However, both sides claim their dispute is only minor and not important enough for him to have been sent to intervene. Murakawa’s headquarters are bombed, whilst he and his colleagues are attacked one night in a bar. Forced into hiding, the gang occupy themselves with trivial games that eventually become more serious when Murakawa challenges his colleagues to a game of Russian roulette, although the game is fixed and no-one is harmed.
Murakawa witnesses an attempted rape and kills the man involved. The woman involved decides to stay with Murakawa and his gang. When an assassin kills one of his associates, Murakawa kidnaps a rival gang member in retribution. After a violent shootout, the sole survivors are Murakawa and Takahashi, who he kidnapped. Takahashi tells Murakawa why he was set up; that his bosses wanted to merge with another syndicate and that Murakawa, whose patch was to be traded with, had to be eliminated. After killing Takahashi, Murakawa makes his journey back to the woman who promised to wait for him, En route, he stops the car and commits suicide, shooting himself in the head.
A peculiar, off-beat crime film, ‘Sonatine’ marked the start of a fertile and mature period of film making by Takeshi Kitano. Although Kitano had cut his teeth as a film maker with ‘Violent Cop’ (1989) and ‘Boiling Point’ (1990), he was still best known in his native Japan as a comic actor and television host. His earlier films were genre efforts that strongly adhered to the conventions of the crime film. With ‘Sonatine’, Kitano completely rewrote his own rules. A sombre and reflective film whose protagonist, played by Kitano, is a jaded criminal looking for a way out, it’s more influenced by more European cinematic approaches than Japanese cinema. Murakawa’s existential dread consciously or otherwise recalls Jef Costello in ‘Le Samourai’ (1967). Kitano would later win the Golden Lion at Venice for ‘Hana Bi’ (1997), a film that has parallels with ‘Sonatine’ and without the latter, probably wouldn’t have been made.
The world that the Yakuza operates in seems if not unglamourous, then just downright dull. The early meetings between Murakawa and his bosses resemble high-powered business meetings; it’s all very civilised and polite. However, Kitano makes us fully aware of what these men do for a living and how they succeed, which he often does so by cutting between the superficial respectability and the violent reality. Take one formal dining scene where everything seems normal, but Kitano cuts to a scene of great violence in the restaurant’s bathroom as Murakawa delivers a harsh beating.
The sudden bursts of violence come out of nowhere. Murakawa and others like him have become completely desensitised to the violence that surrounds them. One scene, filmed incredibly slowly and methodically, confirms how these men have lost any sense of empathy and how the consequences of their violence no longer affect them. A man who’s failed to make his payments is lifted from a crane, then immersed head first into a river. They discuss how long he might last; two or three minutes perhaps? In less than two minutes, he’s drowned. Murakawa’s response? “We’ve killed him…..but nevermind”. Their attitudes towards violence and death are so matter-of-fact that it’s chilling. Murakawa, in particular, is so jaded by his lifestyle that he know longer knows how to feel, that what he does for a living fails to register. Even when he’s taken revenge on those who’ve wronged him, his only course of action seems initially strange but ultimately logical. He chooses the only possible way out.
Whilst ‘Sonatine’ might be a reflective look at the gangster genre, what makes it even more memorable is the nice use of surreal touches that permeate the film. During the imposed hiding of Murakawa and his gang, they spend their vast amount of time attempting to stave off boredom the only way they know how; playing “rock, paper, scissors” and making a sumo wrestling game out of cardboard figures, which they later replicate for real, with each of them standing in for the figures. One visual flourish of some brilliance begins with the ominous figure of a man with a straw hat, whose tosses a handful of petals above his head, which Kitano then merges with a frisbee being thrown by Murakawa’s gang. Whilst aspects of the games that these criminals play to occupy themselves might seem trivial, there’s always the threat of violence being around the corner. Murakawa ups the ante on his gang by challenging them to a game of Russian roulette, which is rigged but Murakawa’s subsequent dream where the game is repeated with himself shooting himself (a premonition of what’s to come?) confirms that whilst these criminals can step outside of their world of crime but they can’t fully reject or leave it.
Kitano shoots his gangster film like no other. This world of boredom is characterised by long shots, tracking shots across provincial beaches and scenes shot in hopeless silences. Kitano completely rejects the conventions of the gangster film from across the water in Hong Kong, as exemplified by the balletic, choreographed violence of John Woo’s films. ‘Sonatine’ is much more grounded, almost deliberately banal. This is a world of crime lacking in excitement, suffused by boredom, but with violence the only constant there is. Kitano’s directorial career has flourished since; ‘Hana Bi’ and ‘Zatoichi’ have received rich amounts of critical acclaim, but this is where it began for Kitano. ‘Sonatine’ is a unique experience, a unique vision of the gangster film. Its leisurely pace and futile atmosphere ensure that it makes many demands of the viewer but its idiosyncracies and originality make up for it.
‘Sonatine’ was released on DVD on 11 May by Second Sight Films