Movie Review – Sonatine (1993)
by NIR SHALEV
“Beat” Takeshi Kitano is a comedian, a famous television personality and superstar in Japan, a film actor and most importantly, an auteur. His movies usually relate to gangsters or people that are influenced or affected by violence. In Sonatine, his fourth film as writer-director, Kitano plays a Yakuza boss named Murakawa. Murakawa’s underlings respect him and are loyal to him to the grave. They range from eighteen years of age to into their fifties and they bow to him whenever he enters or leaves the room. They never talk back to him and he’s happily used to that kind of service.
In one early scene, while being driven in a car Murakawa tells his right-hand man Ken (Susumu Terajima) that he’s thinking of retiring. Ken replies, “Maybe you’re too rich.” Then they laugh about it on their way to the harbor. There they kill a mahjong parlor owner who had refused to pay Murakawa protection fees.
Between performing his duties and not, Murakawa sits in silence like a Buddhist priest. He stares blankly into the distance, picks up every little word that is spoken around the room, and smokes his cigarettes with little effort. Such is the life of a lesser Yakuza boss who is not even middle-aged.
The story picks up when Murakawa is ordered to take a small squad to Okinawa to settle a dispute between rival Yakuza gangs. He has a gut feeling that it’s a setup and so do his cohorts. And after a small but surprising firefight in a bar/lounge, Murakawa and the remaining members of his gang relocate to a beach-house/safe-house to await further instructions. There we witness the true meaning of having the freedom to be yourself.
Kitano as a director and editor evokes the French and American New Wave styles of editing; he sometimes concentrates on a single shot for a few seconds after all action has ceased and sometimes we simply get shots of nature. We see gangsters standing around, loafing around, smoking cigarettes and having stupidly pointless conversations that evoke a feeling of realism. Most importantly, what Kitano creates is a feeling of existence and of time passing by. We see people performing little actions and taking up little space in the frame, and single shots can last for many minutes. I am reminded of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, in which every film he made was slower than the previous one until we became aware that we were staring at a meditative state of consciousness. We feel time pass by when we see long shots with little action and Kitano creates that glorious feeling all the time. With a minimalist style Kitano became an extraordinary filmmaker over the years.
Sonatine is a term that relates to periods in music where individual instruments speed up or slow down in tempo and intensity, like taking a different direction or continuing the current one. In this film we see this meaning portrayed in two ways:
1) When there is no action we feel the calm before the storm until all of a sudden, unexpectedly, a firefight bursts out like a lightning bolt striking. As quick as it appears it is done and gone and we see corpses and blood. Without warning characters come and go. They fire their pistols and die or survive to be in another firefight at a later time and place. This is a style that Kitano has used throughout his career. It’s frightening and effective.
2) When Murakawa is awaiting orders while hiding out at the beach, he plays games with the other Yakuza. They plant traps for one another, cover up huge holes they had dug in the sand, and shoot fireworks at each other at night. Murakawa is wondering what his life had come to. He understands that his superiors had set him up and is wondering whether to continue his life elsewhere on a flat note or to make it more exciting by striking back at them. Murakawa has dreams of placing a gun to his head and pulling the trigger, but something is missing from the equation. He feels that he hasn’t reached a point in his life where he can just give up and go away.
In this film, the philosophy of being a gangster is explained in a matter of a few words; a claim that Yakuza are not tough guys at all. When a young woman asks Murakawa what it’s like killing people and being involved in firefights he says that it’s frightening. He tells her that whenever he pulls the trigger the noise from the pistol is so loud that he tightens up and fires wildly at whoever is standing before him and, jokingly, that his life passes before his eyes. You act dumb when you’re scared and no one knows what it’s really like until they go through it; gangsters are not heroes. Yakuza are loyal in the sense that they are ready to die for their cause and that they are also not afraid to claim that they are Yakuza. Heroes must defeat evil at all costs and that’s too much for a gangster to think about.
It’s all about money, respect and guns; guns to kill and guns to be killed by. Whether you die today is nothing compared to the fact that it’s going to happen eventually, and that makes the Yakuza fearsome opponents.