For his fourth feature as writer/director, Japanese auteur, Takeshi Kitano, returns to the themes of violence and Yakuza following the more serene A Scene At The Sea for Sonatine.
Kitano, performing under his nom de plume, Beat Takeshi, plays Murakawa, a gangster who has become disillusioned with the lifestyle he leads, despite being very successful. At the behest of his gangland bosses and against his best wishes, Murakawa takes his gang to Okinawa to settle a dispute between two rival clans. Murakawa is suspicious of the assignment from the outset and his suspicions grow stronger when the dispute between the rival clans turns out to be insignificant. Later his suspicions are proved to be true when his gang is ambushed whilst out drinking.
Following the attack, Murakawa and his gang flee to a remote beach house where they decide to hide out until the trouble dies down. They spend their time there pulling pranks on each other and playing games, which is a change of pace away from the violence seen in the opening act. Inevitably, given their profession, these games take a more violent route leading to shooting practice and a game of Russian Roulette.
After a gunman kills a number of people on the beach, including one of Murakawa’s men, it becomes clear that he was set up so that other factions could move in on his and his gang’s territory. So he plots his revenge and the violence escalates towards the finale of the film.
Sonatine is probably the best showcase for Kitano’s talents, as both writer/director and actor, out of all of his early movies. It certainly seems to play more to his strengths thanhis previous movie, A Scene At The Sea.
The violence comes in short, brief, bursts but it’s shocking and shot in such a way that it’s completely compelling. Often it’s over before you’ve had time to register what’s happened. The static camera when Murakawa’s gang are being executed on the beach is very a particularly excellent scene.
The blank expression on the men’s faces during the shoot-outs effectively shows the ennui they feel. Ennui is a feeling that is captured throughout the movie to brilliant effect, particularly with Murakawa. There’s a clear sense that he’s completely bored with the violence associated with his profession and that he has little regard for his own life. Takeshi does a fine job of portraying this, as does his supporting cast.
Unlike his underwhelming score for A Scene At The Sea, Joe Hisaishi’s score here is beautiful and haunting; the same piece is repeated throughout but works perfectly by complimenting each scene it’s used in.
I’m not a huge fan of director’s commentaries, on DVDs, at the best of times. Even when they have contributions from people who have actually been involved in the movie, for the most part, I find that they’re fairly dull. There are a few notable exceptions, of course, sadly, this isn’t one of them. Commentary is by Chris D, who is the author of Outlaw Masters Of Japanese Film.
I haven’t enjoyed any of Kitano’s movies as much as Sonatine, so this is certainly one that I’d highly recommend. Beautifully shot from the start up to the shocking finale. There are also plenty of humorous moments, particularly in the mid-section of the movie when Murakawa and his gang are on their beach retreat.