Moving from the Hollywood mythology of Russian gangsters in contemporary New York City — discussed in a previous post’s review of “John Wick” — we shift our attention to Takeshi Kitano’s more dramatic but no less violent world of gangsters in Japan. “‘Beat’ Takeshi” (his stage name) wrote, directed, and starred in “Sonatine” (1993), his fourth film as a director. Kitano also wrote the screenplay and played the leading role. His first film to receive international attention, “Sonatine” is a yakuza film that transcends the gangster world of its characters with its dramatic and comedic take on the bleak, nihilistic life of a local yakuza boss who is betrayed and exiled by his own boss.
Why the almost literary title “Sonatine” for a yakuza film? The word is a musical term that literally means a “little sonata.” It is usually somewhat simplified compared to a sonata, which is an instrumental musical piece, often written to feature one or two instruments. Typically it has three or four movements in contrasting forms and keys. In addition, “sonata form,” used especially in a sonata’s first movement, consists of three stages or parts: exposition, development, and recapitulation. By signaling with his title that he is following a certain pattern (drawn from classical music) in the storyline of his film, Kitano makes a statement that the action should be taken at more than face value.
The first movement or act sets up the situation and character (via exposition, development, and recapitulation) of the protagonist, Murakawa (Kitano), who is the enforcer for one of the yakuza territories in Tokyo. His ruthless methods of extorting money from local businesses (shown by his violent treatment of a mahjongg parlor owner) have made his territory very profitable. His success has also made him enemies, most importantly Takahashi (Ken’ichi Yajima), a lieutenant for Murakawa’s boss. When Murakawa is ordered to go to Okinawa to settle a dispute between the Nakamatsu and the Anan, two rival yakuza clans there, he openly expresses his suspicion that this mission is a means to get him out of Tokyo so that his territory can be taken away from him. He even gives Takahashi a beating over this issue. Nevertheless, he goes to Okinawa with a group of his men, motivated by equal parts of loyalty and fatalism.
In the second movement, Murakawa arrives in Okinawa, where he is hosted by the Nakamatsu clan. He soon finds that the yakuza conflict in Okinawa is not significant and does not warrant his presence. His suspicions of being usurped are strengthened when his temporary base of operations is bombed by the Anan clan, killing several of his men. Unable to ensure the safety of his remaining henchmen, he leaves the increasingly dangerous urban environment for the relative safety of a small, beachfront house on Okinawa’s coast, taking some of Nakamatsu’s men with him.
This move ushers in the third movement. It is an almost idyllic environment for the group of jaded men, who try to enjoy themselves while they wait for orders from their boss in Tokyo. Murakawa even meets a young yakuza groupie who quickly attaches herself to him. However, it is clear that Murakawa has had it with gangster life, as he cannot enjoy even the simple pleasures that his life offers him. He and the other men play games on the beach, but (as the New York Times‘ reviewer points out) many of these are simulations of what they do every day in their urban life: kill each other. It is a brilliant piece of dark comedy.
The fourth and final movement begins when violence and death eventually find the group again, courtesy of Takahashi. Murakawa is forced to take violent and bloody action. However, his final course of action is one that is more about revenge than survival.
This film, which put Beat Takeshi on the world stage as a masterful director, demonstrates characteristics of his directorial style that have come to be hallmarks of his work. Violence is sudden and severe, yet brief. The yakusa, who are no longer afraid of death, fire at each other standing up in the open, with flat expressions on their faces. Their lack of fear is due to nihilistic despair rather than bravery. They will either kill or be killed — either way, it does not matter to them.
In contrast to this type of action are the beautifully shot scenes on the coast of Okinawa. The signature camera style here is a medium or long shot that lingers on a view, as if seen from Murakawa’s point of view. The audience sees the beauty that he sees, but ironically cannot appreciate as the audience does. Murakawa is a man who has lost the ability to derive any joy from the world. It is telling that Kitano himself attempted to commit suicide soon after completing this picture. We are fortunate that he did not succeed, as he has gone on to direct and act in many more films that are as good or better than this outstanding genre offering.