Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The New Cult Canon: Sonatine

Illustration for article titled The New Cult Canon: Sonatine

In the summer of 1994, Takeski Kitano—or "Beat Takeshi," as he's popularly known in Japan—was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident that resulted in partial paralysis and the need for extensive reconstructive surgery to restore the use of his facial muscles. For any other performer, this would have been a devastating, potentially career-ending development, but in Kitano's case, could anybody really tell much of a difference? One side of his face may slump ever so slightly now, but it's entirely possible that those muscles would have eventually weakened from atrophy anyway. Depending on what mood he wants to strike, Kitano's screen image is usually either Clint Eastwood or Jacques Tati, one of those iconic stone faces that needn't be expressive in order to captivate. On the rare occasion his characters flash a smile—rarer in the years following the accident—it's like a startling, sometimes disturbing break in the clouds, because the expression seems so unnatural to him.


Of course, that can't be true. In reality, Kitano has many faces and is a Renaissance man of astounding proportions: Not only does he write, direct, act, and edit his movies, but his résumé also lists such occupations as comedian, novelist, film critic, poet, painter, TV panelist and game show host, and video-game designer. Over the years, his cult of personality has ballooned to such a degree that his most recent films, Takeshis and Glory To The Filmmaker!, have labored to explore the Beat Takeshi persona, and led helpless Kitano junkies on insufferable trips through the hall of mirrors. Where once Kitano could barely find enough media through which to express his ideas, he's now just spinning his wheels, hung up in an ego-generated feedback loop. But that shouldn't negate the offbeat vitality of his earlier films, which are violent, lyrical, sentimental, quirky, and oftentimes all of the above.

Courtesy of Quentin Tarantino's erstwhile vanity label Rolling Thunder, Kitano's 1993 yakuza movie Sonatine enjoyed a brief theatrical release in the states, drafting off the critical attention given to his more sentimental (but also excellent) follow-up, Fireworks (Hana-bi), which saw arthouses first. It's been marginalized in the years since, currently piggy-backing as a bonus feature on the Zatoichi DVD, which is a little like tacking Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation onto the Tucker: A Man And His Dream DVD. In any case, Sonatine may be the purest example of Kitano's singularity as a cult filmmaker, a fresh take on the age-old yakuza genre that's infused by odd flourishes of style and playfulness, and jarring outbursts of humor and violence.

The story is standard-issue yakuza stuff: Kitano plays Mr. Murakawa, an implacable Tokyo gangster who has a reputation for running his turf profitably and coolly dispatching anyone who gets in his way. Just when he's pondering retirement, Murakawa's boss sends he and his clan on a new mission to Okinawa, where they're to act as "peacekeepers" in a war between rival factions. Though he's suspicious of the assignment, Murakawa dutifully follows orders and takes his men to the islands; sure enough, attackers besiege their offices not long after they arrive. Under cover of night, they retreat to a remote beachside residence and bide their time while awaiting word from the Tokyo brass. And it's during this limbo period—essentially the last two-thirds of the film, give or take—that Sonatine wanders permanently off the genre trail.

One of the questions Kitano asks is, "What do gangsters do when they're not shooting each other?" The gangster genre is traditionally all about incident, about moving the story forward like a steamroller, and scrapping any elements that don't pay it service. Kitano wonders what goes on between the notes, when his yakuza thugs are removed from all that plotting and shooting, and have a little free time on their hands. (Hence the Tarantino connection, given how the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction discuss the finer points of Madonna's "Like A Virgin" and McDonald's burgers in France.) As Murakawa and his clan hang out on the beach, waiting for what's certain to be discouraging news about their future, you'd think this stretch of time would be pregnant with tension. Instead, they revert to infectious, childlike behavior, as if tacitly acknowledging that their sojourn on Okinawa's beautiful beaches may be their last days in the sun.

Many of Kitano's movies feature some playtime, but unlike something like his sickly sweet 1999 road comedy Kikujiro, Sonatine's dark yakuza-movie underpinnings rescue it from being overly cute. It also helps that the games are charmingly whimsical: Sumo wrestling matches created first from paper cut-outs and then on a life-size circle on the beach; skeet-shooting contests with a Frisbee and a handgun; homemade traps built from giant holes carved out in the sand; a mock gangland shootout staged with fireworks and cardboard shields. And all of it under brilliant blue skies and a backdrop that's endless ocean on one side and rolling hills on the other. Suddenly, in the middle of a gangster movie, Kitano has transported the audience to a dreamlike idyll.

It's not all fun and games, of course. Having a yakuza clan goof off wouldn't be nearly as effective if Kitano didn't occasionally puncture the action with violence and a nihilistic streak that creeps into the final third. The different tones meld in this incredible scene, where Murakawa entertains two of his underlings with a game of Russian Roulette that's simultaneously silly and unnerving:


Kitano loves to keep the audience off-balance by keeping one mood just a cut away from another: In Fireworks, for example, Kitano shares some laughs over drinks with his cop buddies in one scene, then in the next, he's jamming a pair of chopsticks into a gangster's eye. Serenity and violence co-exist uneasily in Sonatine, too, a reminder that death is always right around the corner—abrupt, unexpected, and certain. There's a countless accumulation of bodies in Sonatine, but none of the killings come via the slo-mo, protracted shootouts familiar to fans of Hong Kong or Hollywood action films. Save for the big finale, which still yields next to nothing in terms of scene-setting, the violence often comes on the heels of relative tranquility, like a shot out of the blue. Kitano isn't into big speeches or torturous build-up; he just fires away. In this NSFW clip, he confines a bloody shootout to the space of a crowded elevator:


As scenes like that demonstrate, nobody shoots a movie quite like Kitano, who came to cinema as a total novice and emerged as a kind of savant. He breaks all the rules of conventional filmmaking: He doesn't care much about establishing basic spatial relationships, his shots don't always go together, and his framing is often static and blank. But there's a strange magic in the way his movies are pieced together, owing to the combination of silent, Buster Keaton-like comedy and the tender soul of Joe Hisaishi's music, the mix of suggestive off-screen violence and on-screen violence that has the unreal quality of conceptual art, and the way space is established through a series of cuts that would seem to have no business with each other. Kitano's one of the those filmmakers whose on-screen credits are superfluous; even if he didn't appear front-and-center in most of his movies, it's pretty obvious who directed them.


Sonatine ends on a note of grim certainty, which comes as a bit of a shock after the events that preceded it. Murakawa, having just blasted his way through the waves of yakuza men protecting his boss, would seem to be in the clear, and he retreats again to the idyll of Okinawa. But he seems to know what Ray Winstone discovered in last week's entry, Sexy Beast: There's no retiring from a life of crime. And no redemption forthcoming, either. Death is an inevitability that Murakawa chooses to embrace, and that he gets to perish by his own hand, on his own terms, is the closest thing to a silver lining that a nihilist like Kitano deigns to allow.

Coming Up:

Next week: Gremlins 2: A New Batch

August 28: Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom

September 4: American Movie: The Making Of Northwestern

September 11: hiatus (Toronto Film Festival)