Sonatine Movie Review

In close to a dozen movies as actor, director, and/or writer, Takeshi Kitano (who acts under the name Beat Takeshi) has reinvented the time-honored yakuza genre. Gangsters may act like gangsters the world over, but Kitano's Zen take on crime, punishment, and violence gives his films a uniquely Japanese vibe and make them well worth watching.

Sonatine gives us Kitano as Murakama, a burned-out and nearly silent mid-level thug who admits to his loyal sidekick Takahashi (Kenichi Yajima) that he's just plain tired. "Maybe you're too rich for this business," retorts Takahashi, and it may be true. As a trusted member of the local gang, Murakama gets big assignments, but lately he's been suspecting that the higher-ups are trying to get rid of him. When the big boss commands him to take a team to the island of Okinawa to settle a regional gang war, Murakama is suspicious. Could it be that the boss wants to trigger a bloodbath so he can move in and take over the turf? Something smells like sushi.

On the island, Murakama's gang teams up with some local hoods and sets up camp at an isolated fishing cabin complete with a gorgeous beach and stunning ocean view. With little to do until the gang wars commence, the merry band kills time by wrestling on the beach and shooting at each other with roman candles. Murakama even manages to find a girlfriend (Aya Kokumai), whom he rescues from a roadside rape attempt. Strange how he can seem so sweet even after we've recently seen him drown a man in Tokyo Bay by tying him to a crane and repeatedly dunking him until he struggles no more.

Violence is always bubbling just beneath the surface, and occasionally it erupts like a fast and vicious volcano. In one of the movie's best moments, two young gang members are trying to shoot beer cans off each other's heads. Murakama wanders over and suggests a quick game of Russian roulette, with rounds of rock/paper/scissors to determine who gets to shoot first. Murakama gives the impression that he wouldn't mind dying at all. At least then he'd get some rest.

As rival gangs start turning up the heat, Murakama and company engage in selective killing and bombing to get their job done. While some of the locals seem thrilled by all the action, Murakama goes about his work joylessly, and in a clever twist, most of the final bloody climax happens off-screen, with only distant gun flashes and pops to clue us in as to what may be going on. This kind of violence has become so boring and mundane to Murakama that we needn't bother to see it. He may live. He may die. Does he care?

With its long silences and slow pans across tropical vistas, Sonatine is unlike any gangster picture you've seen, and perhaps this depiction of boredom punctuated by horror is a more realistic view of thug life than movies normally provide. Give the credit to Kitano, and check out his other work. Since Sonatine's 1993 release, he has only improved and refined his unique cinematic style.

Appears on DVD with Kitano's Zatoichi.



Sonatine Rating

" Good "

Rating: R, 1993


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