90s Far East Bracket: Sonatine (1993)

The second film in my sixth match-up in the second round of the 90s Far East Bracket is the first film I’ve seen from a man considered one of Japan’s best directors!

Written By: Takeshi Kitano
Directed By: Takeshi Kitano

Aniki Murakawa, as portrayed by Takeshi Kitano, is always headed towards death. He knows this, so do his yakuza brethren. Whether it’s now, or later, they are all headed towards an inevitable conclusion. As a result of this each and every one of them develops the same alarming reaction to death, none at all. They don’t joke about it, they don’t immerse themselves in it, they ignore death entirely. I suppose that if one knows their death is coming and has come to grips with that fact this sort of non-reaction makes perfect sense. I haven’t reached that point, I know I will die someday, but I don’t view it as an inevitable conclusion, thus the reactions of the yakuza in Sonatine are completely foreign to me. It’s unnerving to watch grown men not react to the impact of death as it surrounds them.

I suspect that Takeshi Kitano, he not only starred in Sonatine but he wrote, directed and edited the picture, was also aware of the unnerving reaction of the yakuza in Sonatine. There’s never any sense of urgency in Sonatine, it came across to me as a film that knew it was about unnervingly calm characters and had to adopt the same demeanor. The shots of the beach, of the sky, the leisurely camera movements may appear longing, but I don’t think that’s the right word or frame of mind to describe them. Those shots and movements are deliberately slow so as to promote a serene sense of knowing. The characters know how everything will play out, and so does Kitano-san, even if we do not. Kitano-san is in complete control of where he wants to go with Sonatine, this shines through in how calm the picture remains for every second of its running time.

Early on I pegged Sonatine as a black comedy, and that feeling never quite shook. It’s not a traditional yakuza flick, that much is for certain. I’m still not completely on board with the idea of the film as an existential mind trip, an interpretation I have see bandied about by many of the critics I read. I think that element is present in the film, Kitano-san is interested in what else is out there, on what truly defines a man. Is it the fact that they can kill at the drop of a hat, or is it the fact that they can enjoy a lighthearted sumo match? Even while Kitano-san is exploring those ideas he’s also heaping on the dark humor. The characters may not treat death with any emotion, but the film often paints death as a funny scenario. The lead character, Mr. Murakawa, is the impetus behind much of the comedy and it’s not because of anything he does that is outright funny. He’s always pointing out the absurdity in the other characters, in their setting, in their lives. Sonatine may not be the funniest of black comedies, but I can’t shake the feeling that it is at its heart a black absurdest comedy above all else.

One scene in particular I want to talk about is the elevator scene. I won’t go into any specifics as far as spoilers go, but it’s probably the best scene in the film and a prime example of the line the film is able to straddle between tension and comedy. In that one scene Kitano-san uses a slow build to cook up the tension, when the gunfire finally comes the air was ready to burst in my house because of the tension. At the same time Kitano-san uses the look of the fisherman assassin to bring comedy into the situation and the way the gunfight plays out is another case of the film going for absurd humor. Maybe I’m just a sick fuck, I don’t know, but even in the most tension filled of moments I was laughing just as much as I was gripping the armrest on my couch.

Sonatine is my first exposure to Takeshi Kitano as a director, and I leave mightily impressed. I may be setting the bar too high, many a person whose opinion I respect have pegged this as his best film, but I look forward to seeing what else he has to offer the world of cinema. People fall into holes on a beach and a laugh is had. Mr. Murakawa points out the stupidity of a henchman’s shirt and a chuckle escapes from my mouth. Characters meet up in an elevator and the screen explodes with tension. A lone car sits at the side of the road and the sky in the distance provides all the existential thought the mind could want. The credits roll and Takeshi Kitano has left me wanting more.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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2 responses to “90s Far East Bracket: Sonatine (1993)

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