The Yakuza take a much needed break while in hiding in Takeshi Kitano’s gangster drama Sontatine.
“Last time we were sent out, three of my men were killed. I’m not happy about that.”
These are the words Beat Takeshi’s Murakawa, a Tokyo-based yakuza, says before heading off to what he knows is a trap. As you might have come to expect from the comedian-turned-auteur, his performance is subdued, as his character betrays no emotion. Nevertheless, he is ordered by his bosses to go to Okinawa with his gang to settle a dispute between rival factions. Immediately, he senses something is up but eventually accepts when he’s told by the bosses that the situation is dire.
When he and his gang arrive, however, he learns that the dispute is largely peaceful and that the boss insisted on sending Murakawa down, despite the factions telling him not bother. Murakawa’s suspicions are proven correct when a bomb detonates inside their temporary offices, killing most of the men. Murakawa and the rest of his gang are forced to flee, and decide to lay low at a hut at a beach. They begin to bond, and Murakawa befriends a local young woman, all while they decide on their next move.
Sonatine is a film that likes to take its time, and the majority of it mostly consists of scenes of the main characters hanging out on a beach, interacting. While it isn’t all that rare for a crime movie to examine the psyche of its main characters, it’s not common for it to do it so patiently and introspectively, and this is Sonatine’s biggest draw. This movie is calm and reflective … except when it isn’t. In typical Kitano style, the scenes of tranquillity are always punctuated by moments of sudden violence. As opposed to the Hollywood-Scarface approach, or the Riki Takeuchi-led-Miike yakuza movies, Sonatine – and by extension plenty of similar works by Kitano (just see Zatoichi for a non-yakuza example) – manages to be plenty violent by giving us only short bursts of it.
But for Murakawa and his gang, this is the sort of thing that’s to be expected when you live this life. Every character has this knowledge that they have something of a shortened lifespan; they’re gangsters after all. And while they’re in hiding on this beach, we get to see the vulnerable side of these otherwise hardened characters. It’s rare to get moments like these in yakuza films – usually, everyone’s trying so hard to be tough that we usually aren’t treated to the small moments out of work, where the mooks just hang out, and play childish games.
Those are the sweet, endearing moments that make Sonatine something of a different breed of gangster film. It’s driven almost entirely by the characters, and how much we like them. Considering that Murakawa is hardly the most likeable character in the world, it’s no small feat. Kitano portrays the man with enough charisma that we don’t spend the entire movie hating him, which is impressive considering his lack of emotions can come off quite unpleasant sometimes, such as when he almost fails to interfere with a rape (he only does so because the rapist talks to him). Giving him a few underlings to look after, and putting them all in almost a holiday scenario lets the character develop in a way that allows him to break out of the hardened-gangster mould.
Sontatine is not for everyone; it’s slow-moving, contemplative and has very little action in it (which, even then, barely counts as action). Those who saw Outrage might have the wrong idea about what to expect, but those who are fans of Kitano’s slow, purposeful pacing and his typically Japanese stoicism will see this movie as the start of the best years of his career.
Verdict: the long drawn out scenes with little happening might deter some viewers, but nevertheless, Sonatine is a very different type of gangster film
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Music: Catchy as all hell
The Yakuza: prone to random outbursts of anger
Fishermen: Be careful, they’ll kill ya
Takeshi Kitano-o-meter: This is some signature stuff. 9/10
Also known as: ソナチネ (Sonachine)
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Writer: Takeshi Kitano
“Beat” Takeshi Kitano – Murakawa
Aya Kokumai – Miyuki
Tetsu Watanabe – Uechi
Masanobu Katsumura – Ryoji
Susumu Terajima – Ken
Ren Osugi – Katagiri
Tonbo Zushi – Kitajima
Ken’ichi Yajima – Takahashi
Eiji Minakata – The Hit Man