There's a great deal of violence in Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine, but somehow the abundance of killing never disrupts the film's calm, delicate tone. The corpses start pile up with alarming speed, as countless men (and a few women) are shot, stabbed, drowned and blown up with grenades. Movies love using violence as the central element of elaborate setpieces, but the moments of violence in this film tend to be exceptionally brief (rarely lasting more than a few seconds). The expedient approach is surprising, but why should it be? That's the way most real-life violence plays out.
The killing begins with an ongoing conflict between two rival Okinawa-based yakuza clans: the Nakamatsu and the Anan. The Tokyo yakuza have tasked the ruthless-but-principled assassin Murakawa (played by Kitano himself, using his “stage name” Beat Takeshi) with helping the two clans resolve their differences, but Murakawa fears that his employers may be secretly plotting to take him out. Murakawa forms a makeshift team comprised of experienced killers he doesn't trust and inexperienced young hotheads he does trust. Sure enough, his group is attacked shortly after his arrival in Okinawa, leaving several of Murakawa's men dead.
Murakawa decides to lay low for a while, and takes the surviving members of his crew to a humble hideout on the beach. At this point, the film's whole rhythm changes, rocking back and forth between scenes of blunt ugliness and idyllic beauty. A scene of playful tomfoolery turns into a nerve-jangling game of Russian roulette, while a violent rape serves as the starting point for some of the film's most delicate passages. There's an abundance of joy and ugliness in this place, and none of it seems to have any sort of lasting impact on Murakawa.
Sonatine is now one of Kitano's most respected films, but it didn't start out that way. The writer/actor/director was a comedian in the early days of his career, and Japanese audiences initially refused to talk the film seriously. Additionally, the film had trouble securing international distribution due to the general feeling that it was “too Japanese.” It wasn't until Kitano secured a bona fide international hit with his 1997 film Fireworks that American audiences were exposed to Sonatine. Sure enough, it won plenty of fans (including Quentin Tarantino, who funded the film's home video release). Many critics made comparisons to Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, another film about an unflappable killer who lives by a rigid code. That film's star, Alain Delon, allegedly watched Sonatine and was baffled by praise Kitano's performance had received. “He only has three facial expressions, and he doesn't talk on top of this,” Delon reportedly said.
Delon isn't technically wrong – Kitano does indeed only use three facial expressions and he rarely speaks – but those are features, not bugs. While we see oh-so-brief flashes of amusement or surprise on Murakawa's face, the look we see most often is a look of numbed apathy. In one of the film's most violent scenes, he fires a machine gun at his enemies with all the enthusiasm of a man absent-mindedly staring out the window. There is no fury, no joy, no sadism, no pain – there's nothing, and the nothingness is eating him alive. He's a great character; the missing link between Delon's enigmatic antihero and Ryan Gosling's dead-eyed Driver.
Kitano's direction is sound, too. He avoids glamorizing the violence by examining it with the same sort of detached weariness that Murakawa demonstrates, even reducing the explosive gunfire of the film's climax to a series of distant pops and flickering lights. The underlying sense of melancholy is gently accentuated by Joe Hisaishi's score, a synthetic effort that feels like the sort of thing sort of thing John Carpenter might write on a particularly emotional day. Kitano makes the big moments feel small and the small moments feel big, blurring the lines between what matters and what doesn't until he reaches that cold, hard, inevitable ending.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Year: 1993