Wednesday, March 30, 2005


In Brother Kitano's wistful poeticism and existential angst were like stucco decoration incongruously carved on the facade of a prefab structure. In Sonatine however, they are very much part of the fabric.

Murakawa is a Yakuza demi-boss in full mid-life crisis. He has reached the pinnacle of the gangster profession in terms of sheer savage ability, but lacks the communications and political skills that would see him comfortably through life's Third Act. He may be a senseless killer, but he's not a tosser like his superiors.

So now there's little hope to overcome all the fear; just numbing dread. He confides that he's no longer afraid of dying because the constant presence of death in his life has made it hardly worth living. And he started young - his debut murder was a patricide. Unlike Lester in American Beauty he has no sense of having lost something better. He can't even turn to Pinot Noir like Miles Raymond in Sideways. He's not a feckless loser, he's just reached his limit. Through the action that takes place in Sonatine, Kitano offers this character a vision of transcendence, but he ultimately stops just short of going for it.

The main strand of the plot centres on how Murakawa and a handful of lesser goons are seconded to Okinawa to help another boss, a relative of their own in fact, who has triggered a winner-takes-all conflict with a rival gang in his patch. Murakawa catches a whiff of leftover sushi - and indeed this transfer is a prelude to some radical organisational restructuring that his leader and his shiny-suited lieutenants have in mind. (This is a corporate culture in which you can ambush a rival in the toilet, proceed to beat the shit out of him, yet still indulge in some polite banter when he next appears across the meeting room table! )

In the mesmerising middle section Murakawa's reduced team and some of their Okinawa counterparts are in a holding pattern, awaiting further instructions from their political masters, playing games involving more or less sublimated violence on a lovely deserted beach. In Death in Venice Thomas Mann described the Lido's coastline as "the brink of the element". Beaches are a recurring motif in Kitano's films. Here, as elsewhere, the beach is richly symbolic- a place to break out of the confines of everyday existence, a meeting point of the particular and the universal, of life and death; a place that always tempts you to stay.

In the end Murakawa is forced to do what many other victims of downsizing must fantasise about. He takes out the management. In fact he takes everyone out. While in doing so he may well have single-handedly solved Tokyo's crime problem, he's no closer to solving his own.

There are two superb 'fireworks' scenes in Sonatine. First a mock night battle on the beach. Then the climactic eruption of Murakawa into the Yakuza assembly point, the muzzle flares of his automatic weapon seen mainly as a series of eerie flashes from outside and below.

Roger Ebert made an observation which I think is both valid and interesting. Japanese gunmen don't seem to enjoy action scenes the way that say Bruce Willis or Arnie seem to enjoy theirs. Even the Terminator is somehow more into his job. In contrast the Japanese approach to dealing death is dead-pan! (I was also reminded of Hattori in Zatoichi.)

I've heard it said that Kitano typically takes a perfectly good American genre and adds a load of arthouse claptrap. This point of view is natural enough if you subscribe to the of common view of the Japanese as an essentially derivative bunch, that habitually take other peoples' pre-formed ideas and fashion them to their own purposes. Yet I believe that the relationship between the Japanese period Samurai dramas and the American Western is one of mutual exchange and I think something similar occurs in the respective organised crime genres.

Kitano made Sonatine in 1993, before a moped accident left one side of his face contorted and paralysed. It's one of the best examples of his particular contribution to cinema - his is a voice that describes fairly universal predicaments, yet does so with the stylised, almost artificial intonation of gangster ethics and convulsive violence.

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