Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
Most movie gangsters are portrayed as gritty and passionate. That is not the case in Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine. The yakuza he plays in this film, Murakawa, is one that has grown tired and disillusioned with the world of crime. When torturing a man who wronged him, Murakawa takes no joy or sadness in drowning this individual. He looks on with boredom, only mildly fascinated with seeing how long it takes for his victim to stop breathing. For him, this is just another day at the office.
He’s not alone in his passive nature, either. His yakuza brethren are just as off in their attitudes with handling crime deals. Sure, one scene will feature two young punks get into a scuffle that results in a stabbing, but the following scene will feature them on a bus eating ice cream. There’s a bitterness between the two of them, though it comes across as more of an annoyance than a bloodlust. In this world of extortion and bullets, a disagreement with an associate that ends with violence is akin to taking a stapler without asking.
Not a single aspect of the crime world is entertaining to Murakawa since its work. After many years of doing the same thing, a regular job can make even the most intense of daily duties seem boring. When a bloody shootout unexpectedly breaks out at a bar, his reaction is more of a momentary jolt as he takes out his attackers with the most mute of expressions. It’s business as usual, even if an unlucky waiter was caught in the crossfire.
What Murakawa needs is a vacation, an escape from the daily grind of gunning down gangsters and shaking down clients. It just so happens that he has some free time at the beach after his organization’s headquarters in Okinawa are bombed. Accompanied by his remaining band of yakuza, there’s a remarkably playful tone that comes across when he is at the beach. He takes no pleasure in the killing of others but cracks a smile easily when pranking his co-workers into falling into holes in the sand. His joy continues on his vacation as he stages paper sumo matches, sings and dances with them while they drink, and partakes in a friendly skirmish of fireworks.
The pleasures of Murakawa are far more resigned to such simple pleasures rather than the more tempting vices. He saves the lovely Miyuki from being raped by one of his men. It seems as though they’d form some romance, especially in a scene where she is caught in the rain and takes her top off in front of him. But Murakawa finds more pleasure in the thrill of being naked than the prospect of sex. Later, he will let Miyuki practice firing his automatic weapon and any hint of joy is wiped from his face. There’s nothing he finds attractive or amusing about a sexy woman firing a gun. Whatever arousal for such a sight he might have had is long dead.
The film shifts between tender moments of beach fun and brutal scenes of graphic violence. Scenes at the beach are slow and light, while the shootouts and explosions are sporadic and unexpectedly quick as they are bloody. One of the most iconic shots of the film features Murakawa gleefully playing Russian roulette with his young associates. This is one of the few times that he finds pleasures in pulling the trigger in front of his men, only because he is pranking them with an unloaded gun. It is later revealed, however, that he dreams of pulling the trigger and blowing his brains out, without the slightest trace of emotion on his face. He doesn’t fear death. He’d have to be that fearless for this line of work. What helps sell this emotional duality is a fantastic score by Joe Hisaishi, best known for composing the music of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films.
Takeshi Kitano is one of the most iconic Japanese actors and this is easily one of his finest roles. For a character that spends most of the movie looking on with nihilism, his simple and limited expressions say so much about a man who has grown tired of the yakuza game. His drooping eyes and docile look says it all. This is especially evidenced in a scene where he lays waste to an entire room of yakuza with a large gun, appearing distant and tired.
Though Kitano had been a steadily growing Japanese acting icon, Sonatine put him on the map internationally. It did terribly at the box office in Japan and the Japanese distributor was reluctant to distribute the picture worldwide, fearing it was too Japanese for the global market. But when screened at various international festivals, it quickly became a renowned gangster movie, receiving unanimous praise and several awards. After its success, Kitano became a Hollywood star and would appear in the American productions of Johnny Mnemonic and Brother, as well as later co-starring in the American rendition of Ghost in the Shell. Kitano’s previous works that had failed financially (Violent Cop, Boiling Point) were also more widely seen and gained a new following.
Sonatine is one of the most essential of yakuza films because it does away with a lot of the fat from other gangster films. There’s no bland dialogue of the characters making threats and cussing each other out, reserving most of their talks to what they’re going to do on the beach. Violent scenes are not long and drawn out with people shouting where the money is or demanding to know who framed them. We’ve seen this all before and so has Murakawa. And with nothing all that new or interesting about the world of crime, he debates that dream about killing himself, hoping it will bring him one last thrill. Some mob enforcers would like to go out in a blaze of glory; Murakawa would rather get in one last cheerful sumo match before imploding.
This film can be found for rent or purchase on Amazon. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.