Released in 1993, Sonatine is the fourth feature film by Japanese actor-director Takeshi Kitano, and it stars Takeshi himself, Aya Kokumai, Tetsu Watanabe and Masanobu Katsumura. While it could be easily seen as a yakuza eiga, it breaks genre conventions and clichés.
The story follows Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano), wealthy Yakuza enforcer. Along with a few of his henchmen, he is sent by his boss to Okinawa to help end a gang war, supposedly to mediate between two warring clans. The gang war escalates, and Murakawa and his men decide to lay low at a house near a beach.
While not necessarily entertaining, Sonatine is an excellent showcase on what yakuza members do in their day-to-day life while also condemning that lifestyle. There is nothing glorious in what happens here, and all the characters have been through so much, they have seen so much violence, they have lost so many people that they have a blank stare through most of the film. If an unexpected shootout occurs, they do not try to find cover, for they almost welcome death with open arms. When a friend dies, they prove no emotion, and bury him just like they did with many other friends.
The most interesting character is Murakawa: at the beginning of the movie he says to a colleague/friend that he wants to retire from his criminal life, especially since he has enough money to not need to work anymore. When he and the other gangsters go to the beach house, he manages to taste what life outside of the Yakuza could be like. Instead of finding it fulfilling and relaxing, he finds out that not even retirement could be a good option. He has killed so many people and caused so much suffering to others that there really is no way to absolve his sins. Thus, he begins to have suicidal thoughts, which are the only thing that almost makes him happy.
The most emblematic scene of the movie is the Russian Roulette on the beach: Murakawa approaches two other members and decides to play Russian roulette with them. While playing, he is seen smiling and laughing. Once there is just one chamber left in the revolver, Murakawa has to shoot himself, and, with no hesitation, puts the gun to his head and pushes the trigger, only to be revealed that there never was a bullet in the gun. Laughing, Murakawa goes away. Why did he play the game? Was it a cry for help? Was he trying to scare the other two off from a life of crime and death? Or was he just happy believing that he could kill himself? Later on, in the best dialogue in the movie, he even says:
When you’re scared all the time, you reach a point when you wish you were dead.
This becomes even more depressing when you know that Takeshi himself unconsciously tried to commit suicide, when he had a motorcycle accident in 1994.
So what’s up with the title? Well, Sonatine is a reference to Sonatina, and Kitano explained that, when learning to play an instrument, once you get to a sonatina you have to choose in what musical aspect you want to specialize in (jazz, classical, etc.), thus being a crucial decision in who you are going to be. It is clearly a reference to the main character, who chose one path in life that led him to depression.
The direction features all the trademarks of Kitano: long takes that often focus on characters moving in the environment, (mostly) deadpan acting, and sudden violence that catches you off guard. The cinematography is gorgeous, also thanks to the vastness and calmness of the seaside set. The soundtrack by acclaimed composer Joe Hisaishi gives a unique atmosphere to each scene, and at times feels reminiscent of Goblin’s OST for 1977’s Suspiria.
Overall, Sonatine is an excellent drama that is thought-provoking, brilliantly directed, with a great soundtrack and gorgeous visuals. Might be too slow to some, and there are artistic choices that are going to bother mainstream moviegoers, but it is definitely worth your time if you prefer meaningful visuals to heavy-handed dialogue.
Visual Effects: 8.5
Violence & Gore: 9
Sex & Nudity: 7
Drugs & Profanity: 6.5
Intensity & Horror: 7