Review: Beat Takeshi`s Sonatine

26Sep07

I got Kitano Takeshi`s Sonatine movie on DVD from Netflix. I was expecting it to be a new, but it’s actually an older film from 1993. The clothes and hair/make were from the late 80s or early 90s, and being able to date it after having lived through that era made me feel old.

The movie is another yakuza movie from Kitano. But it’s not all action. I think he has single-handedly reinvigorated the uniquely Japanese genre by injecting humor and pathos into his movies.

The film is about an aging yakuza boss who gets double-tricked into entering a turf-war in Okinawa. While there, Kitano who also plays the protagonist, gets into a rather bloody shoot-out, so for a while they decide to lay low. This, it turns out, is exactly what he wanted, and with the arrival of a girl and of course the nearby beach, Kitano quickly settles into a life of peaceful relaxation. But, of course, the bosses find him and his gang in the end, and in an ambush at the beach, most of Kitano’s men are killed. He goes off alone at the end to settle the score, leaving behind the girl he has fallen in love with.

The film’s plot, while somewhat predictable, is filled with the kind of Takeshi-like moments he has become famous for, a black sense of humor, punctuated by tender moments of a kind of quiet beauty. Some of the shots, despite the 80s look to the film, are deeply beautiful, especially one where a car crests a far hill and in the black, emptiness of the Okinawan night, shines like a star in the sky. The shot is not only beautiful, but it’s symbolic of the existential loneliness of the characters. His comrades are killed one by one, but the deaths are treated lightly and nothing is said of it. There is no special sadness or anger when it happens. Death comes naturally to the yakuza and there is an acceptance of this violence by all.

I think Kitano operates from this philosophy also- that life is violent, meaningless, but when we recognize this, it becomes also deeply beautiful and even funny. I think this makes Kitano deeply traditional in the Japanese sense. He had a sense of life as short, painful, and meaningless, combined with a seemingly irrational willingness to throw it away at any moment, something again that is a uniquely (but increasingly prewar)Japanese aesthetic.  The image at the end of the movie sums it up.  A beautiful blue fish is speared against a red sky, summing up in one image the idea Kitano wanted to articulate in the movie.

The “intro” and “outro” by Tarantino is so annoying. Not only do have to see him kind of ramble on in his usually incoherent babbletalk that parades as “insight”, but he also portrays himself as some “expert” on Japan by quoting supposedly uniquely Japanese ideas or trying to give a ham-handed explanation of the Japanese film market and its genres. The kind of Nihonjin-ron thinking has been debunked academically, but I guess when you are trying to sell films, it helps to play up the differences and maintain the exotic other-ness of your product.

Another disappointment with the DVD, they did voice-over for the interview with Kitano Takeshi, so I couldn’t hear what he was actually saying in Japanese. The interviewer also, and I’m sure he was forced to ask this, asked Kitano what he thought of Tarantino’s films, to which Kitano replied something like, ‘I’m not much a fan, but I’m sure if I were a better English speaker I could understand the dialogue and what was funny.’ For anyone who understands Japanese culture, they would know from his answer that Kitano was politely saying he didn’t like them much. But I imagined Taratino watching the interview and laughing smugly, thinking Kitano just doesn’t get his films.

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