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(Credit: Miramax Films)

Film

'Sonatine': Takeshi Kitano's reconfiguration of the yakuza genre

'Sonatine' - Takeshi Kitano
4.5

Takeshi Kitano occupies a curious space within the landscape of Japanese cinema, garnering a reputation as a famous comedian but leading a dual life as an uncompromising auteur. While Kitano’s shocking artistic vision failed to strike a chord with audiences in the country who had a definite idea about what gangster films were supposed to be, he found that people all over the world were more receptive to his brand of cinema.

Starting out with Violent Cop, Kitano imparted his own unique blend to the boisterous yakuza genre by fashioning a cinematic experience that was more meditative and existential while retaining the genre’s core elements. However, even the incorporation of those elements in Kitano’s special cinematic framework inevitably contributed to infinite subversions and the creation of an irresistible ironic detachment.

While Kitano’s recent directorial efforts have gone in a different direction, his 1993 cult classic Sonatine is one of its kind. The film stars the director as a tragicomic enforcer named Murakawa who struggles to find meaning in the repetitive rituals of the yakuza. Due to the shady politics of organised crime, his boss sends him to Okinawa to deal with conflict but all he encounters is an overwhelming sense of ennui.

Sonatine is one of the most celebrated Japanese films of the ’90s for foreign audiences but according to Kitano, it did not even last two weeks in Japanese theatres and there’s good reason for that. In contrast to the glorification of the power structures and the gratuitous violence of other yakuza films, Sonatine managed to construct a world where every action was performative and violent acts were inherently absurd.

This central theme of absurdism underlines almost every scene in the film, from the pointlessly methodical drowning of a gambling den owner which makes Murakawa go: “Boy, we killed him” to the endless practical jokes that are strangely devoid of punchlines. Murakawa is sentenced to exile on the beaches of Okinawa in order to escape being set up by political treachery, a mesmerising space where he discovers his inner child again.

That’s a strange thing to say about a yakuza boss but that’s what happens to Murakawa who indulges in philosophically violent games like Russian Roulette and paper sumo-wrestling (beautifully transitioning to a real representation by his minions). While most yakuza films are stocked with the glamorous displays of violence, Kitano strips away the sense of purpose from those acts and makes them comically empty.

This is evident in the film’s iconic gunfight scenes where characters just stand in one place, waiting to get shot with a blank look on their faces. One of the most nihilistic interpretations of such cyclical violence, Sonatine insists that the tough guys hiding behind guns have already accepted that they are dead men walking. Indeed, they look much more lively when they are shooting fireworks at each other (Murakawa pulls out a gun then too).

From assault rifles to grenades, Sonatine features it all but conducts such violent acts within a void where they are reduced to absurd acts and revenge can only be conceptualised as a futile endeavour. When the film first came out, Kitano’s character earned comparisons to Alain Delon’s iconic performance in Le Samouraï but Delon responded: “This is not an actor […], he only has three facial expressions and he almost doesn’t talk on top of this.”

Murakawa is a walking critique of all those taciturn gangster protagonists who hide their lack of personality behind cigarettes. He wears his emptiness on his sleeve, proudly proclaiming that the first person he ever killed was his father in high school because “he wouldn’t let [him] fuck” and reminds everyone around him that he is not Buffalo Bill. He is a unique creation, handled perfectly by Kitano whose blank stare is the powerful look of a man who has nothing left to lose and who has happily accepted the logical conclusion of his existence – suicide.