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I first wrote a review of this film here on IMDb back in June 2000. At
the time I was totally in awe of the film, the script, the acting, the
cinematography, the musical score and above all the direction from
Tekashi "Beat" Kitano.
Some 18 months on and I still love the film and is certainly one of my top five international films. I have seen Kitano's latter films, Hana-bi, Brother, Tokyo Eyes & Gonin, and even though production values have improved, especially with Brother and Hana-Bi, I personally feel that Sonatine still remains Beat's best film to date.
In retrospect one can see within the film a vision of Beat's state of mind at the time. It is no secret that he tried to commit suicide in real life shortly after the completion of Sonatine. With this in mind it is easy to understand the motive within film and how it is structured within Kitano's head.
Even though it is a film about Yakuza and gangland killings Kitano doesn't fill every scene with a running commentary or 100mph action-fests. Instead Sonatine is very much an avante-garde kind of film with the "action" taking a backseat to the humdrum lives of the gangsters themselves.
Kitano is the boss of a successful Yakuza mob in central Tokyo at the expense of its poorer rivals. As a consequence a plot is hatched to get him and his members on a meaningless trip to Okinawa to sort out a peace-deal between waring factions and thus leaving his "patch" vulnerable to a take-over.
So Kitano's gang arrive in Okinawa only to find that there is no such "deal" but instead his gang are steadily killed off leaving only himself and 3 other gang members and an abandoned young woman, whom he saves from a rape ordeal by her husband
They move to the coast well away from central Okinawa and wait for the troubles to calm down before considering returning to Tokyo. During that time they have very little to do other than play beach games, sing songs or play Russian Roulette in order to pass the time.
But eventually even the beach hut where they live is no longer safe from the assassin's bullet and so Kitano has no other choice but to face his rivals once and for all in a bloody gun battle finale.
And so ends the film. It is not a happy film with no satisfying "Hollywoodesque" ending. Far from it, the ending only illustrates the working mind of Kitano at the time. In fact there are many examples within the film that underlines the bleak suicidal tendencies of his mind for real, especially the Russian Roulette scene.
It is also interesting that these gangsters think nothing of their own lives or safety: they accept their fate as a death-wish. They have witnessed so much death in their lives that they have lost their morality & humanity in themselves and to other people. So it is no surprise that during the various gun battles between rival groups neither Kitano or his men hide behind furniture in order to avoid the bullets. Instead they stand erect like statues firing their guns, hoping for the best waiting to be killed by their enemy in full view.
The life of the Yakuza in the context of this film, therefore, counts for little. They have no life, only a limited existence. There are few highlights - such as the Sumo scene, the firework fight and even the scene where Aya Kokumai removes her t-shirt in front of Kitano so that she is semi-nude before him. And yet not even this makes an impression on him. He is has become such an empty shell that even his sensual nature has long since gone, such is the life of a Yakuza warlord.
Critics would argue that this film is too anal for its own good, that nothing much happens and that the film is punctuated with "to camera" shots of the main protagonists looking vacant at the audience waiting for something to happen.
In my opinion these critics miss the point. There is a reason why they stare back at the camera/audience. There is no sparkle in their eyes, no smile playing on their lips, no supple skin tone, no positive body language to tell us that these people are really happy. Instead, we see nothing but ghosts, empty husks of humanity awaiting their fate with the silver bullet; they look at us as if they are pleading with us to put them out of their sad existence. They may have guns, the money, the power but they are not happy, they are not content, they are not you and me!
Sonatine remains one of the most influential films ever to come out of Japan. So impressed was I with this film that I created this IMDb login in honour of its majesty. Yes, it maybe seen as a sad act to name a login after a film but for me Tekeshi Kitano has yet to direct a better film and Sonatine will haunt me for all sorts of reasons for years to come, especially the excellent score from Joe Hisaishi.
Since Sonatine was the first movie by Kitano that i enjoyed, I had no real
expectations (except for an action-thriller thanks to the cover)and was
totally taken aback by what I saw.. Not an Action Film with high bodycount
but a story about a man who leads a life without hope and then when all
trouble would be removed from it is too scared to start anew (or unable to).
The story is told in a totally minimalistic and realistic way that doesn't
chase you from one scene to another only to show you the important parts but
always takes the time (often more than once) to let you study the
protagonist and his comrades only through their faces so you have to figure
out what they think on your own. Films that explain nothing often make
everything clear. Films that explain everything often have nothing to
In my opinion either you love this film or you hate it, there is no in between, since its so different from the standard or even great gangster movies of our time . I for myself was mesmerized by its artistic beauty, its compelling acting and its wonderful soundtrack.
By now i have seen Hanabi and all the other Kitano movies, but this remains the best to me..
I have always wondered why Americans always label everything they can lay their hands on; that's how Sonatine became "an action movie", Arizona Dream became "a comedy", etc. Maybe their viewers need to be told what is what because it's hard for them to think for themselves. Sonatine is NOT a typical action movie. Though the characters are gangsters and they DO kill people occasionally it's not the killings that are important. The director and the cast show that those gangsters are also human, with their likes and dislikes, their games and pranks, their love and loyalty.It's a very Japanese film showing the beauty of the fleeting moments of life, fragility of life, beauty of nature and of human soul which is capable of self-sacrifice and devotion. I particularly loved the game of cardboard wrestlers they palyed on the beach and the fireworks. It's fresh, genuine and filmed in a non-American way (thanks god!)mostly as far as its framing and editing are concerned. Calm and life-like sequences of frames make it look NORMAL, not "movie-like". Thanks god there's nothing like Unreal Tournament gun-happiness and no heroes walking away in a most manly way against the background of flames and nuclear explosions, which are omnipresent in American productions. Takeshi, go, go! We are on your side!
Beat Takeshi movies are without doubt an acquired taste. Newcomers to them, presumably expecting some kind of flashy, gun happy, John Woo-style "action" movie, are often shocked because they are the complete opposite to most Hong Kong cops'n'robbers movies. Slow, atmospheric and character driven, they really make you WORK. Things are not handed to you on a plate all neatly packaged, and generally it's what is NOT said and shown which counts. And yes, they are violent, but only intermittently. Takeshi lulls you into a false sense of security with his stunning visuals and thoughtful character studies and then WHAM, when you least expect it, we get violence, REAL violence. With consequences. The best Takeshi movie I have seen is 'Hana-bi' but 'Sonatine' comes a very close second. Takeshi stars as the kind of character he often plays, an ageing, dissatisfied man. Sometimes he's a cop, this time he's a yakuza. But he basically plays variations on the same "type". And let's face it, he does it very, very well. Takeshi also wrote, directed and edited this wonderful movie. A very impressive feat! If you aren't familiar with his style, this might be a good place to start. Leave your expectations at the door, and I'm sure you will be impressed. The supporting cast, many of whom are Takeshi regulars, are uniformly excellent (and may I say that Aya Kokumai is a real hottie?), but it's Takeshi himself who really impresses as an actor as well as a film maker. Highly recommended, as is 'Hana-bi'. Two of the very best movies released in the last ten years. If Hollywood was this good!
Sonatine is the last film in Takeshi Kitano's yakuza related trilogy. The
first two films are Violent Cop and Boiling Point. Sonatine is, in a way, a
combination of these two films, and it is the greatest in this outstanding
trilogy, and Sonatine ranks also to the top in Kitano's filmography with
Hana-Bi. Sonatine tells the story of middle aged yakuza boss Murakawa
(played by Kitano) and his gang's trip to Okinawa to settle some yakuza wars
and return the peace to the criminal underworld of Japan. However, they are
assaulted many times there and they are forced to go to beautiful beach
location and spend some days there and wait for orders from Tokyo, from the
higher yakuza authorities. What follows is all the unique elements from both
Violent Cop and Boiling Point and totally stunning and breath takingly
beautiful piece of art.
There are all the Kitano elements as beautifully present as possible. The scenes are often without too much dialogue, and the film is very symbolical and calm. The faces are among the most important elements in Kitano's films, as there are so many things to be read from characters' faces. Kitano has created this very personal element and it is always there in his films. The setting at the naturally beautiful and uncorrupted seaside has been captured with the camera as brilliantly as we can expect from Kitano; this film is a result that would be born if Kitano had script in which read only one word: Beauty. Similarly beautiful film is his Hana-Bi and Boiling Point has also these elements.
The elements of beauty among others are flowers, firecrackers and colors in general. The scenes at the beach as the gangsters play and have fun are so full of life and certain positivism, it is easy to feel a need for crying during those scenes, and I must say that at least equally powerful experience is the mentioned Hana-Bi, translated to Fireworks in English. The theme of Sonatine is that those brutal and violent humans return to the time when they were still innocent and free of all the wickedness of the world. They play so emotionally and devotedly that it is clear they know there is a better place to be than this world. The girl that is raped is perhaps only person in the film who would not hurt anyone and is like angel here. She knows and has learnt many things about life by the end scene, and make sure you watch the film thoroughly and the end credits, too, as there is more imagery after the credits.
The music in Sonatine is outstandingly beautiful and sad, and is among the greatest musical experiences I've had the pleasure of hearing. The composer is the same as in Brother and Hana-Bi, and the work is as masterful in those more recent films, too. Violence in Sonatine is as sudden and irrevocable as in other Kitano films, and his films really show the real results and face of violence as a weak souls' tool of communicating. If someone considers Kitano's films gratuitously violent, they miss the whole point of the films; these film analyze and tell more about violence than most Hollywood films have ever done, but to admit this, one has to be able to interpret movies and really understand the abilities and power of Cinema. Kitano's films are far too difficult for many to understand, so it is no use trying to show his films to mainstream audience and people who see (if see!) in films only what is explained and said with easy means. If someone says without arguments or understanding to this art form some Kitano film is bad, stupid, gratuitously and excessively violent, unexplained or something else of the usual statements, it is no use taking those "opinions" seriously or consider them noteworthy because people who say so see exactly things that are NOT there.
Sonatine is one of Kitano's most masterful pieces of cinema, and is among the reasons why Japanese (and Orient) cinema is so unique. Sonatine gets 10 out of 10 rating from me, and makes Takeshi Kitano one of the most sensitive, symbolic, stylish in every sense and remarkable film makers of our time, and his films will live as important pieces of history of Japanese and world cinema.
Having finally experience Sonatine, I can't say enough for this poignant and
moving film. Beat Takeshi may face death with that same disconnected look
on his face, but it is the inaction, the time between the killings, that
carry all the meaning. Even when in gunbattles, nobody moves, nobody tries
to dodge, it is as if everyone simply feels chained to their fate. This is
jarring to Asian cinema lovers used to side-jumping, dual-gun gymnastics and
amazing set pieces.
I love how the only emotions Murakawa expresses are humor and nihilist apathy. The "sumo scene" is so delightfully out-of-place, while the ending simply leaves your mouth open. The warmth the characters show just makes it more hurtful when they meet such pathetic, low-key ends. I'm not an expert on Japanese society, but I see this film as a comment on the emptiness of a fear-filled culture of reservation, where it is more important to show restraint and respect than it is to continue living.
I'll still enjoy good ol' HK pistol operas, but I'll never see them quite the same again.
I think the people who criticize this film do so because they've been trained to watch movies the way Hollywood makes them. This is as far from Hollywood as a gangster film can get. The quiet (or as some might say, boring) moments are there because the characters exist in a realistic world where sometimes they can do nothing but sit and think. Sonatine isn't perfect, but it can certainly be appreciated if the viewer will approach it with an open mind. Also, the sumo scene is very fun and beautiful.
This is exactly what I'd do if my gang's territory was being threatened by conspiracy and rivalry in the criminal underworld - hide out on a nice beach playing fantastic-looking firework and sumo games with me mates and some random passing woman, listening to crazy old men singing in incredible voices, watching out for assassins in fishing gear and generally building myself up for a massive showdown. Beat Takeshi is a genius with this kind of stuff, he makes his gangster a real man in full 3D, hardened by a hard life but still full of uncertainty and needs, and who in the world could have outdone his deadpan but humourous face, especially in those bleak final scenes. Shame about his appalling TV "comedy" though.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of this film--I suspect I need to view it
at least once, and probably several more times before I can get a good hold
on it. However, my inability to fully comprehend what "Sonatine" is about
doesn't strike me as a flaw. Rather, the film is much more complicated than
the usual gangster film.
It begins with very unsentimentalized and nonglorified violence. People hit and kill each other and it isn't much different than toast popping out of the toaster. It is fast, moderately bloody, and there. Kitano doesn't seem to be interested in thrilling us with either the danger, grotesqueness, or thrill of violence--another, not clearly defined agenda is at work here.
At perhaps a third of the way into the film, it makes a sudden transition from this gangster life to a period of forced inactivity. I suspect this section, which is delightfully playful, is at the heart of this film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having recently seen Hanabi at the theatres, I found myself reminded in many
ways to Sonatine, although Hanabi is refined in more ways than Sonatine
was. I came to see the reviews here.. and was a little disappointed, as most
people seem to have missed the point of the movie. It's not about action -
it's not even about plot. It's about the characters, who when you get right
down to it, are a gang of worthless good-for-nothings hanging out in a state
of limbo, killing time while waiting to kill or be killed. Scenes stick out
when the movie is over, like the scene where they play sumo on the beach -
practical jokes, meaningless actions and pastimes that seem to transport
their criminals to an almost idyllic, relived childhood. One empathizes with
the characters, gets comfortable in sharing their daily monotonous yet
strangely amusing routine of waiting.
Violence appearing in sudden and unexpected bursts, is both explicit but not excessive - simly the means to portray an end. There is no need to go into a long 10 minute account in Woo-like slo-mo when Kitano decides to take on the rival gang in a last onslaught - we see the scene from a street and are spared the graphic detail, though we know from previous scenes that it could have been included. The violence is left to the imagination, this more striking. When someone dies, its a blow straight to the head, a trickle of blood before the body hits the sand - it's over. Simple, swift, sudden and for that, all the more shocking.
Concluding, if you like action movies, if you like to see your heroes carry 50 wounds, bleeding out of every orifice and taking on an army of enemies in slo-mo to save the day at the last second - look somewhere else. Sonatine carries forth imagery though gestures and settings, not words. Therefore at the end of it, all you are left with are images and emotions, which in my point of view is something most movies nowadays neglect in favour of short-lived thrills.
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