Despite his poker-faced screen persona, the films of Japanese actor-writer-director Takeshi Kitano can often feel intimately, uncomfortably revealing in their stark depictions of mental imbalance and personal crisis. The recurring presence of suicide in the filmmaker’s output — frequently enacted by the man himself — strikes an especially poignant chord considering the near-fatal motorcycle accident that would leave him partially paralyzed in 1994, an incident which Kitano would later refer to as an “unconscious suicide attempt.”
Naturally, the features Kitano made in the years leading up to the incident were usually grim, cynical works, none more frighteningly persuasive than his final picture released before the accident, 1993’s Sonatine. While his previous crime films Violent Cop and Boiling Point were almost unrelenting in their bleakness, this meditative yakuza drama evokes a worrying sense of instability through a harsh mixture of conflicting tones. The closer that gangster Murakawa (Kitano) gets to arriving at some meaningful and inspiring epiphany, the more vulnerable he seems to vicious external forces that could finally push him completely over the edge.
Sonatine’s antihero already looks to have moved past the point of sadness and into a place of trauma-induced numbness when he first appears in the oppressively sterile interiors of inner city Tokyo. It’s a crushingly dull environment of mental and physical stasis, where even the occasional violent outburst or fatality can’t break the monotony of a life lived on a schedule dictated by crime boss Kitajima (Tonbo Zushi).
At the faction’s dreary business meetings, rooms full of dead-eyed men rely on this calm-mannered gentleman’s cue for every workplace indulgence, from cigarettes to women. In this yakuza “family” where loyalty is endorsed as a fundamental value, every life is placed in the hands of Katajima. So when Murakawa is ordered to travel to Okinawa to help mediate a dispute between their allies and a rival faction, he’s in no position to refuse, despite his suspicions.
With a team of mostly young and incompetent colleagues in tow, the trip to a new prefecture does little to improve the weary mindset of Murakawa, since his mobster life remains just as insulated. “Haven’t you got any respectable friends?” the young Tokyo criminal Ken asks the Okinawan Ryōji. “A baseball star from high school or someone like that?” No matter where they go, these characters are still living in the same box because the only other people they associate with are gangsters just like them. It only figures that so many of the film’s deaths take place in enclosed spaces, be it an office, an elevator or a car.
When Murakawa’s people are unexpectedly attacked by the rival Okinawa faction in a bar, the protagonist’s blank expression as he fires back at them — paying no mind to the bullets whizzing past him — suggests that he’s defending himself more as a matter of course than out of any genuine desire to keep living. A young woman named Miyuki later mistakes the man’s impenetrable exterior for tough guy confidence. “You’re not afraid of dying, are you?” she asks Murakawa, to which he responds: “When you’re scared all the time, you reach a point when you wish you were dead.” It’s an almost paradoxical remark that reflects his paralyzed inner state.
It is only when the gang is forced to flee to a remote beach house, leading into the film’s subversively uneventful midsection, that the suffocating atmosphere of monotonous dread lets up somewhat. With nothing to do but wait until the turf war dies down, the men find creative new ways to amuse themselves in this idyllic setting, engaging in endearingly amateur forms of theater and dance when they aren’t playing juvenile games of one-upmanship. A genuinely elating sequence comes about when Murakawa crafts two little people out of paper and makes them fight, prompting the whole team to collaborate in recreating this game with real humans. The playful stop motion and fast motion editing in these scenes makes for a vibrant alternative to the aesthetic deadness which came before.
Acting out the roles of the two paper fighters are Ken and Ryōji, the youngest of the runaways who form an affectionate, semi-competitive relationship akin to a pair of squabbling siblings. From Boiling Point to The Kids Return, Kitano has a history of portraying the teens and twenties as a period of perpetual failure and embarrassment, often at the hands of more experienced and authoritative elders. These two knuckleheads are no exception, at one point throwing a grenade into the rival gang’s base only to realize that they’ve been sold a dud.
Nonetheless, once the group moves to the coast, the gap between generations narrows to some extent as Ken and Ryōji’s older peers start to shed their professional personas and embrace the naïve pleasures of simply hanging out and goofing off, though none rediscover their youth more enthusiastically than Murakawa. As well as hooking up with Miyuki — a local woman who’s a couple of decades his junior — the 40-something criminal indulges in numerous childish pranks against his colleagues. He proudly chuckles as he lures his associates into the pitfalls he dug on the beach, before poking fun at his relatively square friend Katagiri’s excessively loud shirt just for good measure.
But like the paper fighters, there are consistently violent and confrontational undertones to these jokes, suggesting that Murakawa’s silly behavior could just be the latest manifestation of his personal crisis. His first prank of the film is carried out after witnessing Ryōji and Ken take turns trying to shoot a beer can off each other’s heads. Murakawa interrupts their ill-advised William Tell routine to start a round of Russian Roulette.
When the gun is down to its final chamber, the protagonist puts the weapon to his temple and pulls the trigger, only to hear a click. But while the dark-humored mobster had sneakily removed all the bullets from the gun beforehand, a subsequent dream sequence that concludes with a smiling Murakawa shooting himself in the head (while Ryōji and Ken watch) makes it clear that his self-destructive urges are more than just a put-on. The dumb recklessness of two young, trigger-happy hoodlums is apparently no match for an experienced killer’s death drive.
All the tension brimming beneath the surface throughout this unplanned holiday is converted into furious action in the film’s devastating third act. It is with a mournful feeling of banality that the beachside community is upended by the arrival of a single yakuza gunman. The gang’s first casualty might be the friendship between Ryōji and Ken, as the former wordlessly runs away when he sees the assailant approach them, leaving Ken to face with his death alone. From here, every other bond that keeps Murakawa connected to this existence is shown to be either fleeting or illusory.
Murakawa’s brutal retaliatory rampage against his attackers could at first be interpreted as a fight for survival and a search for answers. But as his few trusted colleagues fall dead around him and the truth comes out that they’ve all been set up by boss Kitajima, the messy series of slaughters reveal themselves to be increasingly hollow and pointless acts of vengeance committed by a man with nothing else to motivate him.
The climactic action echoes one of the final games that the gang play before their tranquil hideout is first invaded. On the beach at night, the men engage in a mock firefight with Roman candles, a game which Murakawa makes a little more real when he starts firing an actual gun in his opponents’ general direction. While this and other scenes of play-fighting and silly camaraderie adopt a more ominous tone in retrospect — unintentionally serving as rehearsal for the real conflict to follow — Murakawa’s impulsive choice to bring a deadly weapon to the fun suggests that part of him may have even wanted things to go as horrifically wrong as they do.
Like a tragically human Terminator, Murakawa becomes an unstoppable and emotionless bringer of death in Sonatine’s third act. As he mows down hordes of smartly-dressed office-dwellers, his last surviving associate, Ryōji, stares wide-eyed at the massacre in a mixture of fear and awe before making a hasty exit. That Murakawa miraculously comes out of the final battle without so much as a bullet wound feels as much like an unplanned accident as a stroke of good luck. With his death drive still unsated, the lone gangster puts a loaded gun to his head and reenacts his initial Russian Roulette prank as his last shocking act of violence.
From its hypnotic style to its pessimistic plot and languid pacing, Sonatine is a mesmerizing manifestation of the troubling logic of Murakawa’s final decision. That it proves so quietly immersive in its defeated worldview ensures that it’s the most terrifying and emotionally punishing feat of the mercurial Kitano’s career.
Watch ‘Sonatine’ at FilmStruck.