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  • Benjamin May

Sonatine (1993) Review

Murakawa is a mid-level Yakuza enforcer weary of the gangster lifestyle, toiling away his days in Tokyo. His superior orders him to Okinawa, ostensibly to settle a dispute with a rival gang in the area. Murakawa thinks the assignment is merely an attempt to have him taken out, though still makes the trip alongside his motley crew of ruffians. After their headquarters in Okinawa is bombed, Murakawa takes his men to the seaside, where they engage in childish games (with sinister undertones) in order to pass the time. All the while, Murakawa feels the cold hands of fate tightening around his neck, and just what that cruel mistress has in store for him remains to be seen in Takeshi Kitano's 'Sonatine.'

A masterpiece of minimalism, 'Sonatine,' is a powerful, quiet film that speaks volumes without the need for words. Written and directed by Kitano, the film parodies the conventions of gangster films whilst playing into them, showing how facile and vacuous the majority of them are. The film strikes the perfect balance between introspection and sudden, whirlwind action, containing no unnecessary moments, stylizations or lines of dialogue. It is an economic, intelligently constructed movie that simmers steadily over its' runtime up to a terrific boil of violence, nihilism and existentialist depth.

'Sonatine' is oft compared to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, in particular 'Le Samouraï.' Indeed, both films adopt a nihilistic attitude towards violence and feature long sequences containing limited dialogue. This allows the audience to experience the film's atmosphere and take themselves into the mind of the characters in a manner unfettered by extraneous noise. However, 'Sonatine' is less emotionally frigid than the work of Melville, and contains much humour; something rarely if ever found in Melville's movies. It is- on the whole- a far more entertaining cinematic experience; not to mention being a more rewarding intellectual one.

The film is shot by Katsumi Yanagishima, who worked on Kitano's previous efforts 'Boiling Point' and 'A Scene at the Sea.' Under Kitano's firm guidance, his cinematography is understated and naturalistic, producing haunting visuals that linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled. Kitano's films rarely if ever feature orthodox composition or framing of images, and the fresh, organic and off-beat approach to visuals in his movies is continuously striking and distinct. Yanagishima would go on to work on Kitano's next thirteen directorial features; though their collaboration on 'Sonatine' may still be their crowning achievement.

'Sonatine' features the work of another frequent collaborator of Kitano's: composer Joe Hisaishi. His score is beautiful, mournful and melodic; drifting through the film like a euphonious wind. There are few partnerships between composer and director as fruitful in cinema, perhaps only that of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti comes close. Hisaishi's work is muted and evocative, adding unquestionable power and depth to the proceedings. Hisaishi worked on seven of Kitano's films, and never once was his score anything other than mellifluous, pure and unobtrusive; as it is in 'Sonatine.'

Additionally, the film boasts a commanding central performance from Kitano as Murakawa. Few have a presence on screen as magnetic and quietly confident as Kitano. He performs with an unabashed ease and an unmatched stillness; seeming like a silent Cheshire cat without the grin, noting the proceedings around him with prescience and irony. His Murakawa is a composed man capable of extreme brutality, one tired of his existence and all too used to the grind and violence of life. Kitano fully becomes this character in so subtle a manner some might think he isn't doing anything at all; the highest compliment any actor can be paid.

His supporting cast features many talented performers working at the top of their games, most notably the great Susumu Terajima and the late Ren Ôsugi; both frequent collaborators of Kitano. Here, Terajima stars as Ken, one of Murakawa's underlings, delivering an assured performance of depth and wit. Ôsugi is equally outstanding, playing a smaller role as an associate of Murakawa's named Katagiri; though still impressing with his range and naturalness.

Takeshi Kitano's 'Sonatine' is a brilliant crime film of the ascetic variety that is unforgettable and unique. On every level, the movie impresses, from the excellent performances to Katsumi Yanagishima's striking visuals; and of course the stirring score from Joe Hisaishi. It is- for lack of a better term- the thinking man's crime film, as it contains moments of profundity and silence that would no doubt put many off or leave them clamoring for more action. In short, 'Sonatine' is a memorable, mature masterpiece of minimalism from an original, incomparable auteur. If you haven't seen it before, watch it now; 'Sonatine' is not to be missed.


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