For decades, Takeshi “Beat” Kitano has been Mr. Everything in Japanese entertainment—comedian, talk-show host, author, painter, video game designer and the auteur responsible for his country’s most popular gangster (or yakuza) movies.
He is largely unknown in the United States. His greatest exposure here was Spike TV’s re-airing of his schlockiest work, a slapstick-style 1980s game show called Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. Not exactly the artistic highpoint of a creative fountain who spends his off days writing poetry.
But in the last decade, Kitano’s biggest American devotee—director Quentin Tarantino—has tried to raise his Western profile. Tarantino, who glowingly speaks of how his own work has been influenced by Kitano and other Asian directors, released four of Kitano’s yakuza movies on DVD in this country.
The reaction? Mostly shrugs, to be honest.
A lot is lost in translation when watching these extremely violent films. Some of the jokes and dialect meant for Kitano’s home audience just doesn’t translate. Still, the DVDs are worth checking out if you’re a gangster-movie devotee, a fan of Tarantino or just curious about how they execute the genre in the Far East.
And if you plan to give one a try, start with Sonatine, which Kitano wrote, directed and edited. He also stars in it as a weary, middle-aged Tokyo mobster.
Kitano’s character, Mr. Murakawa, is a yakuza crew boss who tells an associate that he is pondering retirement. He has lost interest in the job and the lifestyle, even though his gang is very successful. “Maybe you’re too rich for this business,” offers the associate.
Before he can get out, his don—or “overlord”—assigns him to travel to Okinawa to sort out a dispute between two mob factions. He’s not eager for the job. He has suspicions that the boss is setting him up. “The last time you sent us out I lost three men,” Murakawa says. “I did not enjoy that.”
Still, he has no choice. So he and his lieutenant, Takahashi (Ken’ichi Yajima), recruit a band of inexperienced thugs and head to Okinawa. Within a few days, Murakawa and his men get caught in a bloody ambush. His suspicions, it turns out, were correct. He has been double-crossed—sent on a doomed mission so that the boss can muscle in and take over his lucrative territory back in Tokyo.
Now stranded far from home, Murakawa takes his surviving crew and retreats to a remote seaside cabin to plot his next move.
This is where Sonatine takes a curious turn. As the men wait it out at the secluded beach house, they play Frisbee, dress up as geishas, practice sumo wrestling and engage in a bizarre version of rock-paper-scissors in which the winner gets to shoot a beer can off the loser’s head.
The point, as far as we can see it, is to show the banality of passing time. But Kitano’s directing style—which verges on slapstick at times—becomes campy and occasionally downright silly. As Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote, “The picture ricochets from random urban mob hits to horseplay in the sand that wouldn’t have looked out of place on The Monkees.”
To further confuse things, Murakawa begins an extraneous relationship with a gun-loving yakuza groupie (so much for isolation). She is attracted to him, she says, because he has no fear of death. Ah, romance.
There is no room for sentimentality in that relationship, nor any other aspect of Murakawa’s life. As Tarantino explains in the DVD commentary, “Takeshi’s characters—and his films—are rough, hard and violent. There’s none of the romanticism you would find in American gangster movies.”
Eventually, Murakawa plots his revenge. We won’t give you all the details, except to say that, by our count, 23 mobsters lose their lives in the film’s final five minutes. The last one may surprise you.
HIT: Sonatine does an excellent job of depicting the yakuza code, which apparently requires much more turning the other cheek than in the American mob. In one scene, Murakawa beats one of his boss’ deputies into submission in a men’s room—but the two remain on speaking terms. In another scene, one impetuous low-level thug stabs another in the gut. The next day, they sit side-by-side on a bus ride, and the slasher even offers his victim an ice cream bar. “You stabbed me in the stomach and it still hurts,” explains the wounded man as he declines the treat.
MISS: Kitano’s characters approach murder as their job, he explains in the DVD commentary, making them impassive toward violence. Okay, we get that. But there’s impassive, and then there’s catatonic. As guns are fired and blood flies, the deadpan shooters (and often the victims) seem bored to the point of stasis. Reportedly, French actor Alain Delon—who starred in the 1967 masterpiece The Samurai—watched Sonatine and said of Kitano afterward, “What’s that? This is not an actor. He’s only got three facial expressions and he almost doesn’t talk on top of that.”
PIVOTAL SCENE: Murakawa’s casual approach toward killing is revealed in an early scene in which the stubborn operator of a mahjong gambling house on Murakawa’s turf is set up to be frightened into paying protection money. The man is tied and suspended from the arm of a crane and lowered into the harbor. Murakawa, who is supervising the dunking, gets caught up in conversation and forgets how long the man has been under. By the time Murakawa orders the man pulled up, he is dead.
No big deal. Murakawa turns away in boredom and begins another conversation. The victim is forgotten before his body is even cut down from the crane.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Twice—the first time to take it all in, the second time to better comprehend it.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: One year after making Sonatine, Kitano was in a serious motorcycle accident that paralyzed half his face. On a bonus interview—included with the DVD—conducted several years later, you can see the difference. The right side of his face sags and twitches.
BEST LINE: Murakawa confesses to his new girlfriend that he often shoots people out of fear.
“But you’re not afraid of dying, are you?” she asks.
“When you’re scared all the time,” he replies, “you reach a point where you almost wish you were dead.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “No Armani, no marinara, no Joe Pesci. Takeshi Kitano’s Japanese mafia flick lacks the quaint iconography of the Sicilian-American fare we were all weaned on. Yet Sonatine achieves a cold, manic brilliance all its own that owes nothing to Coppola or De Laurentiis.”—Peg Aloi, Boston Phoenix
BODY COUNT: Forty-two, including thirty-seven shooting victims, three dead by bombing, one stabbing victim and that poor guy plunged into the river.
Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.
[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]