Sonatine (ソナチネ, Takeshi Kitano, 1993)

The problem with being a yakuza is that there is never any rest. Staying alive means constant vigilance, make a mistake and it could be the end of you or, conversely, get too good at your job and place a target on your own back. The hero of Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine (ソナチネ) declares himself tired, not just of the life but life itself. By his fourth picture, Kitano was perhaps feeling something similar, later describing the near-fatal motorcycle accident he encountered some months after the film’s completion as an unconscious suicide attempt. For years he’d been one of Japan’s top TV personalities working a breakneck schedule that left him little time for other outlets such as painting, novels, and acting for others, but still he longed to be taken more seriously as an artist in his home nation where audiences largely stayed away from his “serious” films, as they did with Sonatine which flopped at the box office and put an end to his arrangement with Shochiku who had distributed his first two features in which he had also starred. 

For this third film, A Scene at the Sea, Kitano remained behind the camera and distanced himself from the themes of crime and violence which defined his early career, crafting instead an intensely melancholy tone poem about a deaf surfer falling in love with the ocean. In Sonatine he casts himself as the lead for the first time since Violent Cop, this time as a gangster experiencing extreme existential malaise when confronted with the futility and emptiness of his life in organised crime. Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano) is aware he has probably reached the zenith of his career as a mid-tier gang boss working as a, by all accounts, unexpectedly successful enforcer in a rundown area of the city. His first crisis concerns the owner of a mahjong parlour who thinks the yakuza are an outdated institution and refuses to take their threats seriously. He sees no need to pay them the customary protection money and assumes they’ll back off he simply tells them he’s not interested, but he is very wrong. Murakawa has him kidnapped to teach him a lesson, observing while his minions attach him to a crane and threaten him by dunking him in a large pool of water. Immediately apologetic, the man sees the error of his ways, but Murakawa doesn’t really care about the money anymore and so they dunk him again to see how long it takes a man to drown, barely shrugging as they realise he really died. 

Either because he’s an unusual man, or because he is simply tired of everything, Murakawa no longer bothers to abide by the rules of petty gangsterdom. He doesn’t do deference, smoking away long before his boss offers permission to do so and feeling unafraid to voice his reluctance when he’s ordered to take some of his guys to Okinawa to settle a nascent gang war involving one of their affiliates. Murakawa doesn’t want to go because he lost three men in a similar job in Hokkaido, but in reality has little choice. Later events prove he was right to be suspicious. The Okinawan gang boss tells him that he reported some minor friction with another gang out of courtesy and is confused he’s been sent reinforcements, not that he’s not glad to see them. As soon as they arrive, however, the tension rises and Murakawa and the guys are forced into hiding, holing up at the beach as they await orders from head office or word on a possible truce. 

Murakawa, his two right-hand men, and the Okinawan gangsters adjust to tranquil island life, playing on the beach and taking the time to master the art of Okinawan folk dance, but the grim spectres of death and violence present themselves even here in empty games of Russian roulette and Murakawa’s childish prank of digging sand traps for the guys to fall into as if into their graves. While he’s busy admiring the night sky, the silence is ruptured by a local tough chasing a young woman onto the beach where he proceeds to rape her. Murakawa doesn’t intervene but is challenged anyway and then forced to kill the puffed up youngster while the young woman, Miyuki (Aya Kokumai), becomes strangely attached to him, impressed by his cool dispatch of her attacker. 

Murakawa’s somehow innocent relationship with the young woman creates a minor rift with his men who resent the absence of his leadership at a time of crisis while he ponders alternate futures outside of the gangster brotherhood. But deep down he knows that his idyllic beach holiday cannot last forever and that he will have to leave this liminal space eventually for a destination of which he is all too aware. As he explains to Miyuki, when you fear death so intensely you begin to long for it if only for an end to its terrible anxiety. 

The title “Sonatine” is apparently inspired by the “sonatina”, a short, tripartite piece piano players attempt to mark an attainment of skills before choosing the future direction of their musical career. Murakawa undergoes three distinct arcs, from the city to the beach and back again, but perhaps knows there is no future direction in which for him to travel only the nihilistic fatalism of a life of violence. As for Kitano, it does perhaps draw a line in the sand marking the end of an apprenticeship and its associated compromises as he fully embraces an authentic personal style, like Murakawa no longer prepared to be deferent in an admittedly exhausting world. 


Sonatine is the third of three films included in the BFI’s Takeshi Kitano Collection blu-ray box set and is accompanied by an audio commentary by Chris D recorded in 2008. The first pressing includes a 44-page booklet featuring an essay on Sonatine and introduction to Kitano’s career by Jasper Sharp,  an essay on Violent Cop by Tom Mes, a piece on Boiling Point from Mark Schilling, an archival review by Geoff Andrew, and an appreciation of Beat Takeshi by James-Masaki Ryan.

The Takeshi Kitano Collection is released 29th June while Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Sonatine will also be available to stream via BFI Player from 27th July as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

We Make Antiques (嘘八百, Masaharu Take, 2018)

We make antiques posterWho will scam the scammers? The antiques trade is a high stakes business, and at least as far as Masaharu Take’s We Make Antiques (嘘八百, Uso Happyaku) goes, one which makes use of its aura of respectability to cheat unsuspecting amateurs out of their hard earned cash for the false promise of exclusivity. Then again, does it really matter when something was made so long as it was made well and with artistic integrity? Perhaps collectors are just as happy with a nice piece as an authentic one, if only no one ever tells them the difference.

Jaded antiques dealer Norio Koike (Kiichi Nakai) prides himself on having a good eye, forced to learn to spot the inauthentic in record time after having his reputation trashed when he accidentally sold a “fake”, making the rookie mistake of taking provenance at face value without assessing all the facts. These days he’s not as precious as he used to be, mostly making his living out of buying up genuine antiques from clueless owners, convincing them their pieces are fakes and therefore worthless before selling them on at tremendous profit. It’s a trick he pulls on a wealthy man with a warehouse full of teacups that belonged to his father he’d rather get rid of so he can open a cafe, spotting an obvious fake and buying it cheap to take it straight back to where he knows it came from. Koike gets his comeuppance however when the man calls him back and says he’s found something interesting – an Edo-era letter in a box. Koike lies and says the letter is a random missive about a peasant revolt, when really it’s from grandmaster Rikyu and mentions coming with a tea bowl which Koike manages to find after searching the warehouse again.

After buying the entire stock to mask his desire for the tea bowl and letter, Koike realises he’s been had. The man he was talking to isn’t the owner of the warehouse but a caretaker, and the warehouse only exists to store fakes produced by a team of master forgers operating out of a nearby ramen joint. Noda (Kuranosuke Sasaki), who managed to scam Koike, was like him professionally embarrassed and by the same two corrupt elitists, Tadayasu Hiwatashi (Kogan Ashiya) and his celebrity authenticator Seiichiro Tanahashi (Masaomi Kondo), who picked him up as an aspiring ceramicist, giving him a fancy award but secretly using him to produce “replicas” to sell in their store. 20 years later, Noda is a cynical and jaded figure, unable to connect with his “nerdy” son (Tomoya Maeno) who spends his time building fantastically realistic military dioramas, and increasingly distanced from his patient wife who deeply resents the loss of his artistic integrity.

After a brief locking of horns, the two men decide to team up to scam the scammers, teach them a lesson, get a little ironic revenge, and become filthy rich in the process. Creating expert fakes, however, is a taxing business which requires an extreme depth of knowledge and in this case of a well known and hugely respected historical figure. Sen no Rikyu, the father of the tea ceremony, was, ironically enough, ordered to commit seppuku after speaking truth to power and, because he was an honourable man, he did it.

The reason most fakes fail is because they’re soulless replicas, often expertly crafted but essentially superficial. Creating a convincing fake allows Noda to regain the creative mojo that he’s been suppressing all these years in resentment towards Hiwatashi and Tanahashi, determined to craft something that reflects the spirit of Rikyu by virtue of the fact that it contains a piece of his own soul. Of course, the guys fully intend to exploit their own “artistic integrity”, Koike turning on the salesman’s patter to sell the dream of Rikyu to two soulless elitists too wrapped up in their sense of self-importance and blinded by greed to see things properly. Yet, there is a perverse love not only for the grift but for the craft and for Japan’s disappearing traditional culture, if only in the ironic rebuke of those who misuse it for their own gain. Bonded in revenge not only against the the venal Hiwatashi and Tanahashi but middle-age and and life itself, the guys generate an unlikely friendship, rediscovering their authentic selves through forgery as they scam the scammers and retake their sense of integrity in the form of a briefcase stuffed with cash.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Karaoke Terror (昭和歌謡大全集, Tetsuo Shinohara, 2003)

karaoke terror poster.jpgEver since its invention karaoke has provided the means for many a weary soul to ease their burdens, but there may be a case for wondering if escapism is a valid goal in a society which seems to be content in stagnation. The awkwardly titled Karaoke Terror (昭和歌謡大全集, Showa Kayo Daizenshu), adapted from the book Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Audition’s Ryu Murakami, pits two very different groups of karaoke enthusiasts against each other – aimless adolescent males, and jaded middle-aged women. Despite the differences in their ages and experiences, both enjoy singing the wistful bubblegum pop of an earlier generation as if drunk on national nostalgia and longing for the lost innocence of Japan’s hopeful post-war endeavour to rebuild itself better than it had been before.

We open with the slackers and a voice over from the presumed “hero” of the film, Ishihara (Ryuhei Matsuda), who informs us that he can’t really remember how he met most of the guys he hangs out with but that he always knew the one of them, Sugioka (Masanobu Ando), was a bit cracked in the head. In a motif that will be repeated, Sugioka catches sight of a middle-aged woman just on the way back from a shopping trip and decides he must have her but his attempts to pick her up fail spectacularly at which point he whips out his knife and slashes her throat.

Meanwhile, across town, a middle-aged woman, Hemmi (Kayoko Kishimoto), offers to let a co-worker share her umbrella but the co-worker misinterprets this small gesture of courtesy as romantic interest and crudely asks her “how about a fuck?” to which Hemmi is quite rightly outraged. Rather than apologise, the co-worker shrugs and says his “direct” approach works six times out of eight and some women even appreciate it. Once she manages to get away from her odious aggressor, Hemmi ends up stumbling over the body of the woman murdered by Sugioka and realises she knows her. The murdered woman was one of six all named Midori who were brought together for a newspaper article about the lives of middle-aged divorced women and have stayed “friends”. Outraged about this assault not just on their friend and their sex but directly against “women of a certain age” who continue to be the butt of a societal joke, the Midoris decide they want revenge and hatch a plan off Sugioka, but once they have, the slackers hit back by offing a Midori and so it continues with ever-increasing levels of violence.

Which ever way you slice it, you can’t deny the Midoris have a point and Hemmi’s continuing outrage is fully justified. When the boys rock up at a mysterious general goods store out in the country looking for a gun, the proprietor (Yoshio Harada) is only too happy to give it to them when they explain they need it for revenge and that their targets are middle-aged women. The proprietor has a lot to say about ladies of a certain age. In fact he hates them and thinks that bossy, embittered, unproductive women “too old” to fulfil their only reason for existence will be the only ones to survive a nuclear apocalypse that even the cockroaches cannot overcome. The boys appear timid and inexperienced but ironically enough can’t take their eyes off the middle-aged woman from across the way and her sexy dance routines. They feel entitled to female deference and cannot accept a woman’s right to decline. The Midoris are sick of being “humiliated”. They’ve fallen from Japan’s conformist path for female success in getting divorced or attempting to pursue careers. They’ve lost their children and endured constant ridicule as “sad” or “desperate”, made to feel as if their presence in the workplace past a certain age was “inappropriate” and the prices they have paid for their meagre successes were not worth the reward. They strike back not just at these psychotic boys but at a society which has persistently enacted other kinds of violence upon them.

Meanwhile, the boys remain boys, refusing adulthood and responsibility by wasting their time on idle pursuits. Truth be told, karaoke performances involving dance routines and elaborate costumes is not a particularly “cool” hobby by the standards of the time but it appears that none of these men have much else in their lives to invest themselves in. With the economy stagnating and the salaryman dream all but dead, you can’t blame them for their apathy or for the rejection of the values of their parents’ generation, but you can blame them for their persistent refusal to grow up and tendency to allow their insecurities to bubble over into violence.

As it turns out, adolescent males and middle-aged women have more in common than might be thought in their peripheral existences, exiled from the mainstream success which belongs exclusively to middle-aged and older men who’ve been careful to (superficially at least) adhere to all the rules of a conformist society. Neither group of friends is especially friendly, only latterly realising that “real” connections are forged through direct communication. Their mutual apathy is pierced only by violence which, ironically, allows their souls to sing and finally shows them just what all those cheerful songs were really about. Darkly comic and often surreal, Karaoke Terror is a sideways look at two diametrically opposed groups finding unexpected common ground in the catharsis of vengeance only for their internecine warfare to graduate into world ending pettiness.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The greatest hits of the Showa era:

Koi no Kisetsu – Pinky & Killers

Hoshi no Nagare ni – Akiko Kikuchi

Chanchiki Okesa – Haruo Minami

Shiroi Cho no Samba – Kayoko Moriyama

Linda Linda – The Blue Hearts

Sweet Memories – Seiko Matsuda

Kaze Tachinu – Seiko Matsuda

Minato ga Mieru Oka – Aiko Hirano

Sabita Knife – Yujiro Ishihara

Hone Made Aishite – Jo Takuya

Kimi to Itsumademo – Yuzo Kayama

Mata Au Hi Made – Kiyohiko Ozaki