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 His first crisis concerns the owner of a mahjong parlour who thinks the yakuza are an outdated institution and refuses to take their threats seriously.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)

The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Noboru Nakamura, 1964)

(C) Shochiku 1964Despite having two films nominated for a best foreign language Oscar and a handful of foreign festival hits under his belt, Noboru Nakamura has been largely forgotten by Western film criticism though a centennial retrospective of three of his most well regarded films at Tokyo Filmex in 2013 has helped to revive interest. The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Yoru no Henrin), Nakamura’s 1964 Shochiku melodrama focussing on the suffocating life of a young woman pulled into the Tokyo red light district, was one of the three newly restored films featured and was also screened in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim. Making full use of its vibrant colour palate, The Shape of Night paints its city as a constant tormentor filled with artificial light and false promises.

As we meet her, melancholy street walker Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) has been trapped in her dead end existence for six years and has lost all hope of living a “normal” life filled with love and happiness. A chance encounter with a supercilious client, Fujii (Keisuke Sonoi), prompts her into a series of recollections in an effort to explain exactly how it was she ended up in such a sorry state. As the eldest daughter of a poor family Yoshie left school early to work in a factory (making those neon tubes you see everywhere) while supplementing her income by working as a barmaid (not a hostess, just a girl behind the bar). Just shy of her 20th birthday, she meets a handsome “salaryman”, Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), who starts coming to the bar regularly to see her. The pair became a couple, and then lovers, and then cohabiters, but Eiji isn’t a “salaryman” so much as a low level gangster with a gambling problem whose street name is “princess”. Continual losses put Eiji in a tight spot with his crew and he begins borrowing money from Yoshie before asking her to prostitute herself to get him out of a hole. Thinking it will just be a one time thing, Yoshie resolves to make a sacrifice for her man but, of course, it wasn’t a one time thing.

Yoshie’s story is a sadly familiar one – an innocent woman duped by a duplicitous man whose empty promises aim to mask his continued fecklessness. Eiji, despite his smart suits and coolly confident attitude, is unlikely to make much of himself in the yakuza world yet is as tied into its hellish system of loyalty and reciprocity as Yoshie is in her non-marriage to the man she thinks she loves. Seeking constant approval, Eiji thinks nothing of living off a woman and his childishly excited smile on re-entering the apartment after Yoshie has sacrificed herself to save his face is a grim reminder of his priorities. When pleading doesn’t work Eiji turns violent, prompting Yoshie to finally consider leaving him but she’s too late – the yakuza world has already got its hooks into her and any attempt to escape will be met with terrifying resistance.

Fujii may seem as if he presents another option for Yoshie, a chance for a better, kinder existence but he too is merely another man trying to tell her how she should live her life. Hypocritical at best (as he freely admits), Fujii pays Yoshie to “ease his sexual urges” but expresses disgust and disapproval of her lifestyle and seeks to “save” her from her life of humiliating immorality, “purifying” her just like the dam he is building is supposed to do to the Sumida river. Fujii’s obvious saviour complex is worrying enough in itself though there is also the additional worry of what his “salvation” may entail if Yoshie decides to make a break from her yakuza chains and run off to the comparative safety of provincial Hokkaido. Fujii may claim to have fallen in love with her, but so did Eiji and who’s to say Fujii’s idea of wedded bliss will be any better than Eiji’s brutal reign as a common law spouse.

The situation is further complicated by Eiji’s gradual shift from a violent, overbearing, abusive boyfriend to a genial figure of gentle domesticity and what that shift later provokes in Yoshie. Rendered physically impotent by an incident during a gang fight, Eiji is literally and figuratively emasculated. Though his sudden inability to satisfy Yoshie originally provokes his jealously, it soon robs him of his violent impulses and turns Eiji into a willing housewife who dutifully does the couple’s washing and prepares the meals much to Yoshie’s consternation. This transformation is what finally kills her love for him, but still Yoshie cannot find it in herself to sever her connection with the man who has been the cause of all her suffering. Not quite hate or loathing, Yoshie’s burned out love has become a burden of care as she finds herself duty bound to look after a man she now believes incapable of looking after himself.

While Yoshie and Eiji sit in a bar one night after “work”, the television plays a report featuring the sad news of the death of a female student at the ANPO demonstrations. Prompting Yoshie to exclaim “what is ANPO anyway?”, the news report lays bare just how isolated her life as become – as all of Tokyo is aflame with with righteous indignation and the streets are filled with the largest protest in living memory, Yoshie is trapped in her tiny neon world which promises so much and delivers so little.

Nakamura makes fantastic use of sound design to capture Yoshie’s interior world – the background music rising over the droning voice of a boring client who hasn’t quite made up his mind, the radio cutting out at intense moments of violence, the terrible clanging of Eiji’s geta on the iron staircase which leads to his flat. Fading into blue dissolves of memory, Nakamura makes a hellish wonderland of nighttime Tokyo whose flashing neon lights, crowded bars and oddly darkened streets turn it into a prison of dubious delights. Finally making a drastic decision, Yoshie attempts to free herself from her burdens and sever the chains which bind her to her misery but in cutting the cord she finds the knots tightening, realising she will never be released from the source of all her suffering.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.