A Series of Crimes: Sonatine, by Aaron Pinkston
Perhaps the most important foreign crime subgenre and most interesting companion to the classic American gangster film is the yakuza film. Though films about the “Japanese mafia” go back to the late 1940s, the genre was most popular from the late 1960s through the 1980s — even a few American films explored this new criminal territory (Sidney Pollack’s The Yakuza and Ridley Scott’s Black Rain are prominent examples). Still, there may not be a figure more associated with the yakuza film than Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano, who has made at least seven films depicting the crime syndicate. His style meshed ultraviolence with deep, existentialist thought — both growing crime film tropes in the 90s. Sonatine isn’t Kitano’s first yakuza film (Boiling Point) or most acclaimed (Hana-bi), but it is a very good introduction to the major perceptions of Japanese organized crime in the movies.
Thinking about Sonatine within the context of crime films, there are both obvious similarities and differences with American films, especially the classic gangster flicks. To me, the most interesting similarity is the political and economic landscape that is portrayed. American gangster films, taking place during the economic upswing following the Great Depression, established the gangster as the businessman. With the American Dream creating mythic stories of men pulling themselves up through individualistic determination, the usually lower-class boy coming to power and acclaim through crime became commendable, even heroic. Though a relatively small country in area, Japan has become among the world’s leaders in technology and industry post-World War II, adding an extra allure to the mystique of the businessman. Though self-made men aren’t championed like in America, the Japanese system seems to expect a certain rigid professionalism.
The yakuza grew specifically out of this world, completely blurring the lines between the businessman and the criminal. On the surface, the characters in Sonatine work wholly like a business — if you strip away the guns and murder you can keep much of the plot intact as a story of a hostile takeover and political backstabbing. The first act of the film is set in organizational meetings and boardroom environments filled with men in well-tailored suits and stern expressions. Much of the film’s tension comes from Murakawa (played by Kitano) being too successful as a moneymaker, prompting his boss to try and knock him off and take his turf. The solely economic motivations behind the film’s violent bursts really highlights the connection between the criminal and the business. More contemporary portrayals of the American mafia, like The Sopranos and even The Godfather, have a similar organizational feel.
Similarly, the yakuza is an organization with a facade of honor and structure, but is really without any loyalty. This plays on Japan’s most important film genre, the samurai film, which inhabits a world completely built on codes of honor. The traditions of Japan still exist in theory, but they have been adapted for the perhaps even more cutthroat modern world. Technology has sped up this world, with decisions happening on a whim and without much need for consideration. But with only the facade of honor, tricks and deception are used in order to settle scores. When two parties had a problem in the samurai age, they participated in an organized duel, giving a fair shot to each side. In Sonatine, the yakuza boss secludes our hero and sends a hitman after him, disguised as an unassuming fisherman. This foul play breeds another popular trope of many modern crime films: stone cold revenge.
Before the film’s final act devolves into the violent ballet that Kitano has become known for, Sonatine brings a unique quality to the crime films in this series — showing the criminals outside of the world of crime. Sometimes the life of a criminal isn’t all action and violence, and sometimes criminals are forced to escape this lifestyle when things go bad. Early on, Murakawa is sent to mediate a feud between two gang factions. He quickly realizes that the assignment is not only a waste of time, but a setup to take him and his success out of the picture. When his group feels this pressure, they take a “vacation,” leaving the city to hang low at a beach town where there is little threat and little to do. Because the yakuza are portrayed strictly as businessmen, leaving the business center takes them completely out of their element. They spend most of their downtime playing handmade games and pulling pranks on each other. In order to inject a little of the violence back into their lives, they get their kicks by shooting cans and even playing Russian roulette. But, as their now neutered life suggests, in the film’s most famous scene, the gun chamber is empty.
Director/star Takeshi Kitano doesn’t quite play the typical individualistic, flamboyant gangster hero of the classic American films. This is partly because of Japan’s cultural ideal of teams working together above individual achievement. Depending on the character’s setting and situation, he teeters between stoic badass and jovial prankster. Kitano is a very strange figure in world cinema — known very much for his gritty and violent crime dramas, but maybe more popular in Japan as a television host of the game show Takeshi’s Castle. American audiences may know the show when it was repurposed as the Japanese game show spoof Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.
Sonatine came at the important crossroads at the rise of American independent films and a shift to more violence in smaller films. The previous film in this series, Bonnie and Clyde, showcased the trend of studio films becoming more aggressively and outwardly violent with blood showing up on screen. The 1980s took this trend and beefed it up with the larger-than-life action films that have marked that era. The 90s were no more or less violent than the previous decades, but we began seeing smaller American films and world cinema adopting the harsh and bloody crime stories. Quentin Taratino’s Reservoir Dogs is perhaps the prime example (released the year before Sonatine), but Kitano is unquestionably a flag-bearer for this movement. The remaining films in this crime series really begin to kick into a more extreme cinema.