Friday, March 6, 2009

REVIEW: Sonatine

ソナチネ (Sonachine)

Released: 1993

Takeshi Kitano

Takeshi Kitano
Aya Kokumai
Tetsu Watanabe
Susumu Terajima
Masanobu Katsumura

Running time: 94 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

There are few filmmakers who have taken as seriously the process of becoming a true artist as Takeshi Kitano. Known for being highly self-critical and his additional forays into writing and painting, he has often described his films in terms of how they reflect his experience (or lack thereof) as a director, with “Hana-Bi (Fireworks)” standing as the work in which he finally achieved both officially and on his terms the status of master (as he stated upon accepting the Golden Lion for it at the 1997 Venice Film Festival). In his own way, Kitano has successfully developed his abilities and identity through his work, having most recently conducted an assessment of his career with the loose trilogy of “Takeshis’”, “Glory to the Filmmaker!” and “Achilles and the Tortoise”.

Along Kitano’s scale of self-measured development, “Sonatine” marks the completion of his first stage of training. The title is a term for “little sonata,” describing a piece of music that demonstrates an understanding of fundamental techniques. In that respect, “Sonatine” can be seen as accurately fulfilling its title, demonstrating the director’s then-newly acquired confidence through smooth camera movements (including an impressive effect which causes a restaurant to expand hypnotically à la Hitchcock’s famous “Vertigo” trick) and a highly controlled sense of tone and pace. Additionally, the film contains such Kitano hallmarks as abrupt, almost self-contained bursts of violence, deadpan performances (including, of course, one from him in the lead role) and an atypically calm, detached approach towards crime genre elements.
“Sonatine” was intended as an homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s highly influential “Pierrot le fou”, and indeed, the similarities between the two films are numerous. Most prominent among them is a lengthy narrative standstill situated at a beach, explained in Kitano’s film as a safety measure after its central yakuza gang becomes the target of a possible betrayal. Regardless of how it fits in the plot, it leads to some of the film’s most unexpectedly entertaining and humorous moments as the gangsters kill time amid the sand and surf. Seemingly embracing their inner child, they amuse themselves by donning Acapulco shirts, drinking lots of beer and sake, playing with their guns, putting on musical performances, building sand traps and holding firework fights. At one point, they replicate a Sumo match game first with pathetic paper figures, then on the beach with each other, the creative use of music and fast motion making it an especially comical and light-hearted scene.

As with most of Kitano’s films, you finish “Sonatine” knowing you have just witnessed a highly personal and original vision. Pleasantly unconventional, it offers much to enjoy, particularly for open-minded viewers looking for something different (contrary to one poorly-chosen critic quote on the Region 1 DVD cover, it barely resembles “Goodfellas”). Fresh, bold and stimulating, it signifies one of Kitano’s most accomplished works.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

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