A beach party movie.
Murakawa is the leader of a Yakuza branch. He has been running a successful loan shark operation in his area of Tokyo, but has been thinking of quitting. His boss, however, has other plans for him. Nakamatsu, a distant relative of the boss, has started a Yakuza war with a rival clan in the southern islands of Okinawa and has begged for help. Murakawa is chosen to take some of his men there to negotiate a peace. He is not happy to go there, since a previous trip to the northern islands to settle a clan dispute had gotten three of his men killed. In fact, he pretty much outright accuses his boss of wanting to get rid of him and take over his territory. The boss denies it, but it is obviously true. And Takamura, the right hand man of the boss, argues that going down there the last time was what earned Murakawa his turf in the first place. Murakawa agrees to go with a group of men, though not before beating up Takamura.
Murakawa and his men arrive in Okinawa and a few of Nakamatsu’s men bring them to what would be their temporary headquarters. And someone shoots into the window almost immediately. They eventually meet with Nakamatsu, who claims that this war was just an isolated shooting incident and that he never called for any help. Murakawa is allowed to stick around for a while until their temporary headquarters gets bombed and they get into a shootout with members of the rival clan in a bar.
The men whom Nakamatsu had tasked to show Murakawa and his men around take the survivors to a house by a beach, where they can live until they get new orders. As Murakawa tries unsuccessfully to telephone the boss, his men just waste time at the beach house. They start indulging in various games and pranks that are both childish and inventive. Some of the games, though, have the specter of violence, which gets even worse when Murakawa tries to get involved.
One night, a man and his wife drive up close to the house. The man assaults her and tries to rape her. Murakawa observes this for a little while until he goes over and confronts the husband, eventually shooting him dead. The woman, Miyuki, starts hanging out with the men and gets attached to Murakawa. At first, it may seem as if she could be his key to escape the Yakuza life…but maybe not.
Despite initially faring poorly in Japan, this movie has been seen as the one that really made clear the transition of Kitano “Beat” Takeshi away from his origins as a comedic actor and more towards the gangster movies that he had begun acting in a few years earlier. While this movie is definitely funny, there is a sense of melancholy and emptiness throughout.
The humor comes from two main places. The first is the rather dark and cynically absurd nature of the movie. Murakawa knows that he is being set up and acts very confrontational towards his boss, but he ultimately follows orders. At one point early on in the movie, a younger member of his team stabs an older member. Later on, they are shown sitting together on a bus, with the older Yakuza treating the attack as if it were like the younger man had thrown food at him. Despite whatever hostility there may be between people or even extreme disrespect, obedience trumps all. Additionally, almost all acts of violence are treated with apathy. Not coolness, just apathy. I will come back to this, but it can be quite funny how bizarre it is. The scenes with gunfire can come across as awkward and incompetently presented to the point of eliciting laughter. On the other hand, the second place is the way that the men seem to utterly regress once they get to the beach. There were hints of certain men being manchildren earlier in the film, but it seems as if all of them (the survivors, at least) go past that straight to plain old boyhood by this point. They make sand pits and cover them up. They shoot cans off each others’ heads. They shoot at a frisbee. They shoot at each other with roman candles. They engage in an utterly hilarious wrestling match. This part here, away from the rage and the resentment and the betrayal and the blood, is the heart of the movie. Unfortunately, all of that bad stuff will eventually catch up to them and they all know it. That is where the humor mixes with sadness and unease.
With no orders or plan, the men are left with nothing to do. The city is not safe for them and there is not much of a chance that they can find out how to confront their enemies. Goofing off on the beach is pretty much all that they have left. It is either a reminder of a past that they have lost or a childhood that they never had in the first place. They know that the world of dangerous men is coming eventually and it may destroy them all. This may very well be their last chance to be truly happy. As I said before, however, these games all have a violent undertone, which gets worse when Murakawa gets involved. He does not actually hurt anyone, but the threat of someone getting hurt rises. The thing is, Murakawa does want to get away from this way of life. It is not really out of a sense of conscience as it is that he feels nothing for it. In fact, it seems as if none of them do.
This gets back to the apathy in the face of violence. Traditional Japanese warriors were supposed to face a glorious death in battle with honor and never back down. There is also the notion of Japanese people in general being reserved and burying their emotions. This movie takes it to an extreme. When there is a gunfight, no one seems to move except when shot. They don’t take cover or move to a better strategic position. They rarely even change facial expression. This is not embracing a glorious death; this is just nothing. This is not the cool posing from The Mission from a year ago: this is like giving up. They may feel a range of emotions like anger or fear, but they all just shut down emotionally. Their dreams and concerns just empty out of them long before they empty their guns. Shooting is just instinctive; anyone who does not have a gun simply does not move to reach for a gun. Their lives are just means to an end that does not involve them.
Murakawa is not actually apathetic to violence, even though he may look that way. He once says that he is really scared, which is why he shoots so quickly. He wants to get away from this life, but he does not know how. Worse, it may seem as if the violence that he is wants to escape may be embedded inside himself, which is why he has the tendency of upping the threat of violence in the otherwise goofy beach games. He is haunted by violence and has dreams of killing himself. Maybe he is not scared of getting killed as much as he is scared of the violence within him getting unleashed. Even if he is able to leave the Yakuza unharmed, he will still have to escape from himself.
Sonatine may be somewhat difficult to engage with at first. Just reach out to it and you may find a movie that is very funny, very sad, and very good.
WTF ASIA 98: A Better Tomorrow (Hong Kong: 1986, approx. 96 minutes)
WTF ASIA 99: Twilight Gangsters (South Korea: 2010, approx. 108 minutes)