"Maybe you're too rich for this business,'' a friend tells Murakama, the stone-faced gangster hero of ''Sonatine.'' Murakama, who rarely says anything, has let it slip that he is tired. Very tired. When he is not actually engaged in the business of being a yakuza, he simply stops moving at all, and sits, staring into space, sometimes with a cigarette, sometimes not.
He is tired of living, but not scared of dying, because death, he explains, would at least put an end to his fear of death, which is making his life not worth living. When he explains this perfectly logical reasoning, you look to see if he is smiling, but he isn't. He has it all worked out.
''Sonatine'' is the latest film to be released in this country by Takeshi Kitano, who wrote, directed and edited it--and stars in it under his acting name, Beat Takeshi. It arrives here only a month after ''Fireworks,'' his 1997 Venice Film Festival winner, but was made in 1993, the fourth of his seven films. He is the biggest star in Japan right now, and as a filmmaker one of the most intriguing.
This film is even better than ''Fireworks.'' It shows how violent gangster movies need not be filled with stupid dialogue, nonstop action and gratuitous gore. ''Sonatine'' is pure, minimal and clean in its lines; I was reminded of Jean-Pierre Melville's ''Le Samourai'' (1967), another film about a professional killer who is all but paralyzed by existential dread.
Neither movie depends on extended action scenes because neither hero finds them fun. There is the sense in a lot of American action movies that Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoy the action in the way, say, that they might enjoy a football game. Murakama and the French samurai (Alain Delon) do jobs--jobs they have lost the heart for, jobs that have extinguished in them the enjoyment of life.
As the film opens, Murakama and his crew are being signed by a yakuza overlord to travel to Okinawa, as soldiers on loan to an ally who is facing gang warfare. They sense that something is phony about the assignment. ''The last time you sent us out,'' Murakama tells his boss, ''I lost three men. I didn't enjoy that.'' Murakama is correct in his suspicions: The district he controls has become so lucrative that the boss wants to move in and take over.
These yakuza live by a code so deep it even regulates their fury. Murakama administers a brutal beating to the boss' lieutenant, but they remain on speaking terms. Later, one yakuza stabs another in the stomach. Yet they sit side by side on a bus in Okinawa. ''Ice cream?'' says the guy who had the knife. ''You stabbed me in the belly and it still hurts,'' the other replies, and we are not quite sure if he is rejecting the ice cream out of anger, or because he doesn't think it will stay down.
In Kitano's universe, violence is as transient as a lightning bolt. It happens, and is over. It means nothing. We sense that in a scene where three men play ''paper, rock, scissors'' to see who will get to point a pistol at his head and pull the trigger to see if there is a round in the chamber. We see it again in a chilling sequence where a gambler, who didn't want to pay protection, is dunked into the sea; Murakama gets into a conversation and almost forgets to notice how long the guy has been under.
And we see it in the climactic battle scene, played entirely as flashes of lights: Who else would have the wit, or the sadness, to leave the carnage offscreen? Kitano was in a motorcycle accident a few years ago that paralyzed half his face. This film was made before the accident, but there's little difference between the way he appears here and in ''Fireworks.'' The less he gives, the less he reveals, the less he says and does, the more his presence grows, until he becomes the cold, dangerous center of the story.
And in his willingness to let characters languish in real time, to do nothing in between the moments of action, he forces us to look into their eyes and try to figure them out. Films that explain nothing often make everything clear. Films that explain everything often have nothing to explain.
Actor, filmmaker, writer, comedian, painter, author, game show host and one-time video game designer Takeshi Kitano, aka Beat Takeshi, was most likely a pretty sad guy for much of his first decade of directing. In 1994, Japan’s one-man institution survived a near-fatal motorcycle crash that would leave the right side of his face partially paralysed. It is an incident that he would later describe as an “unconscious suicide attempt,” and his directorial output, in the years before and since, reflects this dark desire in a plethora of doomed and dread-filled characters, many of them played by Kitano himself. It’s grimly appropriate that arguably the most famous image of the man’s entire filmography, taken from a dream sequence in 1993’s Sonatine, is that of a grinning Kitano standing on a beach as he fires a bullet through his temple.
When a filmmaker has staged their own demise as many times as Kitano, it’s only natural to worry that this subject is an ongoing fixation that goes beyond the person’s output as an artist. But while death and suicide have maintained a consistent presence throughout much of the director’s best work, the prevalence is rivalled by the more optimistic depiction of art itself as an uplifting and therapeutic force. These two thematic threads that run through Kitano’s oeuvre find their most profound intermingling in the bittersweet 1997 crime drama Hana-bi (Fireworks), a layered meditation on the importance of creation as a means of processing both the horror and beauty of existence.
The personal significance of art is explored explicitly in the lesser of Hana-bi’s two closely related plots, in which Kitano regular Ren Osugi plays Horibe, a middle-aged police officer confined to a wheelchair after getting shot on the job. Horibe’s marriage quickly falls apart in the aftermath, leading him to attempt suicide. But when his former colleague and friend Yoshitaka Nishi, played by Kitano, sends him a box of art supplies, Horibe finds a hobby into which he can pour all his hope, despair and creative energy.
Viewers never see Horibe receive any praise or recognition for his colourful, if simplistic artworks, which were in reality painted by Kitano himself. If his interviews are anything to go by, Kitano holds no delusions about the quality and importance of his contributions to the art world. Rather, for both Kitano and Horibe, the point is expression as a means of reflection. Taking the natural world as his inspiration, Horibe’s painting seems to stem from a basic need to immerse himself in something — anything — that will allow him to work through his feelings and, in the process, possibly make a little more sense of himself and the world he lives in.
Personal fulfilment, as opposed to a lasting legacy, is also what motivates the reticent, debt-ridden Nishi, another ex-cop who was left childless by the death of his young daughter and whose wife, Miyuki, suffers from a terminal illness. Adding to the emotional burden of these two misfortunes is the haunting memory of another police officer, Tanaka, who Nishi witnessed die in a gunfight. With Kitano’s trademark poker face suggesting a weary soul numbed by trauma, Nishi is a stoic, often inscrutable figure prone to shocking outbursts of violence, usually directed at any yakuza punk who crosses his path.
While Horibe finds his emotional outlet through paintings that replicate and reinterpret nature, a parallel propensity for reproduction and reassessment is engrained in the very telling of Nishi’s story, which sees key images rhymed and repeated, and striking memories replayed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s remarkable midsection as Nishi discovers a new sense of purpose and carries out a drastic plan that will allow him to live out his final days with Miyuki in peace.
This pivotal half hour begins with Nishi in a junkyard, staring pensively at a pile of scrap. At the sound of a siren, he turns to see a police car emerge from behind a pile of rusty vehicles, speeding into the distance. The image triggers the full, grisly memory of the death of Tanaka, an incident that had only appeared previously in brief, bloody fragments. To the sound of gunfire, Hani-bi snaps to the present time as Nishi asks the junkyard’s grouchy owner if he can buy a police light that he’s spotted. When questioned why, Nishi bluntly responds, “I’m thinking of robbing a bank.”
In a parodic imitation of his old life as a cop, Nishi’s criminal plan entails converting a stolen taxi into a fake police car — a sequence that is tellingly interwoven with footage of Horibe painting, amounting to a tender montage of resourcefulness and creativity. That Nishi successfully carries out his heist using little more than a vehicle and some props found in a junkyard is a moving testament to the potential of human beings to create wondrous things from the limited assets of life (a scene of the junkyard owner berating a customer offers a more commercial variant on this notion: “What do you mean ‘junk’? It’s merchandise, asshole!”). The robbery is exquisitely capped off with a re-enactment of that initiating image of the police car speeding away from the junkyard, only this time with a uniformed Nishi at the wheel, his vision now a reality.
But Hana-bi hardly stops there in its almost obsessive reproduction and reassessment of the past, even reflecting on incidents from beyond the world that its characters inhabit. For one thing, the parallels between Hana-bi, Kitano’s 1989 directorial debut Violent Cop and 1993’s Sonatine are numerous and specific enough that the three films practically form their own loose trilogy. In the fittingly titled, startlingly grim Violent Cop, Kitano plays Azuma, another worn-out police officer prone to aggressive outbursts but who cares deeply for the sick woman in his life — this time a mentally ill sister. It is a film of problems without solutions, as Azuma’s pessimistic attempt to beat some sense into a wretched and irredeemable world only brings further tragedy and despair, concluding with Azuma mercy-killing his sister immediately before he himself is murdered.
The meditative Sonatine, meanwhile, carries a frightening undercurrent of instability as yakuza gangster Murakawa — again, a world-weary, violence-prone protagonist played by Kitano — is forced to hide out in a remote beach house once things go awry. Murakawa’s exile turns out to be a peaceful respite from the traumas of his work life. Scenes of goofy theatre and recreation pave the way for Hana-bi’s insights on the transcendent power of art, but Sonatine’s devastating third act pulls the hero sharply back into his state of psychological turmoil, ending with Murakawa living out his aforementioned fantasy and shooting himself in the head.
The ending of Hana-bi essentially combines these two bleak conclusions as Nishi mercy-kills his wife then uses a second bullet to end his own life. The scene’s conscious mimicry of Sonatine is underscored by its seaside setting, along with Kitano’s choice to cut to the face of a nearby female character right before the credits roll, just like the end of Sonatine. What’s different, however, is that the finale of Hana-bi holds a poignant sense of closure that is nowhere to be found in the other two films. This is a result of the emotional healing and spiritual fulfilment witnessed in the film’s final third, which largely follows Nishi and Miyuki as they embark on one last vacation across the country, with the law and the yakuza in pursuit.
If Violent Cop suggests a sick world with no remedy and Sonatine offers a ray of hope before throwing its protagonist back into the darkness, Hana-bi presents the best of all possible outcomes while staying true to Kitano’s cynical worldview, as Nishi is awakened to the wonders of this brief existence before it is too late. It is as though the same gloomy character is being repeatedly killed and reincarnated until he can finally get it right.
Perhaps this overarching figure is Kitano himself. Not only does Hana-bi see the filmmaker revisit and remix his previous cinematic works, but he also introduces elements directly from his own life to suggest a process of self-assessment that’s equivalent to the journeys of his contemplative characters. Though Nishi and Miyuki’s only daughter may have passed away, the unnamed female character who incidentally witnesses their last moments together — and who serves as the focus of the final shot of the film — is played by Kitano’s own teenage daughter, Shoko.
More ubiquitous are Kitano’s paintings, found hanging on the walls of the hospital where Miyuki is treated and the office where Nishi brawls with yakuza, as well as holding a central place in Horibe’s story of rehabilitation. Kitano took up painting while he was recovering from his subconsciously suicidal motorcycle accident, and the compositions that line the interiors of this film are the products of that period of recuperation.
Like those paintings, Hana-bi is a deeply personal labour of love made by an artist observing his own enigmatic nature from a variety of angles in an attempt to arrive at some clarifying epiphany. Takeshi Kitano, aka Beat Takeshi, is a man who has expressed himself through many mediums over the years and has inhabited a mystifying array of diverse, seemingly contradictory personas: the tough-as-nails film star, the nationally beloved TV funny man, the nationally overlooked arthouse director, the mischievous pop culture troll, the unstable nihilist, the husband, the father, and so on. Hana-bi is the meta-textual and self-reflexive result of this slippery, multi-faceted character trying to figure himself out, standing as a painstakingly eccentric reminder of art’s role as an indispensable tool for finding meaning and purpose in the chaos of our lives.
David Pountain (@David_Pountain) is a London-based writer who has previously contributed to Little White Lies, Asia Times and Eastern Kicks. He is also the editor of the FilmDoo blog.
Categories: 2017 Film Essays, Featured
Tagged as: 1013, Art, Beat Takeshi, Creativity, Crime, David Pountain, Depression, Drama, Essay, Fireworks, Hana-bi, Japanese Cinema, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Romance, Sonatine, Takeshi Kitano, Therapy