This is one of Kitano’s finest films, despite its faults. It’s the first film in which he showed the gentleness and compassionate tolerance of human faults for which he’s become renowned, as well as the playfulness that sits oddly in a yakuza film.
The first half of the film drags a little: it’s mainly setting the scene and delineating the characters. Worthwhile, it’s true, but it could have been done in less time. Had Kitano made this film now, with all his experience, it would have been done in less time, but Sonatine falls early in his filmography. We can forgive him this, though, because the film builds throughout the second half to become a film that will linger in your mind for months.
Kitano’s genius is that he manages to let us see through the skin of the yakuza hard men to the innocent souls beneath. True, they are yakuza. True, they kill without thought. But when these men are isolated and at loose ends, they show a glimpse of what they could have been, were circumstances otherwise. Ren Osugi plays to perfection the stone-faced lieutenant come adrift, still clutching for the certainties of the yakuza world. He’s very nearly unbending, and as sensitive about his dignity as a cat. Kitano himself plays it low-key as the leader of his little band, with the occasional wheezing laugh turning his killer’s face into that of a deranged pixie.
The highlight of the film has to be Susumu Terajima, as the other lieutenant in the band. Initially a brash, mouthy hothead in a Hawaiian shirt, he mellows with the enforced idleness into an enthusiastic child. Undoubtedly the finest scene in the film involves Susumu and a junior yakuza from the Okinawa branch, laboriously enacting the opening moves of a sumo match. The sidelong glances, the posturing, the highly ritualised performances, all performed with utmost seriousness, until you wonder what the point is. You soon find out: the ritual opening leads to an imitation of a board game they played earlier, and it’s hilarious.
By turns funny, sad, and thought-provoking, this is a genuinely fine film that deserves all the accolades that have been heaped upon it over the years. Vintage Kitano.