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Sonatine – A Neo-realistic Masterpiece

There are good movies. There are excellent movies. There are some, which are masterpieces. Comes once in a lifetime. Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, Roman Holiday. And Sonatine.

After having watched thousands of English, Hindi, Japanese, Russian, Latin American & Chinese movies; I often end up comparing them with one, which I often consider is, probably one of the finest movies of all generations. Sonatine (pronounced as ‘Sona-chin‘, released: 1993). Written, directed & starred by the Japanese genius, Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano, Sonatine is considered to be one of the finest portrayals of neo-realistic movie making in its purest form – portraying loyalty, bonds of love and affection, vengeance and most importantly, self dignity in the old-school yakuza culture. As per the saying – “blood is thicker than water. but loyalty, thicker than blood“.

Kitano portrays ‘Murakawa’, an aging Tokyo Yakuza, who is getting tired of his hard life and wishes to retire soon. Business is plenty and generally peaceful. But his boss asks him to go to a nearby city, Okinawa. He is informed – “We don’t want any turf war. the two clans there are kinda having a petty war. You go in with your boys, stay aloof, just spend a few days and come back”. Extremely apprehensive of the entire thing, Murakawa agrees to it.

Murakawa lands in Okinawa with some of his best and trusted men, and all hell breaks loose. Caught in a trap laid by his clan and his very own boss, losing all his friends and men; Murawaka refuses to bow out. He comes to realize, that this ‘final project’ was a setup from the very beginning so as to corner him on an island without contacts, network and resources (his group of men had become too powerful for the families to run without his help always, thus, it was profitable to terminate him and his men). With all his men shot dead and gone, no ration, a single M-16 at his disposal and nowhere to go, Murakawa has to make a choice. Does he retire peacefully and go into oblivion, or return for a final showdown? Though we see a tired Murakawa at the end, he returns with a M-16 where the 3 victorious Yakuza clans are having a meeting; and the final 10 minutes is a classic! After the bloodbath is over, he finds no more reason to carry on and takes his own life.

The movie is a classic Kitano special. Nihilistic. Long shots. Minimalist dialogues. Beauty is a plenty. Action is ruthless. In between the story-telling and comic acting, when death comes, it comes in seconds, but leaves with lifeless bodies strewn all around. Death in Poetry.

Complete dead-pan sequences followed by sudden jolts of action.

The final 10 minutes of the movie is what makes it so special. Probably one of the best ever shot in any country anywhere in the world in any genre in any language. A must see for all movie aficionados. Especially, the shot of ‘death-doing-a-tap-dance-on-car-tops‘ when Murakawa is firing his Colt-Commando-M-16 in full-auto, is a member of ‘hall-of-fame’ for movie making in its finest form.

Sonatine Finale:

Kitano’s later works, Hana-bi (1997) and others won him critical acclaim around the world, but I still firmly believe that Sonatine established him and his life’s work. Sonatine is the movie that helped Kitano transcend from a god-gifted moviemaker to one of the finest moviemakers in the world.

Critically acclaimed by film critics worldwide, Sonatine was initially released only in a few chosen theatres in Japan. Once the word was out, directors forced Kitano to allow the release of the movie in France, Germany, US and UK. Since then, Sonatine is now considered to be one of the finest Yakuza movies ever made, and probably one of the top-10 Asian movies of all time.

I first watched Sonatine on TV in 1999. Had to run to the movie store nearby next day and get the DVD. Watched it like 10 more times – over and over again. Every scene, dialogue, sequence; even the darkest of ‘deaths’ dancing in tandem to music at the very end – makes me feel intrigued every time I watch it.

There’s a few non-English movies that I like, appreciate and respect a lot. My Wife is a Gangster, The Lives of Others, A Bittersweet Life, Blood Brothers etc. But Sonatine is special. Shows how valueless this life is in its actuality, how truthful death is, how omnipresent the thin threads are that bind us together in friendship and love and sacrifice.

Quintessentially, besides the story, acting, dialogues, scenes, shots, angles and action; one more thing that is special about this movie is the collection of soundtracks by Joe Hisaishi. Simply amazing. After all, Sonatine went on to win more than 40 International Awards worldwide, and the soundtracks definitely played a major role therein. A movie that illustrates – life catches up with you fast, even if you are the most ruthless, most fearless, and the most heartless. Life softens you up, before taking all that you have.

Sonatine is dark. Painful.
Sonatine is life as we know it.
Sonatine is the MUST-watch neo-realistic movie before you die.

Sonatine Official Trailer:

Sonatine Soundtrack (Joe Hisaishi’s ‘Act of Violence’):

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