This Japanese yakuza gangster-noir written, directed and edited by Takeshi Kitano was his response to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Courtesy of Quentin Tarantino’s fandom, the film found its way to U.S. theater — art house — screens in 1998 via his Rollling Thunder-imprint, which subsequently released it to home video in 2000.
Of Kitano’s 18-film writing-directing career, it remains his best-known international film, although his action-revenge thrillers Violent Crime (1989), which served as his feature film debut, and the follow up, Boiling Point (1990), were sought out by Tarantino fans and came to find an audience on post-’90s home video imprints.
Kitano got his start as an actor in the late ’60s, making his debut in Go, Go, Second Time Virgin (1969), but he’s best known to U.S. audiences in that discipline, courtesy of Senjō no Merī Kurisumasu, aka Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), co-starring David Bowie — Kitano starred as “Sgt. Gengo Hara.” You may also know Kitano for his work as a ruthless yakuza in William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic (1995), as well as the imported Battle Royale (2000) and Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003).
As for Sonatine — a play on the musical term sonatina — was a critically appreciated but a commercial failure in its homeland. Its commercial acceptance in the west was courtesy of Tarantino touting the film; it didn’t hurt that America’s leading critic at the time, Roger Ebert, gave it a “thumbs up” and three and a half out of four stars. The film’s failure in Kitano’s homeland is attributed to the fact he was, at the time, primarily known as a television comedic actor.
Kitano stars as Murakawa, a burnt-out yakuza enforcer who discovers his newfound, lackadaisical attitude towards his profession has led to his bosses wanting to get rid of him. As with Scorsese’s gangster opus, Sonatine is a film of not of dumb-down, trite action-driven dialog of no substance, but an introspective intelligence — that revels in its silent moments — that pulls back the reigns on the ultra-violence to use the violence as — to carry through with the musical imagery of the title — punctuating crescendos across its celluloid measures.
This is a film that is disserviced by the usual rat-a-tat-tat reviews scoring every “beat” of the film for you to decide to watch it. It’s a film where you simply need to stream it, sit back, and enjoy Takeshi Kitano’s sonata.
You can learn more about Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder-imprint with our “The 8 Films of Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures” featurette.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies (links to a truncated teaser-listing of his reviews).