Fernando has stated that he got most of the inspiration for this blog from Alan Sepinwall’s TV blog, “What’s Alan Watching?”

for me, a writer who enjoys pretentious art, cynical quips, obscure references, and baseline snobbery, my eden has always been The Onion’s A.V. Club. over the last 3 or 4 years, it’s been the headquarters for no nonsense, no bullshit reviews of the latest Hollywood has to offer. in addition, the writers have been in the trenches at every independent film festival and concert worth writing about. running the gamut from indy rock to comics, from TV to art house, from video game to the written word, the A.V. Club has come to be a geek’s special hideout. if it weren’t for a shitload of stupid forum cunts, it’d be perfect.

anyway, the thing i appreciate the most about the site are the ongoing series a certain writer or group of writers posts to on a weekly or monthly basis. some favorites: “Commentary Tracks of the Damned,” an analysis of the tone and information gathered from DVD commentary tracks on generally the worst movies of all time (“Miss Congeniality 2,” for instance); “I Watched This on Purpose,” a similarly themed re-evaluation of a terrible movie (“Rambo IV” most recently); the independently named “Inventory” installments, usually tallying a Top 10 or 20 relating to particular topic question (“What’s Up with the Smoke Monster?: 16 Unanswered TV Questions,” “The Darrin Effect: 20 Jarring Cases of Recast Roles,” etc.); and my most recent pleasure, “The New Cult Canon,” an in-depth exploration into a particular movie’s worth, whether it holds up or is dated, what ground it broke, and whether its influence is still felt. most recently, “Showgirls.”

well, it seems “The New Cult Canon” is wading through some gangster movies over the next two weeks, “Sexy Beast” and “Sonatine.” the latter reminded me of a revisit i wanted to make to Takeshi Kitano’s widely influential gangster movie, one i feel was applauded on its release, assimilated into western style and reference (by none other than Tarantino and his followers), and overshadowed by the latter day successes of both Kitano and British gangster pictures (which “Sexy Beast” is one).

"Don Logan" means Bad Motherfucker in English.

“Sexy Beast” and “Sonatine” have much in common:

  1. they are both paying homage to a very well traveled genre in their respective countries (in Britain, the cockney gangster films of the ’60s and ’70s – “Get Carter” anyone? – and in Japan, the yakuza pictures made famous by Kinji Fukasaku – “Battles without Honor and Humanity” to name one).
  2. they are re-contextualizing the gangster genre with art house, character-oriented drama and camera style; both are also lower budget personal projects of their directors, Jonathan Glazer and Kitano.
  3. they handle the violence of the gangster world in a viciously comedic way, the dark comedy and destructive force of Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan and Kitano’s Murakawa drive both stories.

“Sonatine” marked a watershed time for Kitano. He had gained notice as a director when he took over for Fukasaku on “Violent Cop” in 1989, a Dirty Harry type vehicle in which Kitano played the lead. As a director, he created a vibrant balance between the stillness of well-composed shots and the hectic movement of action (a style he would later credit to Akira Kurosawa for influencing him). With “Boiling Point” and “A Scene at the Sea,” Kitano took a bigger role behind the camera, even though many viewers’ favorite scenes in “Boiling Point” include Kitano’s short, violent cameo.

Showing he's the brains of the operation.

With “Sonatine,” Kitano became an international name, both as the film’s star and director. The film was a hit with the “Reservoir Dogs” crowd, egged on by the young auteur who helmed that movie. The typical fans in the U.S. and U.K. were those John Woo fans enjoying a heavy diet of Hong Kong action but lamenting the director’s move to America (his first gift to his fans: the Van Dammage epic, “Hard Target”). With only the likes of heavy hitters Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark, and the arrival of notable gangster epics from Johnny To (the current fan favorite in HK) and Takashi Miike nearly a decade off, many Eastern Action fans either started broadening their tastes to more traditional gong fu and wuxia or they followed the bullets across the pond to Japan.

How curious the choice of Takeshi Kitano is in retrospect. Kitano wasn’t a bullet opera director. He didn’t do wire fu. The characters in his movies didn’t have an endless supply of ammo or an endless will to live. If someone got shot, it was out of the blue and definite, they died. It’s no surprise that Western culture reacted to this type of sudden, brief, gory violence. It was everything we got from “Rambo” movies but more calculated and compressed. Imagine a crack habit with 3 or 4 killer doses, instead of 75 weak ones. That’s “Sonatine.” But how weird that many viewers were willing or persuaded into watching what boils down to art house cinema, just for a fix. Compared to Woo’s continual berating of “pop-pop” beats, Kitano’s a bit out of rhythm.

“Sonatine” is straightforward and easy to follow, as any good genre picture should be. Along the way, we get a healthy dose of “Beat” Takeshi, Kitano’s acting personality, as well as comic touches he will make his signature over the next decade.

Kitano in "Hana-Bi"

In terms of his acting style, Kitano fans run the gamut, but it doesn’t surprise me when you get two camps: those who prefer pre-accident Kitano and those who prefer post-accident. in 1994, he got into a motorcycle crash that caused paralysis to the left side of his body. he had extensive surgeries to save the muscles in his face but the damage has been noticeable ever since. the difference in personalities is black and white: pre-1994, he’s wily and vibrant, at once a big kid and a psychotic clown; post-1994, he’s reserved to stillness and silence, accented by facial twitches and scary calm. it’s like Al Pacino in reverse, though Kitano never screamed the Japanese equivalent of “Hoo-Haa” while driving a Ferrari through the streets of SoHo. if you want tangible examples, compare “Sonatine” to the Golden Lion award-winning “Hana-Bi” (“Fireworks” in the U.S.) or his awesome performance in “Battle Royale.”

Kitano as oddly named "Kitano" in "Battle Royale"

“Sonatine” in and of itself is a solid gangster picture and a literal homage to Kinji Fukasaku’s “Sympathy for the Underdog.” Murakawa, played by Kitano, is an underboss in a Tokyo yakuza syndicate. When an ally clan in Okinawa goes to war with another, he and his crew are sent to back up his fellow “aniki,” or brothers. Murakawa does this reluctantly since several of his men were killed on a similar assignment in Hokkaido, an outcome that he won turf for in apology from his boss. since then, the turf has become a yakuza gold mine, rich in protection money and illegal vices. Murakawa is happy and feeling it is time to retire. but, against his instincts, he departs on the mission.

on the sun-drenched beaches of Okinawa, similar to the Miami we saw in “Scarface” and “Miami Blues,” the gang of city hoods balances their time between sudden assassinations and terrorist bombings of their hideouts…and geisha dancing…and childish antics. as the war cools down, boredom sets in. they kill time by hanging out. but in the moments of no need and no goal, Murakawa starts realizing the pointlessness of being a gangster with a worthless code, serving a “brother” who doesn’t give a shit about you. as the betrayals stack up and his men all get gunned down, the gangster descends into empty revenge. even the inclusion of a murder-obsessed groupie who’s crazy for bad boys does nothing to dampen Murakawa’s fascination with his own suicidal downfall. to some, this is Kitano’s depressed artistic hand, a nihilism throughout his early work that signaled the motorcycle accident to follow the next year, an event Kitano admitted was a suicide attempt. to others, this is the moral code Kitano has made famous in interviews and EPKs ever since: bad guys got to die. it’s distinctly cold but something he has campaigned for in the same way Kurosawa advocated compassion.

the movie’s indelible mark can be felt as it was digested into the “cool killers/cool guns” subgenre in the U.S. these are just a few movies that borrow the masterless ronin image of a nihilistic killer (“Le Samouraï”) somewhere in their stories:

  • Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill (all of which borrowed from Kitano as much as they borrowed from Woo, Melville, and 1940s noir)
  • Smokin’ Aces
  • The Matrix (quiet asians kick ass, anyone?)
  • Léon, the Professional
  • El Mariachi, Desperado, From Dusk til Dawn, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City

in the U.K., as stated before, Hong Kong and Japanese gangster movies became the exotic trend in the absence of good cockney yarns. from the 1980s until Guy Ritchie came on the scene, the genre had all but taken the road of the Western in the U.S. the calm, cool, vengeful gangster from the East made his mark; even these days, way after “Snatch,” “Sexy Beast,” and “Layer Cake” became part of the British recolonization of gangster chic.

“Sonatine” serves as a benchmark in Kitano’s gangster canon, which includes the dirty cops of “Violent Cop” and “Hana-Bi” as well as the good-natured teddy bear of a yakuza in “Kikujiro.” it delivers on genre expectations — blood, betrayal, bullets, and broads — and creates an emotional character study that is as artistically shot as it is plotted. it combines moments of childish adventure, in scenes of playful sumo contests and fireworks battles, with dark comedy and ultraviolence. it also served as another installment in Kitano’s acting company, as friends and mainstays Susumu Terajima, Ren Osugi, and Tetsu Watanabe show up as soldiers in Murakawa’s crew.

even when it’s slow, there’s a point. i think it should be given another chance. Kitano’s whole catalog, including the romances, dramas, and slapstick comedies, should be celebrated…just like Michael Bolton’s.

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