SPOILERS FOR A 19-YEAR-OLD MOVIE BELOW.
If you want to get into Japanese film and especially yakuza movies, there's hardly a better place to start than "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's movies. He's one of the most interesting directors to come out of Japan and one of the best.
Kitano's 1993 film Sonatine is one of his best and the first one to hit US shores. Before Kitano's take on the genre, most yakuza films-even the best ones-had followed a bit of a formula. They were always about a strong, manly hero choosing between his duty to his oyabun (boss/father-figure) and family, and doing the right thing as fits his personal code. This idea is called giri-ninjo, and it is the conceptual thread that connects most yakuza movies. With Sonatine (and to a degree, Violent Cop and Hana-bi), Kitano uses the yakuza characters as a way to stare death in the face. Sonatine is a stark film of bright light and absolute darkness with long, quite camera shots punctuated with sharp bursts of violence.
Sonatine introduces us to Murakawa (played by Kitano), a yakuza man who runs his neighborhood tightly and efficiently. In one of the first scenes, Murakawa and his cronies dip a man into Tokyo Bay for flippantly refusing to pay protection money. They look on casually as the man drowns. Murakawa's neighborhood is profitable and his oyabun wants a piece of the action. Murakawa finds himself sent down south to Okinawa to help out another gang in a turf war going on. Murakawa knows it's no good, but gang law obligates him to follow orders.
Having introduced us to Murakawa himself and to the basics of yakuza culture, Sonatine takes an interesting turn. The trip proves to be exactly what Murakawa already knew, and after losing a few of his men he and the survivors retreat to a beachside cabin in Okinawa to wait out the war and figure out what to do next. Knowing they're in a no-win situation, though, the men actually relax. This part of the film feels a bit like "Yakuza Purgatory," where the men aren't dead but aren't considered alive either.
So they play. They play on the beach, with action figures, folded paper sumo. In one sequence they have a mock gang-war with fireworks. I get the impression, from watching movies like Blue Spring (Aoi Haru) and the documentary Young Yakuza (available online free!), that most men enter the yakuza as they finish high school. As the men in Sonatine play, they look more like boys. Practical jokes and simple childrens' toys - albeit more dangerous versions of them - are the what they think of to entertain themselves. When yakuza are out of their element, with their guard taken down, do they become boys again? I think that's what Sonatine suggests.
Much of the childishness has a dark tinge to it, though, and much of that darkness is contributed by the already-dead Murakawa. The men play rock-paper-scissors (janken) and Murakawa brings a revolver that supposedly has one round left. Again, the men are playing with fireworks-already dangerous enough-and there's Murakawa firing pistol rounds. He never intends to hit anyone, but it still adds that same deadly flavor to the games.
Purgatory, even as bright green and blue as an Okinawan beach, doesn't last forever. Someone sends a hitman to take care of the ones that made it out of the city. Murakawa explodes in the way only a Kitano character can, resulting in some of the most startling violence I've seen in a movie.
This is where we come back around to giri and ninjo. Except, I think, giri (the word for duty or obligation) and ninjo (the word for personal feelings/empathy) have merged here. Murakawa's so-called family has betrayed him and left him to die, and his only duty is to his brothers in arms. With an American assault rifle in hand, Murakawa hits the lights and pays his oyabun-and a bunch of other bosses-a visit. Where earlier violence was vivid and graphic, the greatest outburst is viewed from outside, as the muzzle flashes reflect off the cars below the darkened picture floor-to-ceiling windows.
Once he's taken care of business, there's only one thing left for Murakawa to do.
Sonatine, despite being about a bunch of criminals, is a terribly sad, somber movie. It has plenty of laughs, but they come from that Yakuza Purgatory, and are all colored with the sadness that permeates the film.
Not only is Sonatine one of Kitano's best, but in my opinion one of Japan's best. I haven't seen enough yakuza films to say it's the best of those, but I have no doubt it stands near the top.
*NOTE: Sonatine is now on Netflix Instant watch! Don't miss it!