Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine is another entry in the enduring Japanese yakuza genre, but it's the furthest thing from the gory romanticism of Hideo Gosha's The Wolves or the surreal unseemliness of Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower, which are two traditional ways of treating the gangster lifestyle on film. Oddly, instead of smuggling moral loathing into the film, Kitano depicts middle-aged gangsters who are more-or-less tired salary men, and aspiring young hoods whom their mentors laugh at with the wisdom of their years. What they all do is a job-a boring job, spent most of the time negotiating within the bureaucracy of one's clan, waiting for instructions, or staking out a hit and sitting tight. Most of their hours, they have as much excitement as the office folk of Ozu's films-minus, however, the families to come home to. True, Kitano's men kill people, but long, empty hours are killing them. It's the tediousness, lousiness and pointlessness of receiving and carrying out orders with machine-like numbness that the director finds most execrable. And Kitano, instead of consigning the characters to a sure fate of doom, surprisingly gives them a chance for redemption.
Murakawa (Kitano) is a quite competent gangster in the middle management of the Nakamatsu clan. Since he's dependable, the local leader, Kitajima (Tonbo Zushi), sends him and a squad to Okinawa to help make peace with the rival Anan clan. Murakawa isn't particularly pleased to go, since he lost three men on his last mission there, but instructions are instructions. Once there, the situation becomes strange. His Nakamatsu contact in Okinawa seems far from trustworthy, and instead of a truce appearing close at hand, violence breaks out to such an extent that Murakawa and his men must retreat to a beach hideout. They have to hunker down indefinitely, but their location is secure, and Kitajima sends them regular supplies of clothes, food, alcohol and toys. Having no orders except to stay put, they can do anything with their time.
The first half of Sonatine depicts a world of ruthless bargaining and policy-making, and commands that are either scrupulously executed or fudged for personal gain. Kitano pares down the on-screen action to what is barely essential for us to know about these peoples' universe, but, rather than giving off a feeling of energetic compression, the strategy instead makes us feel that, whether we catch every single subplot or not, the machinations are too brutal and enormous for any one character to comprehend. The director works efficiently, linking stationary shots with the sole, stark purpose of suggesting the discrepancies in power that lie between those depicted, the clans, internal cabals, and individual characters. But the highly elliptical editing also prompts the thought that Kitano simply wants to get through this part of Sonatine as quickly as possible.
In the second part of the film, Murakawa and his henchmen are provided a sunny beach, but left with no opportunities to show off their fighting skills or macho attitude. At first, they don't know what to do with all the pleasant time on their hands, and revert to pastimes with guns, playing William Tell and Russian roulette. But Kitano begins to insinuate that what these bad-asses really need to turn their spirits around is a seaside vacation. Starting from scratch, they indulge in games and dances, josh with each other and dream. Murakawa falls in love with a local prostitute, Miyuki (Aya Kokumai), who keeps popping up beside him as though she were his fantasy. The film's flow shifts from curtness to a more lackadaisical gait. Away from the city and yakuza codes of conduct, out in wide terrain, these heavies re-invent their lives.
It's small surprise that their unplanned holiday proves to be a brief respite, and that they return to their game of aggressive conniving back in their home town. But one of the most valuable facets of Kitano's film is its exposure of the gangster ideal as the myth of little boys who forgot to grow up. These goons handle guns and bullets because they're too old to play tag on the playground. Once they can abandon themselves to child's play, they begin to shed their tough skins. Though they have everything coming to them and worse, their plight still earns our sadness.