Friday April 10, 1998

     How many times have you seen the story about the aging gangster--or gunslinger, for that matter--eager to retire but lassoed into one more job? In his sleek, punchy and altogether captivating "Sonatine," Japan's fabled writer-director-tough guy star Takeshi "Beat" Kitano makes it seem as if we've never seen such a tale on the screen. In doing so, Kitano creates one of the most effectively anti-violence violent movies since "The Wild Bunch."
     Another admirable rescue from Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures via Miramax, "Sonatine" is a 1993 release that anticipates the bravura of Kitano's more recent "Fireworks," although it does not have the newer film's transcendent love story.
     As Tokyo yakuza Murakama (Beat Takeshi, Kitano's acting name) has settled into middle age, he's got his operation running so smoothly he's beginning to talk about retirement. But now his boss wants him to round up some guys and go to Okinawa to settle a skirmish of some sort between two rival gangs, the Nakamatsu, an affiliate of their Tokyo outfit, and the Anand.
     Murakama is especially reluctant because when he went recently on a similar mission to Hokkaido, three of his men were killed. "Something's fishy about this Okinawa job," muses Murakama's loyal lieutenant Takahashi (Kenichi Yajima).
     Sure enough, when Murakama and his gang arrive in Okinawa, the elderly Nakamatsu is surprised to see him, saying the problem is minor. Yet moments later a drive-by shooter shatters the window of the seedy office Murakama has been assigned.
     At this point, however, Takano deftly shifts gears, suspending plot developments while Murakama and his minions, some of them young punks, decide to lay low at a handsome traditional-style home on a remote deserted beach, the vacation retreat of Takano's burly host (Tetsu Watanabe), the Nakamatsu second-in-command.
     Here the punks engage in some dumb macho games. Murakama comes to the rescue of an attractive young woman (Aya Kokumai), whom one of them has tried to rape. He later becomes involved with her. In this most beautiful of settings, considerable playfulness, camaraderie and humor develop.
     Although the warriors hired by a village to protect them from an impending bandit attack in "Seven Samurai" are of far nobler character, there is in "Sonatine" that same beguiling feeling of the calm before the storm. And when the storm finally comes, irony compounds irony to dazzling effect.
     "Sonatine," which has a sensational, pulsating Jo Hisaishi score, has style to burn and a terrific cast headed by Kitano, as much a virile screen icon as Humphrey Bogart. In the kill-or-be-killed world of these yakuza, "Sonatine" evokes both the myth of Capone's Chicago and of the not-so-distant feudal past of Japan itself.

Sonatine, 1998. R, for bloody shootings, language and some sexuality. A Miramax release of a Rolling Thunder Pictures presentation of a Shochiku production. Writer-director-editor Takeshi Kitano. Producers Masayuki Mori, Hisao Nabeshima, Takeo Yoshida. Executive producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama. Cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima. Costumes Hirohide Shibata. Music Jo Hisaishi. Art director Osamu Saseki. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Beat Takeshi as Murakama. Tetsu Watanabe as Uechi. Miyuki as Aya Kokumai. Kenichi Yajima as Takahashi.

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