After watching Sonatine, Kitano's 1993 masterpiece, those absurdist scenes in Zatoichi make more sense within the context of Kitano's creative world and are, in addition, even more pleasing to me. Sonatine is a thoroughly existential work that makes full use of cinema's potential to bend its own "rules" in order to strike at the heart of an emotion or idea, regardless of how it alters narrative structure.
The film centers on tough middle-aged yakuza Murakama, played by Kitano himself (who also wrote and directed the picture). Murakama, a Tokyo family boss (the Japanese yakuza differs from the Italian Mafia here; "clan" is the umbrella term for a large organization, whereas "family" denotes the smaller fragmentary gangs), is dispatched to Okinawa by his superiors to help a clan affiliate who is engaged in a turf war.
Murakama has all the traits of a man who has grown tired of his routine, his career, his life. He is cold and irritable. He is insolent towards his superiors. In one scene, he openly questions his boss's motives, while the man looks on with forced regal detachment. Murakama is right to question his boss, however. His family's operations have become lucrative and the boss is sending him and his men to Okinawa to get them out of the way so the boss can take over. Because he has stopped caring, Murakama goes. "I'm worn out," he admits to his lieutenant and personal confidant, Ken.
The Okinawa clan affiliates welcome the hard Tokyo gunmen with soft drinks and ice cream, in a brilliant scene where Kitano lets a shot looking out the front window of a bus linger, and linger, and linger. Although the Okinawa boss assures the Tokyo men that the whole thing will blow over, the rival clan (who remain, notably, unseen) notices their arrival and takes it as a declaration of war. There is a series of brutal slayings, shootings, and bombings, and the surviving men, including Murakama, retreat to a vacant beach house to lay low for a while.
The bulk of the remainder of the film follows the characters in this pastoral setting as they ruminate on life in a series of brilliantly staged scenes. The film shakes off its plot without much concern, and becomes an existentialist study. It is done quite elegantly. In their time at the beach, the characters are given a window of reflection that their counterparts in other action films can never fit in between shootings and car chases. It is fascinating to see what they do with their downtime, these men whose lives are overfilled with the business of violence.
This portion of the film is devoted to scenes of almost unprecedented whimsy, with the gangsters playing games on the beach, reading comic books, and singing with each other. I expect that many viewers, expecting a fast-paced yakuza shoot-em-up, would find this section of the film extremely jarring. Going back to what I said at the beginning of this review, audiences cannot help but bring a certain level of expectation into a film, particularly a genre picture. In what is ostensibly a yakuza action film, Kitano devotes lengthy sequences to silly games shot with his signature lingering camera style.
Like that old jazz music cliche about the importance of hearing the notes the musician doesn't play, it is crucial to keep in mind that these playful sequences, which at first seem almost obscenely diversionary, are bookended by extremely terse and brutal sections that depict quite a lot of death. The point, therefore, is that while the gangsters play, the shadow of death both past and future is hanging over the proceedings. Most of the games (shooting a can off a friend's head, sumo wrestling, Roman candle fights) are simply reworked versions of real-world violence that is depicted elsewhere in the film. These connections between two things that are very visceral and "real", play and death, (similar in that they are both purely experiential) underscore Kitano's theme of life and death being intertwined and at times indistinguishable.
Consider this pivotal exchange that takes place about halfway through the film, between Murakawa and Miyuki, a woman who becomes his love interest:
Miyuki: It must be great to not be afraid of shooting people. Not being afraid of killing people means not being afraid of killing yourself, right? You're tough...I love tough guys.It may seem strange, given the nature of this conversation, that there is upbeat music playing in the background, and the lines are delivered with smiles and chuckles. Like much of Kitano's work, the atmosphere here is decidedly playful. Kitano rose to fame as a comedian, and even in very serious pieces like Sonatine, his unique comedic outlook permeates through gloomy subject matter. In other words, it takes a certain kind of person to get the joke of life.
Murakawa: If I were tough, I wouldn't carry a gun.
Miyuki: But you can shoot fast.
Murakawa: I shoot fast because I get scared first.
Miyuki: ...But you're not afraid of dying.
Murakawa: When you're scared all the time, you almost wish you were dead.
Among the many intriguing devices Kitano employs, one of the most fascinating is a sort of time compression that occurs, pointedly, twice in the film. Early on there is a scene where Murakama uses a crane to dunk a man into Tokyo Bay; a mahjong parlor owner who had insulted him earlier. After dryly agreeing that a person can hold their breath for about two minutes, Murakawa tells the crane operator to dunk the man for two minutes. Rather than letting the two minutes pass in real time, however, Kitano simply cuts and the man is raised spluttering and clinging on to life. This is repeated immediately, with the lost time again unaccounted for, only this time the man comes up dead. Murakawa turns from a conversation he is having and observes unconcernedly, "Wow, we killed him...it doesn't matter. Cover it up." Then he walks away.
The time compression is repeated when Murakawa, taking a walk on the beach in Okinawa at night, observes a rape. A man drags a woman out of a car and throws her on the sand. She is protesting but he holds her down and rips her dress. Cut to Murakawa, who begins to walk casually by. The rapist enters the frame and says, "So you were there the whole time?" Even though we never see or hear the rape, we can assume it occurred, but Kitano cut it from the picture, in the same way he cut the drowning of the mahjong parlor owner. If not for the earlier drowning scene, the viewer would think that Murakawa interrupts the rape before it begins. As it stands it is ambiguous, although he only shows the events leading up to it and the aftermath. Why does he do this?
To answer this, it needs to be pointed out that this time compression device elegantly combines a few of Kitano's main goals with the film. The first is that, while the film's narrative is dependent upon and moved forward by ferocious acts of violence, Kitano doesn't revel in shootings and mayhem. He depicts violence elsewhere in the film, and quite graphically, but in Sonatine violence is always regarded with the utmost impassivity. The film has a number of shootings, beatings, stabbings, and murders, all of them gory and brutal. This is, after all, the nature of such things. However, while an ordinary action film director would dwell on these events by using quick cuts and close-ups, and try to lend them gravity by employing a lot of horrified reaction shots, Kitano conspicuously avoids both of these things entirely. Kitano is known for dwelling on long shots, and even in action scenes he is comfortable regarding them from a distance. Furthermore, during every scene of violence, the faces of the characters are completely unmoved.
The second motive Kitano has in employing the time compression device is his use of mirroring to contextualize "current" events that are happening onscreen as the viewer watches, and to re-contextualize "past" events that have already occurred. By using the technique twice, he gives a greater context to the rape scene that wouldn't have existed without the earlier drowning scene. Conversely, by having Murakawa witness the rape scene, Kitano draws a contrast to the drowning scene, where Murakawa was the aggressor.
As I said earlier, Kitano doesn't concern himself with the gratuity that usually accompanies violence in film. He underlines this point in the starkest manner possible: the climactic gun battle at the end of the film is almost entirely offscreen. The camera regards the building where it is taking place impassively. In a wide shot, the viewer sees the dark upper floor of the building illuminated with the muzzle flash of guns, but the actual fight is depicted for only a few seconds. This partially mirrors an earlier scene on the beach where the characters play with Roman candles at night, playfully staging a mock gun battle. The orange flashes of the real gun battle recall those of the fireworks from the play battle.
A pessimistic reading of these equivalencies might suggest that Kitano is saying that death permeates life, even the diversions we engage in to try and distance ourselves from the inevitable. This may be a bit facile. With this film, Kitano thoroughly explores the themes of existential dread, authenticity, and determinism, in a gleefully implicit and non-didactic manner. Camus famously said that the only real philosophical problem is suicide. Kitano supercharges this idea by temporarily removing a gang of killers from the killing field, and allowing them to examine their own existence. Men who are unafraid of death, who are surrounded by it every day, must after all construct identities that preclude killing themselves. Failing to do so would drive one to the very heart of Camus' problem.
This was an early directorial work for Kitano, and you can see all the elements of his style taking shape. When framing characters, he often centers them in the middle of the shot for an immersive, conversational feel. He uses a lot of very dry reaction shots, something he revisited with Kikujiro. As I've stated several times in this review, Kitano's signature is lingering shots, often wide shots. He uses them to great effect in Sonatine, which is a film that requires the viewer to examine things beyond the surface level, and the lingering shots provide a nice visual metaphor for this. The acting is superb. In particular I enjoyed the performance of Susumu Terajima, who plays the Murakawa Family lieutenant Ken. The character has a nice, gradual arc, with Ken starting as a slick, hard-faced criminal and eventually devolving into laid-back boyishness. The actors as a whole all seem to have a great understanding of the film's dark but not-quite-literal tone, and they are able to develop distinctive personalities.
When I reviewed Zatoichi I called Takeshi Kitano fearless. He is also a genius. There is something inherently romantic and admirable about a man who writes, directs, and stars in his own film. That such a film would be as brilliant as Sonatine seems like almost too much to hope for.