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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Yakuza Noir Flick is Hard-boiled But Thoughtful

Directed by Tadeshi Kitano (Beat Tadeshi)
Starring Tadeshi Kitano, Aya Kokumai, Tetsu Watanabe, Susumu Terajima, Masanobu Katsumura and Tonbo Zushi.

Doubly trapped by caste and class, the fictional Japanese Yakuza (also known as Gokudo) is the prototypical noir anti-hero.  He is a criminal who exists in a violent world of tainted institutions, subsisting through corruption and brutality as the follower of a chivalric code which is itself a sham.

To the Yakuza of film and literature, nothing and no one is to be trusted. The gangster's conception of duty is fraudulent; the loyalty of his comrades and oyabun (boss), though obligatory, is questionable. Those outside his criminal circle are either victims to be duped or witnesses to be intimidated or killed. The Japanese gangster's life is as hardboiled as it gets, marked by perpetual war broken only by periods of imprisonment or death.

Given this lifestyle, it's not surprising that when Oyabun Kitayama (Tonbo Zushi) sends his lieutenant, Aniki Murakawa (Tadeshi), to Okinawa to mediate a dispute between two other gangs, Murakawa's suspicions are immediately aroused.

Murakawa's Oyabun (boss), Kitayama

You see, Murakawa, a middle-aged member of a Tokyo Yakuza clan, is weary of the violent Yakuza lifestyle and wants out. As he puts it himself half jokingly to his bodyguard, Ken (Susumu Terajima):

Murakawa: Ken, I'm thinking about retiring.
Ken: We've been living this tough life too long.
Murakawa: Yeah. I'm worn out.
Ken (smiling): Maybe you're too rich for this life.

Accompanied by Ken and a group of soldiers from his clan, Murakawa travels to the seaside town where the underworld war is supposedly under way. His suspicions are aroused further when a local gangster, Uechi (Tetsu Watanabe) tells him that the dispute is actually very minor in nature and is close to resolution.

Murakawa (center) and his crew arrive in Okinawa.

After the fly-blown office his men are using as a headquarters is blown up by a bomb and a group of gunmen shoot it out with part of his crew in a small bar, it becomes obvious that a gang war is, in fact,  underway -- and Murakawa's clan is its target. He takes several men with him and holes up in a house on the beach while he tries to figure out what to do next.

In Sonatine, Murakawa shoots it out with a rival clan in an Okinawan saloon.
At the beach, Murakawa and his allies amuse themselves by playing games, conducting target practice and waiting for word from Kitayama. During a midnight stroll, Murakawa sees a young woman named Miyuki (Aya Kokumai) who is being sexually assaulted. He kills her assailant and she becomes his companion, a bond consummated in an openly phallic fashion when he allows her to fire his machine gun.

At the beach, the gangsters amuse themselves with horseplay
 including an absurd Sumo competion.

 Then a mysterious assassin disguised as a fisherman (Eiji Minakata) appears and kills Ken and Uechi. Murakawa learns that Takahashi (Ken'ichi Yajima), a member of his Tokyo clan, is staying in a luxury hotel on the beach and takes several men to see him. A shootout ensues and Murakawa tortures Takahashi to learn the truth: that he has been set up, his clan's territory is being divided among other gangsters and he is to be killed.

Murakawa disposes of Takahashi and uses his machine gun to take on the combined clans as they meet in the hotel to divide up his territory. After he single-handedly wipes out the treacherous Yakuza, he pulls his getaway car over to the side of the road and shoots himself in the head.

His suicide is effectively preordained by the fact that he has lost his position in the clan and turned on his former gangster allies. Given the suffocating system of alliances Murakawa faces, a system he has repudiated by showing disloyalty to his clan and boss, the Japanese criminal's code makes no other action possible.

Sonatine, Tadeshi's fourth movie, is a brilliant piece of noir film-making, despite the fact that it was commercially unsuccessful and earned the antipathy of critics at the time it was released. 

The film is permeated by the scent of doom from its earliest sequence in which Murakawa is attempting to extort the owner of a Tokyo Mahjong parlor.

When the owner refuses to pay, Murakawa tells him, "You're dead, asshole."  

The Mahjong man stands his ground, telling the Yakuza, "Don't say stupid things." 

"You're the stupid thing," Murakawa says, deadpan, as he leaves. A short time later, he and his minions drown the recalcitrant businessman in Tokyo Bay.

Although the drowning sequence is presented to establish Murakawa as a gangster, Mahjong has a deeper symbolism in the film as a game in which other players influence play and luck is critical. The Mahjong operator's death is accidental and comes as a surprise to the Yakuza;  Murakawa and his men intended only to scare the man. 

The game analogy is developed further during the beach house scenes when Ryogi and Ken use cut-out strips of cardboard to make a miniature kamizumo (spirit sumo) set-up. Later they improvise a sumo ring on the sand, and use their life-sized ring to simulate a match like the cardboard version.

Here Tadeshi seems to be telling the viewer that even a seemingly self-directed gangster like Murakawa is controlled by others, and his success or failure is largely a matter of fate.

It is clear that violence to Murakawa is a part of that game, and that his success as a player is a function of his calculation and skill at using brutality to achieve his ends.  The point is brought home when Murakawa finds Ryogi and Ken relieving their boredom by taking turns shooting a tin can off each other's heads. 

Ken and Ryogi practice shooting a can off each other's
heads, a game that leads to a haunting Russian Roulette match.

He empties all but one chamber of the gun for a quick game of Russian Roulette. When he takes what should be the final turn and the hammer of the revolver falls on an empty chamber, the others realize he has controlled the outcome by cheating. It is precisely what Oyabun Kitayama and his henchman Takahashi are doing in a more sinister fashion behind the scenes, and the point is made that the only way to guarantee the outcome of the game is to violate the rules.

Later, Murakawa dreams of the Russian Roulette game, but his dream version ends with the gun going off and killing him. The scene presages the conclusion of the film,

and helps to establish the gangster's equivocal attitude about dying, a subject he refers to obliquely during an exchange with Miyuki:

Miyuki: You're tough. I love tough guys.
Aniki Murakawa: I wouldn't carry a gun if I were tough.
Miyuki: You can shoot without a second thought.
Aniki Murakawa: I shoot fast because I get scared fast.
Miyuki: But you're not afraid of dying, are you?
Aniki Murakawa: When you're scared all the time, you reach a point when you wish you were dead.

This statement, in fact, is simply a twisted rendering of the samurai code, in which the swordsman lives in accordance with bushido, the way of the warrior, and is thereby able to ignore his own peril.

According to the Hagakure, a 17th century book of precepts for warriors, "If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way."

On the surface, Sonatine appears to be a simple gangster film, but despite its exotic Japanese setting and characters, it is a film noir masterpiece similar in some ways to Jean Pierre Melville's Le Samourai starring Alain Delon. It is as good a hard-boiled crime film as any you are likely to see.

(Incidentally, for those who too busy to look it up, the title, Sonatine, is from the Italian word for a short sonata, Sonatina.)

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