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Sonatine

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Sonatine

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There's a long tradition of gangster films in America—from the original Scarface through GoodFellas and on—that glamorize mob life while simultaneously portraying it as soul-sucking. It's interesting to see that movie tradition reinterpreted, masterfully, in a Japanese setting by Sonatine, a 1993 film from Takeshi Kitano (a.k.a. "Beat" Takeshi). Kitano directs, edits, writes, and stars in Sonatine, the story of a Yakuza boss (played by Kitano) who, as part of a larger campaign against a rival gang, takes a handful of mobsters from Tokyo to Okinawa. There, he loses a large chunk of his followers to violence and cowardice, eventually moving the remaining members to a seaside hideout. At this point, Sonatine becomes more than simply a stylish thriller. In the film's first half, Kitano plays his character with a stoneface that would do Buster Keaton proud. In the relaxed setting, however, his humanity begins to surface as he falls in love with a woman he rescues from rape (Aya Kikumai), and his soldiers begin to enjoy themselves, playing games and relaxing in an idyll made all the more poignant by its clearly temporary nature. Like the character he plays, Kitano directs the film in a style that alternates between tenderness and brutality, making it a relentlessly tense suspense film one minute and a gentle character study the next. Either half would make Sonatine worth seeing. But taken together as the story of a man who regains his soul but whose face remains permeated with the knowledge of its inevitable loss, it becomes an artful gangster film, Yakuza poetry, and essential viewing.