Yakuza Throwing Frisbees: The Graceful Savagery Of Sonatine

In 1994, the year after he released his lyrical yakuza movie Sonatine, the Japanese movie star and director Takeshi Kitano got into a bad motor-scooter accident. He came away with half of his face paralyzed. You almost couldn't tell.

Nobody in movies has a presence like Kitano. Directing himself, he'll let the camera linger on his own expressionless face for what feels like minutes at a time. He doesn't speak much. He radiates a sense of stillness and calm while still conveying the impression that he is a bad motherfucker, the wrong man to fuck with. In Japan, he's mostly famous as a fast-talking comedian who makes these weird gangster movies on the side. This seems impossible, but Christopher Walken made a great Saturday Night Live host, so who even knows.

Kitano has directed a lot of movies, and the best of them is probably 1997's Fireworks, in which he plays a disgraced police detective who owes money to the mob. There's an early scene where a pair of sneering young yakuza are threatening him in a sushi restaurant; he sits passively and takes it all in, until, calmly but quickly, he picks up a chopstick and stabs one of them in the eye, leaving it running down the side of his face. Then he punches the other one out, and silently walks out of the restaurant while the two gangsters are still processing what just happened. That's the way violence tends to work in his movies: sudden and stark and stunning, interrupting long, quiet lulls, with implications that aren't immediately apparent.

Fireworks, sadly, is not on Netflix Instant. Neither is 2000's Brother—the one movie Kitano directed in America, in which he awkwardly but charmingly bonds with Omar Epps—or the previous year's Kikujiro, which is basically Adam Sandler's Big Brother if it was infinitely better and Sandler played a yakuza. The 2010 thriller Outrage and its 2012 sequel Beyond Outrage are both on there, and I recommend both highly: They're both yakuza revenge epics with long, long sequences that play out like the baptism montage in The Godfather, scenes where just about everyone dies. But the best streaming introduction to the guy is Sonatine, the second movie he directed.

Here, Kitano plays a yakuza whose boss sends him to the island of Okinawa to settle a dispute between regional gangs. Our hero doesn't want to be there: His crew seems woefully underprepared, the local gangsters look like hicks, and the local mob boss doesn't seem to much want him there, either, but that's the job. As he and his crew show up, one local contact offers all of them ice cream, so we get a scene of hardened warriors on a commuter bus stoically sucking on popsicles.

The gang war escalates and spirals out of control, and Kitano and his crew spend much of the movie hiding out in a shack on the beach, with no electricity or running water, killing time until the next truce or escalation. This is where the movie, already an incredibly stylized version of a crime flick, turns straight-up twee and moves into Wes Anderson territory. At the beach, the locals and out-of-towners in Kitano's crew find ways to bond with each other: playing pranks, tossing frisbees, building sumo circles in the sand. The movie never lets you forget that these are hardened psychopaths, so they also shoot beer cans off each other's heads and play Russian roulette. Kitano gets close with a local woman after he murders the guy who tried to rape her. (That guy might've also been her husband, but the movie's not clear.) She doesn't like him because of gratitude; she likes him because she likes "tough guys." He does his best to convince her that he is not, in fact, a tough guy: "I shoot fast because I get scared first."

When the idyll ends, which we know it will, Kitano keeps using those same peculiar sunny rhythms. Major characters, characters we've come to like, die quickly and easily, without swelling musical cues to usher them into the next world. And when he's gunning down or torturing enemies, Kitano displays the same bemused, childlike playfulness as when he's shooting off Roman candles on the beach. It's a weird, graceful, violent little masterpiece, a bloody but peaceful trance of a movie.

It feels weird to write about Sonatine as an action movie, since that's a pretty reductive descriptor. Certainly, it couldn't be more different from the bloody, operatic shoot-'em-ups that Hong Kong directors like John Woo were making around the same time. There are gunfights, but sometimes they happen off-camera, and they never seem heroic or cool. Nobody dives for cover or flips over a table. Instead, everyone stands stock still, expressionlessly shooting at each other until everyone on one side is dead. They happen quickly and noisily, and then they're over, and we usually don't think about the dead guys anymore. But the structure is the same: Kitano is an unstoppable badass, and we want to see him kill his enemies. When it happens, it's cathartically satisfying, albeit not for long. When it's over, the scenes that linger aren't the gunfights: It's the frisbee scenes, the scenes where we see friendships forming, where Kitano's usually motionless face curls into something like a smile.

Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.

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