#236: Sonatine (1993)

Takeshi “Beat” Kitano is somewhat of a Renaissance man. Working as a stand-up comedian, painter, singer, author, and poet, he found just enough time to write, direct, edit and star in this peculiar action movie from 1993.

Sonatine is a languorous, but highly compelling tale about an aging yakuza named Aniki (Kitano himself). Sick of the loan shark game, he flirts with the notion of retirement, but not before he gets dragged into one last showdown. Ordered by his domineering boss, Aniki and his cohorts head to Okinawa to settle a turf war between two rival gangs. Getting caught in the cross fire, they escape and lay-low in a deserted cabin by the sea, waiting for either their next job or timely deaths.

With such isolated portrayals of blood, mob shootouts and ultra violence, Kitano is able to generate tension vicariously through absurdist humour and overt serenity. As far as contracted thugs go, they’re a rather normal bunch. With Aniki, his two right hand men and a beautiful young woman at his side, they spend their time in-hiding digging sand dunes on the beach, laughing at sumo wrestlers and having idle small talk. Such comfortable characters makes the audience nervous. After all, this is an action movie, so things are bound to turn ugly.

A looming menace permeates throughout Sonatine, with the responsibility lying primarily on Kitano’s own tattooed shoulders. An oddly humanistic angel of death, his impassive, beaten, yet charming face recalls Charles Bronson, only with the deadpan witticism of an archetype Aki Kaurismäki character.

Narratively sweet and simple, Kitano is quick to bring up the ludicrousness of mob culture. Desperate to cut his losses and get out, Ankiri being dealt the death card would be a blessing rather than a tragedy. Far from glamorising the gun wielding and dirty money, the inspired filmmaker desensitises the life of crime and turns it into something far worse: tedious. If you like your action to be a brutal attack on the senses, it may not suit your needs. If you like classy filmmaking which deconstructs formalist genre boundaries, then it’s bout time you let Kitano into your life.

★★★☆☆☆
IMDb it.

PODCAST no.2: Week 31 / Films #188-194

Ernest Goes to Podcast

Popping down the quill and warming up the vocal chords, this is my second weekly round-up podcast for your ear’s delectation. Seven reviews, movie clips, and  thirty minutes of me talking. Why wouldn’t you want that?

Subscribe to the iTunes podcast HERE, or listen in to the Soundcloud hosting episode below. I may be biased, but I’d say that it is at the very least listenable.

#189: Onibaba (1964)

Way down in the hole

Minimal, abstract, allegorical and difficult to endure. Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba is all of these things, but somehow manages to pull a trump card and leaving you horrified. In a good way.

Set sometime in the 16th century, a quarrel between rival emperors has torn feudal Japan apart. Rather than focus on the brutalities from the front line, Shinado presents the vicarious effects that war can have in a small, otherwise placid rural setting. While they wait for their man Kichi to return from civil war, a peasantry woman (played by Kaneto Shindo’s own wife, Nobuko Otowa) and her submissive daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have taken desperate measures to survive, murdering any soldiers who wander through their inescapable high grass patch, dumping their bodies into an ancient hole and exchanging the armour for food with local blackmarketeer Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama). The peasantry life is gruelling, but just bearable, until their reprobate  neighbour Hachi (Kei Sato) comes home from the battlefield, torn from his armoury and bearing bad news. Hachi’s primitive, surprisingly contagious sexual desire threatens to disrupt the two women’s fragile interdependence, leading the older woman desperately attempting to keep balance of the constant corruption. I won’t spoil the reason for the mask, but safe to say it’s pretty important.

Onibaba is a slow, meditative film, and certainly not for everyone. The epitome of showing-over-telling filmmaking, the first hour presents a day in the life of our unnamed female protagonists going about their painstaking daily routine. Shot so lusciously in crisp black and white by cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda, we see them fetching water, slovenly tucking to to bowls of rice, catching livestock like prey and left restless and perspiring throughout the humid night. Shindo doesn’t just want to explain the tough, barbaric rituals of this world, he almost wants us to experience it first hand through a beautiful, cinematically raw aesthetic.

That’s not to say that Onibaba is minimalist and visceral throughout, with Shindo tying it all together with a great deal of  social commentary. To some degree, the film explores contemplative issues such as women’s role in Japanese society, the omniscient suppression of religion, inescapable sexual politics and the impact of war on society. Most interestingly, the film takes a undermining stance on capitalism, with the hidden pit at the centre of the field, fed by the strong and devouring the weak, serving as a poetic allegory. As a committed communist filmmaker (the film was produced by his polticially independent production company Kindai Eiga Kyokai), Shindo’s attack on callous dog-eat-dog mentality and survival of the fittest, quickest and greediest once again heightens the sense of unease and terror prescribed to Onibaba.

As the cherry on a particularly unsettling cake, the soundtrack from Hikaru Hayashi is memorable and merciless. A free jazz collage of primal drums, vociferous saxophones and moody chanting bleakly swarming through this amoral setting like a gust of tumultuous wind. Onibaba is an austere portrayal of lust, jealousy and raw hunger.

The result will certainly be a turn-off for some, but if you let it in, Onibaba is an entrancing and horrifyingly stark portrayal of the human psyche.

★★★★★☆
IMDb it.

093: Recreation (2011)

Yoshihiro Nagata steps away from his regular producer role to write and direct this minimalist debut focusing on the rebellious youth of Japanese suburbs, their indifference to society and each other. 

Finishing school for the summer break, four teenagers parade the streets of Kyushu desperately trying to find interesting ways of filling their spare time. With stealing scooters and bicycles not quite cutting the mustard (or should that be miso?), they go on a hunt to find a new, rebellious gang member. Their hasty decision leads them to local weirdo Tachibana, who provides more savagery than they were anticipating.

Made up predominately of improvised dialogue and handheld, budget-friendly cinematography, Recreation has an intrusive quality that is both appealing yet uncomfortable. That aside, the film has an obstinate line of misogyny throughout, with women used as pawns of sexual desire and Peeping Tom escapades. Although this adds to the disenchanted nature of adolescent culture which Nagata is presenting, it doesn’t therefore make it justifiable.

At it’s core, Recreation feels more like a tedious work in progress rather than the defiant, sluggard movie that it could’ve been. Don’t be a fool, stay in school.

☆☆☆☆

IMDb it.