Sonatine was Takeshi Kitano's fourth film as Director and his third undertaking as the sole writer on his projects and to my mind this is the most accomplished work he has produced alongside Hana-Bi. Taking the lead role Kitano portrays a Yakuza gang leader, Murakawa, who despite great accomplishments in the Yakuza underworld of Tokyo is asked to leave with some men to help solve a dispute between opposing gangs at the seaside location of Okinawa. Apprehensive about the request due to a disastrous previous occasion where he lost several men in a similar dispute Murakawa decides to ignore what experience tells him and leaves for Okinawa to appease his Boss.
Once there Murakawa soon discovers that as he suspected the local dispute is far more serious than was being let on and consequently blood is soon spilled which leads Murakawa and his men to take shelter at a secluded house by the beautiful beaches of Okinawa. While they are hiding out Murakawa's boss is supposedly helping the local faction of their gang to negotiate a deal but it becomes apparent over time that Murakawa has been used and betrayed by his jealous, power-hungry superiors. Revenge is of course on the cards but this does not come without its own drawbacks and leads to a subdued but powerful finale.
As is to be expected the tale of disruption and betrayal in the Yakuza ranks is hardly breaking new ground with Kitano himself having already tackled a similar subject as a sub-story in Boiling Point. Indeed for anyone familiar with said film you will most likely pick up on the similarity of the locations used in Sonatine and even the reference to a shoddy American gun dealer but alas I am straying from the point. Where Kitano succeeds with Sonatine is in the minimal yet accomplished dialogue and to a greater extent with the character development that we see as the film progresses, all of which is of course aided by a solid cast including 'Beat' Takeshi himself and in his first Kitano film, Susumu Terashima, an actor who has the ability to grab your attention in much the same way Kitano does while the pair excel together onscreen.
Of utmost importance to the story are the relationships we see develop and the majority of this takes place while Murakawa and his men are passing the time at their beach hideout. While there Royji (Masanobu Katsumura) and Ken (Susumu Terashima) strike up an interesting relationship which consists of them developing games with which to pass the time while Murakawa also likes to take part but adds some extra spice to the proceedings which tends to create both tension and humour while also drawing out the nuances of his characters outlook on life. From a quite hilarious scene which sees the trio prepare to sumo-wrestle to a 'firework fight' Kitano draws you into the film in the most offbeat of ways but it works in not only entertaining but in progressing the story at a healthy pace. The introduction of a female interest for Murakawa comes along when he unwillingly saves Miyuki from rape. Drawn to "strong men" Miyuki (Aya Kokumai) and Murakawa develop a playful relationship that is again fun to watch yet through their light conversations and often blank facial expressions we are constantly learning about the characters, and most importantly Murakawa who is the centre of this story.
When the time for revenge comes along Kitano takes his minimalist style of filmmaking several steps further and even manages to make a previous gun battle (which involved men standing still and just firing until the last one was standing) look outrageous in its execution as the entire finale is played out in a pitch black setting with only the light from the exchange of gunfire visible. On first inspection of the aforementioned earlier gun fight you may well find yourself amused at just how ridiculous it all seems but you will soon come to realise that Kitano is not out to glamorise the Yakuza world and the violence that comes hand in hand with it. This is why the final revenge sequence is played out as it is, the lack of visibility tells you more than seeing every drop of blood spilled ever could and although I believe it is a method of filmmaking not everyone will appreciate, it works exceptionally well in the context of Kitano's work and benefits from the blanks stares that punctuate much of the action and are indeed present for the finale.
The final stamp of approval for Sonatine comes from the hauntingly beautiful original score composed by Studio Ghibli regular Jo Hisaishi who has created a soundtrack that befits the blend of drama, violence and humour Sonatine has to offer with astounding ease. This was the second collaboration between Hisaishi and Kitano after A Scene at the Sea and it is hardly a surprise that Hisaishi has worked on four out of the five subsequent Kitano films given the quality of work Kitano has allowed him to create.
Like the previous Tokyo Bullet releases Sonatine has received a Non-Anamorphic Widescreen transfer maintaining the films original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The print sourced is in very good condition bar the occasional speck of dirt and the unfortunate signs of reel changes (via cigarette burns) in the films latter stages. The transfer is generally very good and offers solid colour reproduction and strong deep blacks although some scenes do appear slightly 'grey'. For a Non-Anamorphic Transfer the level of detail on display is fairly high and makes for a reasonable viewing experience although as a result of the lack of anamorphic enhancement you will notice some (but not many) jaggies. One final flaw that I noticed several times throughout the film was the presence of Edge Enhancement which resulted in the occasional visible halo, this came as both a surprise (as it is not a feature MIA are known to employ) and as a slight disappointment although as with all Edge Enhancement it really is down to the viewer as to how much you will notice it - if at all - and considering it is used to a minimum here it should not prove to be that much of a problem.
The original Japanese soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo format and sounds exactly as you would expect with no audio dropouts present, clearly defined dialogue and Jo Hisaishi's sublime score is also well reproduced. The English subtitles are available for both 4:3 and 16:9 Television sets (allowing Widescreen owners to use their Zoom mode without losing the subtitles on the bottom of the screen) and are clearly presented using a white font while both spelling and grammar appeared to be of a high quality.
Bestowed with a similar set of extra features as the other titles in the Tokyo Bullet range you will find the Original Theatrical Trailer presented in Non-Anamorphic Widescreen (and lacking in subtitles), a lacklustre biography/filmography for Takeshi Kitano and Filmographies for Susumu Terashima and Ren Osugi. A reasonable production stills gallery that includes the original Japanese Poster art, lobby cards and a single behind-the-scenes photograph and trailers for several titles in the Tokyo Bullet range round off the extra features.
As a film Sonatine comes highly recommended and as such I so wanted to give this Tokyo Bullet release the thumbs up but sadly I cannot. That is not to say it is inherently bad, as in reality the Tokyo Bullet range has slowly improved with this release easily surpassing the video quality of previous discs to a point where if the price-point was lower I would be happy to recommend you make a purchase. As it is though the quality on offer just does not meet my expectations of a £19.99 RRP DVD (or even £14.99 online) and as such this release is only for those who must have this film (and I suspect many of you fit that bill), for everyone else you can always rent first.