Sonatine Blu-ray Review
"When you're scared all the time, you reach a point when you wish you were dead."
Sonatine is acclaimed filmmaker 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano's offbeat Yakuza crime drama masterpiece.Kitano, second only to Kurosawa in terms of legendary Japanese auteurs, is one of the all-time greatest filmmakers on the planet, writing, editing, directing and starring in a number of memorable features, all of which are defined by his inimitable style - both visual and darkly comic, with bursts of violence punctuating what are often very grounded endeavours. His stand-up comic origins were ditched (but not forgotten) when he graduated to big screen work, taking bloody anti-hero duty as the Dirty Harry-esque star of the 1989 thriller Violent Cop and also taking the reins behind the camera when the director was unceremoniously dismissed. This started a trend of starring, directing, writing and editing full auteur efforts which, at least to begin with, had a Yakuza gangster focal point, albeit with increasing detours into more comically human dramas. 1993's Sonatine was arguably the high point in his golden era of filmmaking, before a tragic motorcycle accident, and his subsequent shift towards broader work.He has created some masterpieces since (Hana-Bi) and some gems (Zatoichi), and is currently completing his gangster magnum opus (the Outrage trilogy) whilst dipping back into Hollywood for Ghost in the Shell (having found little reception for his cameo on Johnny Mnemonic and the underrated Brother). But Sonatine was Kitano whilst he was still both fresh and also just starting to refine his works into something perfected. Its tale of abandoned gangsters going stir-crazy on the beach whilst waiting for their inevitable fate is atypical for the genre - unlike anything you've ever seen before if you haven't seen a Kitano film - and his almost wordless command of the screen is amazing, entertaining his gang (and us) with increasingly imaginative games that wow you in the way they bring child-like endeavours to adult life (the fireworks battle is sublime). This heaven-like purgatory is punctuated by acts of blistering violence, and driven by a haunting, melancholy score from long-term collaborator Joe Hisaishi. It's likely one of the best film's you've never seen.
Picture QualitySonatine made its Blu-ray debut earlier this year in Germany, but the fact it's not English-friendly (no subtitles), leaves this its first accessible Blu-ray release for UK viewers. It's curious that quite so many of Kitano's films have seen a Blu-ray release (out of the 18 films he's directed, 13 have been released) and yet Sonatine has taken a decade to reach the format.
Japanese studio Bandai Visual offer up this rendition, which, presumably as with the rest of his back-catalogue, has been given a 2K remaster courtesy of Office Kitano. Whilst clearly the best that this film has ever looked - and, at this rate, may ever look - it's not a desperately striking restoration; indeed it's solid, serviceable, and at times impressive, even if it's certainly not a reference rendition of this classic.
Presumably a 2K remaster, it's solid and at times impressive
Sonatine is afforded a 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video presentation framed in the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 widescreen. It's a lightly soft image, at least to start with, and perhaps more so than fans will appreciate, coming to life in background textures and environments, and then later impressing at the seafront in Okinawa, but suffering a little more than fans would like when it comes to skin textures which, at anything more than mid-range, take on a slightly softer, more plastic quality.
Still, close ups can be very revealing, and there are swathes of impressive detailing across the piece. Certainly the almost complete lack of grain is suggestive of a fair amount of DNR implementation at play here, cleaning up the image better than ever before, but robbing it of some of the finer nuances in the process, however the end results, whilst far from perfect, are also far from bad. As stated, it's surprising just how impressive the background is - walls in the bars, bathroom, abandoned building and beach huts look superbly textured - and without a doubt the daytime shots show just how good the facial detailing can look too.
The colour scheme was always very restrained, and almost monochromatic at nighttime, afforded a brighter, sunnier outlook in Okinawa, with some nice natural tones in the sand and sea sequences, and grass and greenery standing out, although still little in the way of obvious primaries. Black levels are solid and perhaps admirably so, as there's little overt sign of banding or crush no matter how dark the sequences get (the early crane scene is very dark but never seems to falter, and even the smoky firework scene stands up). Some shots do look much better than others, and, as stated, this is probably the best the film will ever look, even if it's hardly demo material.
Sound QualityBandai Visual's Japanese Blu-ray release of Sonatine is of particular interest to Western audiences in that it offers up English subtitles (which 2017's earlier German release doesn't, unfortunately), allowing fans to actually understand the dialogue (although some could argue that it's visual enough to speak a thousand words even without understanding the dialogue). The film gets a very good Japanese LPCM stereo track which remains faithful to the sound design of the production whilst showcasing it in impressive lossless HD fashion.
The audio remains faithful whilst also being surprisingly effective
Obviously a front-dominated affair, the dialogue remains firmly placed, with clarity, across the frontal array, whilst effects allow for the myriad, sporadic but nonetheless quite plentiful gunshots, with even a few explosions thrown into the mix. It's not exactly boisterous, but it gives the track a little breadth, and spices things up beyond the otherwise atmospheric offering which brings streets and windy beaches to life. It's the score, however, that defines the piece, arguably composer Joe Hisaishi's best work with Kitano, crafting a deep, resonant aural accompaniment that offers playful moments but forebodes doom, and carries an undercurrent of menacing threat. It's simple but highly effective, and is arguably one of the best scores of all time, with the key theme playing out over the most important sequences in the movie, and vast segments of the feature cleverly bereft of any musical accompaniment. This is easily the best Sonatine has ever sounded.
ExtrasJust Sonatine's original theatrical and teaser trailers, and a trailer for Kitano's upcoming Outrage conclusion, all without English subtitles.
Blu-ray VerdictSonatine was titled by Kitano as a reference to the fact that when somebody learns the piano, at the point of sonatinas, they have to make a crucial decision as to which style of music to go into, whether classical, pop or jazz; this is mirrored by the path taken by his protagonist in this movie, coming to a crucial turning-point in his life as a gangster. Ironically, the same could be said about Kitano himself: in crafting Sonatine he was, ostensibly, showing that he had made an important decision when it came to his filmmaking career and decided to make a name with serious, often gangster-themed, dramas. Even more ironically, it is possible that Sonatine was designed to show the opposite: much like his lead character, Kitano was retiring his gangster themes in favour of other, broader work. Either way, Sonatine ended up being one of Kitano's greatest works, an utterly unmissable masterpiece.
Likely one of the best film's you've never seen
It's curious that quite so many of Kitano's films made it to Blu-ray before this masterpiece - films made both before and after. There are a couple of prominent US releases of his early Violent Cop and Boiling Point, whilst UK studio Third Window Films picked up the rights to almost all of the rest of his pre-2000 back catalogue, which we have done reviews for, including the stunning Hana-Bi, as well as the lesser-known gems Kikujiro, A Scene at the Sea, Dolls and Kids Return. His sole US lead vehicle, Brother, got an English-friendly German Blu-ray release, and obviously his later works have all had contemporary Blu-ray releases, whilst the least accessible of his features, the odd sex comedy Getting Any? got a Third Window Films release just this month. Despite all of this, Sonatine is missing in action, with the rumour being that Kitano's studio, Office Kitano, made all of its relatively recent 2K remasters available to Third Window Films apart form his early gangster works (Violent Cop, Boiling Point and Sonatine) because of the violence in them. That seems like an odd rationalisation, to say the least, particularly given the fact that the first two films, and now Sonatine, have seeped into other territories, but there is a curious lack of gangster Kitano in the releases that Third Window Films have been afforded.
Fans who have been waiting on Sonatine for all these years should wait no longer. Bandai Visual's Region A-locked Blu-ray release almost certainly trades in one of Office Kitano's 2K remasters, and is certainly the best the film has ever looked, even if that's not a hard standard to set, with solid soundtrack coverage and a few trailers to round off the English-friendly disc. If you've never seen any Kitano, it's got to be this, Hana-Bi or (perhaps from an accessibility point-of-view), Zatoichi that you check out first but, whatever you do, don't miss out on experiencing this masterwork from the Japanese auteur. Highly recommended.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.