In Japan, Takeshi Kitano is bigger than any David Letterman or Johnny Carson ever was. Best known as the wisecracking TV comedian Beat Takeshi, he’s the star of 7 TV shows. He’s also a painter, a writer (he has more than 50 books to his credit), and he even writes 6 weekly newspaper columns. But here, in the West, he’s mostly known as, if anything, an extremely achieved filmmaker. His biggest hit to date is his latest film, “Hana-Bi”, which won the Lion D’Or at the Venice Film Festival in 1997. And now, Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder is releasing in America Sonatine, Kitano’s previous film. The films are similar, yet very different in certain ways. You could say that “Sonatine” is to “Hana-Bi” what “Pulp Fiction” is to “Reservoir Dogs”.

Beat Takeshi stars as Mr. Murakawa, a yakuza who lost interest in the job and lifestyle, even though his turf is very successful. As the film begins, his superior sends him and his team to Okinawa to settle a gang war between rival factions. But the Boss has a hidden agenda, and Murakawa finds himself in a bloody ambush. He then retreats with those who survive to an old seaside cabin to lay low for a while. The men entertain themselves by playing macho yet childish games, and Murakawa even gets himself a girlfriend. But their “vacation” won’t last forever. Soon, the war rumbles, and no one will survive to tell the tale…

If “Hana-Bi” balanced ultaviolence and a contemplative, tragic look at human condition, in Sonatine, the shoot-outs share screen time with joyful episodes of game and play. It’s almost a comedy. The way violence is portrayed is very interesting. In John Woo’s work, for example, violence is shown in magnificent shoot-outs carefully choreographed. Beat Takeshi uses a very different technique. In most violent scenes, the camera mostly stands still, almost eerily, watching stone-faced men shooting straight at each other without blinking. These encounters are felt as banal, unexceptional events in these people’s lives. Killing is their job. In “Hana-Bi”, violence came when Kitano was attacked or provoked and let his rage go freely. But in Sonatine, we feel that people shoot at each other only because they have to, if they don’t want to end up dead. You could even say that it’s a chore, a hassle to them. They’re not enjoying themselves like in Hollywood action movies, where heroes drop one-liners and kid around as people are getting killed. No such thing in Sonatine.

The true strength and pleasure of the film lies in the moments of humor and fun. Only then do Murakawa and his men smile and crack jokes. In their cabin by the sea, they talk and play as if they were still kids. They play a scary variant of stone-scissors-paper; they dress as geishas and dance; they “play war” with fireworks… The film’s most memorable sequence is probably the one in which two Hawaiian shit wearing yakuzas pose as sumos. It’s real hard to describe in words, and I just can tell you that it’s hilarious and visually dazzling. Speaking of that, the film is packed with stunning visuals. The landscape shots overwhelmed by the ocean are very impressive, and through the film, we get more of Kitano’s unique style of direction, as in a real cool shoot-out in a crowded elevator. If, altogether, “Sonatine” ain’t as intense as “Hana-Bi”, watching Beat Takeshi having fun for once is still a blast.