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Editing for Ambiguity in Sonatine

The shootout that occurs when Murakawa is ambushed in the Okinawan bar is composed of only two alternating shots. Each is flat, stationary, void of emotional connotation, and lacking cohesiveness and a sense of the interactive nature of the characters. The editing here presents the subjects in a matter-of-fact manner, an attitude that is mirrored in the stoic facial expressions of the actors throughout the film. It seems Takeshi wants to piece together his shots in a manner which circumvents the conventional tone of gangster violence. Distancing the audience from the imperativeness of the action, he allows the gangster to be understood in a new light. Takeshi’s nontraditional shot composition has a twofold purpose: to promote ambiguity and the flexibility of interpretation that it allows and to close the gap between representations of violence and typically non-violent activities, allowing a fresh window into the gangster’s soul.

The faces of Sonatine’s actors are expressionless to such an ironic extent that their interactions verge on becoming non-literal. The project of upsetting realistic reactions to violence is fully continued in the framing of the actors on screen and the unexpectedly unaffected editing. We are repeatedly given shots of characters that are as depthless and as rigid as the faces of the characters themselves, but the shot composition alone is not enough to achieve the effect of numbness that Takeshi is working towards. When the editing continues this aesthetic, the wholeness of the numbness project is realized; by cutting between the static, stoic takes in a detached, ironic manner the audience is separated from the direct brutality of the violence and made to understand the experience more like the gangsters’, as something nihilistic, ambiguous and incurious. More traditional editing would give put together dialogue with over-the-shoulder shots and shots perpendicular to the action that show the characters conversing face to face. The purpose of the insertion of these shots is to foster a feeling of the characters’ shared space, to see one character in the context of the other and be reminded of the interactional, context-dependent nature of the characters’ behavior, even when only one character consumes the shot at a time. Takeshi opts to avoid that particular editing convention, instead transitioning from one flat shot of characters, lonely and stoic, to another with characters similarly framed like isolated, unaffected statues. It is clear from gaze alignment that the characters are indeed interacting with each other, but the elision of connecting shots urges the viewer to see the gangster as unconnected.

sonatine_beach.jpgThe middle of the film represents an interlude from violence for the Murakawa clan. Although the setting shifts drastically from dark enclosed spaces to the expansiveness of the windy beach, the gangsters seem callous and unchanged. Lighthearted games only reenact the same violent situations found in the city and ultimately the different texture of the vacation world is either indistinguishable or inaccessible to the gangster. Scenes are still edited in this section with no connectivity, each shot shows a character that is clearly interacting with another character, but there is no shot to promote a feeling of shared space. When Ken is assassinated on the beach, we see Ken halt upon seeing the gun pointed at him, and we get a shot of the assassin pointing the gun. We also Murakawa watching the murder, but these shots are never integrated; the character never actually share the same space. Though the characters are indeed affecting each other, in this case quite violently, they are incapable of empathy because they function in nihilistic seclusion, a theme promoted visually through an editing style that engenders a sense of isolation. The rituals of the sumo ring on the beach represent the closest thing we get to diegetic interaction, but even then the characters do not address each other directly. Moving in and out of the ring, the two men have coordinated gestures, but they never instruct each other or dialogue while on screen. Their movements are more parallel than reciprocal. When they eventually combat each other on screen, they are transformed into motionless paper sumo wrestlers. This evidences the extent of Takeshi’s dedication to the project of never allowing us to see one human engaging another on screen.

The reasons for the gangsters’ insensitivities are left unclear. Takeshi could intend that the gangsters have been irreparably corrupted by their profession, that they are innately dysfunctional, or that they simply cannot escape the weight of the inevitable fate which awaits them in the city. Sonatine gains lasting force through ambiguity. The practice of cutting between stone-like faces without diegetic connectors anesthetizes both the characters’ sense of each other and the audience’s sense of the film’s intended meaning. Sonatine maintains its lyrical aesthetic by avoiding the inclusion of messy details which a more enunciated theme would require; it provides the rhythm and the changes, but the interior notes are the responsibility of the viewer.

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