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Essay Day - "Spaces of Transgression in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff and Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine"
It’s Wednesday, and it’s time for the final installment of ‘Essay Day’ here at Fade to Lack. As explained here, I have written a large number of essays during my time at the University of Colorado as a student in film studies, and I thought it time to share the best of those with my readers, so throughout the summer, I have been posting a new essay every Wednesday, all focused on film in one form or another, but often incorporating other research and fields of study.
For the final piece in this series, I have selected an essay on two of my very favorite films – Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff and Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine. Written for a course on ‘Cinema and the Poetics of Transgression’ in the Fall of 2013, which, as the name implies, explored films dealing with themes of transgression, the assignment for this final paper was to pick two films not discussed in class dealing with the topic and write an analytical essay about them. These films immediately came to mind, and the essay was one of my favorites to write as a result. Enjoy, and many thanks for following Essay Day throughout the summer!
Read “Spaces of Transgression in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff and Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine” after the jump...
As related in an opening text prologue, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff is set in a time “when Japan had not yet emerged from the dark ages, and mankind had yet to awaken as human beings.” The film depicts a world in which cruelty is the status quo, where leaders are expected to rule with an iron fist, and slavery is a fact of life for many. Kindness, mercy, and empathy do exist in the hearts of certain individuals, but such humanistic forces are shown to be extremely difficult to access, and even harder to maintain, within a context as cruel and transgressive as that of medieval Japan. For a contemporary audience, the central question the film poses is whether or not we, in modern times, have truly awoken to the humanity that was repressed in this ‘darker’ age. Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, set in modern Japan and depicting a different, yet no less brutal and transgressive, version of a non-humanistic society, may then serve as a cinematic answer to Mizoguchi’s fundamental question. Both films tell us that humanity exists, and that it can be beautiful and redemptive and healing when successfully accessed, but that it is not the driving force of the world at large; that although non-transgressive spaces may be created and briefly maintained by those able to access their dormant, gentler instincts, the larger transgressive setting of the world will always swallow these smaller spaces whole, preserving a societal context in which a widespread humanistic awakening has yet to take place.
Mizoguchi historian Mark Le Fanu writes that “seen from a political point of view, [Sansho the Bailiff] seems to expound the purest liberalism,” and that in applying such progressive principles to the period setting, the film “charts imaginatively ... the first stirrings of protodemocratic consciousness” (13). Indeed, the starting point for Mizoguchi’s story is a man who has already awoken to his inner humanity (within a world that, by and large, has not), a kind feudal Governor who is good to his people, and inspires love, admiration, and respect in turn. Akin to a prophet – most accurately used in the Buddhist sense of the term – this man is enlightened to a higher level of consciousness, one in which he is governed by morals, not base animalistic urges, and governs with those same core beliefs. And by living an exemplary life, he passes these teachings on to those he encounters, evidenced both in the beginning of the film by the overwhelming grief of his subjects when his banishment is announced, and much later when son Zushio visits his father’s grave, and hears of how the man “was kind to everyone he met,” teaching others “how to live a moral life.” This man’s prophetic qualities are most clearly established in his last encounter with a young Zushio where, before his impending banishment, the Governor makes Zushio memorize the following words: “A man is not a human being without mercy. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.”
Like a spiritual or philosophical doctrine, these words not only guide Zushio and ground his own moral compass, but also serve as the baseline for how the viewer experiences and interprets the events of the film. And one of the most crucial implicit meanings of the father’s message, to both Zushio and the viewer, is the idea that what is and is not ‘transgressive’ exists without social boundaries – a man must be true to himself and his principles in life, no matter how at odds those principles may be with the normative social values of the time. Imbedded in the father’s message is a subtle recognition of what a broken world he inhabits – these lessons shall be crucial for navigating it, and although rebelling against a society’s laws (as the father has done in ruling with compassion) can be seen as a form of transgression, the moral base the father gives us informs those who hear it that no matter how widespread an action is – slavery, cruelty, extortion – it can still be a highly transgressive one, and that no matter how minor an action may seem – kindness, compassion, mercy – it can still be the morally correct, or non-transgressive, way to live.
These are important distinctions to be made, because the world of Sansho is, undoubtedly, a highly transgressive space, one in which leaders rule with cruelty and intimidation, and people live within a brutal class structure. That Sansho himself, the antagonist of the piece, is the title character is emblematic of the context in which this story takes place. Sansho’s compound is a horrifying bastion of misery and grief, where slaves are worked to death and treated like animals, but this space is not a singular one. In the broader context of feudal Japan, there are many more places like this, and many other men like Sansho, as evidenced by the sequence in which Zushio and Anju’s mother, Tamaki, is seen trying to escape from the equally miserable brothel to which she has been sold. In a scenario almost identical to the multiple scenes of branding we see Sansho engage in, the mother begs for mercy when she is caught, but receives none; her tendons are cut so she may never run again, and we come to recognize how universal the values of Sansho are. He is, in this way, a stand-in for the transgressive space that is the world at large – a world unawaken to the principles of true humanity.
In a world such as this, where brutality is not only widespread but encouraged – note how much Sansho’s superiors adore and approve of Sansho when they come to visit his compound – it is therefore difficult to be a non-transgressor, to find, access, and most importantly, maintain one’s inner humanity so that their moral compass may drive them. The father has, of course, accessed this part of himself, and in doing so, created for his family and his subjects a safe and harmonious space – a non-transgressive space, we might call it, in contrast to the broader transgressive space it exists within. Non-transgressive spaces are created several times in the film, on scales both large and small, but the characteristics are always the same: a person, or multiple persons, who are awaken to their humanity create for themselves and for others a space in which that humanity is allowed to flourish – in which it is allowed to exist, safe from the outside world.
Take, for example, the sequence in which Tamaki and her children, travelling through the woods years after the father’s banishment, create a small, makeshift shelter for themselves under a tree. Tamaki has been warned of bandits killing and kidnapping women and children, thus intensifying her awareness of the transgressive space in which she travels. The creation of the shelter may therefore be seen as the creation of a non-transgressive space, one that, despite its simplicity, feels like home to the mother and her children. The shelter appears to be one of the first times on their journey the deposed family has felt safe and comfortable, and there is a warm, joyous quality to the sequence that is impossible to deny.
Yet one of the key qualities of the non-transgressive space is how easily it is destroyed; over and over again, such spaces are not allowed to exist, typically erased from existence by the intrusion of a transgressive force from the outside world. Just as the space the father has created for his subjects is subsumed by the cruel and transgressive government, the family’s makeshift shelter is philosophically dismantled by the intrusion of a wicked Priestess, who tricks Tamaki and her children into leaving the safety of the non-transgressive space so they may be separated and sold into slavery. In both of these instances, the non-transgressive space is reabsorbed by the larger transgressive space of the world, with humanity unable to perpetuate itself in isolation.
Indeed, one of the core characteristics of the transgressive space is that of dehumanization – of cruelty inspiring cruelty, of brutality leading to further brutality. This is best exemplified by the fall of Zushio who, after ten years living under Sansho’s merciless command, has forgotten his father’s compassionate teachings, and become utterly hopeless and nihilistic. He brands a runaway slave where Taro, Sansho’s kindhearted son, would not, and when confronted by Anju – who still retains her own humanity, and acts out her father’s teachings by being kind and supportive to her fellow slaves – Zushio tells her “we’re not human beings.” He feels so abjectly broken that he has rejected his own humanity – it has been repressed by the transgressive space in which he lives.
Yet no matter how many times it is destroyed, the non-transgressive space still has power, however limited, and if the transgressive space is a repressive one, the non-transgressive space is contrarily uplifting. Just as bad leads to bad in a transgressive context, good can also inspire good when people create for themselves, even momentarily, a confined, humanistic space. This is how the father inspires his subjects, how the mother’s kindness touches her children, and how Zushio’s repetition of his father’s words convinces Taro to leave his own wicked father behind. Yet as Carole Cavanaugh notes, while “these episodes ... school us in the transformative effects of the lone moral exemplar ... the teachers themselves derive few tangible benefits from their knowledge” (21). Humanity can be passed on from person to person, but the prophetic figure is never rewarded for leading a moral life; the father is banished, the mother separated from her children and sold into slavery, Zushio has his spirit broken even after carrying his father’s teaching with him for so many years – and perhaps most significantly, Anju must die for her humanity to be permanently passed on to her dehumanized brother.
Sacrifice, Le Fanu notes, is “one of Mizoguchi’s great subjects. Here it emerges as the crux of one of the film’s most beautiful sequences, the episode in which Anju lays down her life so that her brother may escape to Kyoto” (14-5). The sequence is laid out as a direct struggle between animism and humanism, with Zushio and Anju tasked by Sansho to take a dying woman, Namiji, into the forest, leaving her to perish alone and without dignity – as dehumanizing a death as possible. Zushio is seemingly unfazed by it all, so deep is he in the throes of misanthropy, but Anju tries to do everything she can to let Namiji die with some humanity. She attempts to create a non-transgressive, humanistic space for Namiji to die in, and convinces Zushio to help her; the scene directly recalls the creation of the makeshift shelter from earlier in the film, both visually – frame composition and the movements of Zushio and Anju within it are nearly identical – and aurally, as the same piece of score from the earlier scene is repeated here. As the non-transgressive space is created, Zushio begins to weep; it is a subtle and quiet moment, but one that speaks volumes, for in seeing his sister toil to bring humanity to a dying woman, his own latent humanity has been reawakened.
Anju immediately recognizes what must be done; she wants Zushio’s re-enlightenment to mean something, to be significant and permanent, and that will require a sacrifice greater than any of the film’s other prophetic or morally exemplary characters have given. Anju chooses to give her life so Zushio (and Namiji) may escape, and the absolutely calm, still construction of the sequence suggests this action is, in itself, another, greater form of spiritual enlightenment. Anju has seen the world both for what it is and for what it could be, and recognized that for the humanity she feels to exist and perpetuate in the heart of her brother (and, hopefully, in others), something must be lost, so transgressive is this world. There is a ceiling to the amount of hope that can exist in this context, with Anju’s sacrifice both ensuring Zushio’s continued humanity and forever preventing her family from reuniting as a whole and healthy unit. In a world such as this, sacrifice is the only path forward.
Zushio himself will later make a sacrifice implementing the teachings of both his father and, now, his sister. After being given the same Governor position his father once held, Zushio creates a new, seemingly permanent non-transgressive space for his subjects by freeing all the slaves in his district (and redeems himself in the eyes of those he hurt during his time under Sansho’s rule). But after seeing what happened to his father and sister, Zushio knows in advance that something must be lost for humanity to perpetuate, and so he leaves his post, returning to the lifestyle of an impoverished wanderer. Time and again, Sansho teaches us that while humanity can exist in a space of transgression, it comes at a significant cost – and will, ultimately, always be dwarfed by the moral desolation of the world at large.
This is one possible reading of the film’s brilliant ending, which, “in its grandeur and distilled poignancy ... must be one of the most powerful moments in the history of the cinema” (Le Fanu 12). Zushio finally travels to Sado, where he knows his mother to be, and searches for her throughout a landscape that is sad, barren, and painfully desolate – Zushio is searching for love and humanity in a world almost entirely bereft of it. Mizoguchi’s craft reinforces this sense of desolation throughout the final sequence, with a still and silent soundtrack, frames filled with empty space that dwarfs the human figure, and a near-total absence of the elaborate mise-en-scene that defines many of the film’s earlier visuals. When Zushio finally does find his mother, the emotional release is both cathartic and devastating; they have been reunited, but they are also alone, two humans adrift in a profoundly dehumanized landscape – what love and redemption Zushio finds in his mother’s arms is equaled by the sense of loss and despair. As Carole Cavanaugh describes it:
The film ends as it began, with son and mother far from home and dispossessed. Anju, unknowable but eternally free, is at the fixed and meaningful center of the endless circle Zushio’s journey traces back to his beginning, a metaphor for the Buddhist doctrine of the painful cycle of life, death and rebirth ... Weeping, Zushio buries his head in his mother’s womb, acknowledging his return to it, acquiescing to the karmic cycle that enslaves him (33-4).
There is an undeniable darkness to this ending, for even though human consciousness has been found, maintained, and, to a certain degree, rewarded by these two individuals, it comes at an extremely severe cost. The “stirrings of protodemocratic consciousness” Le Fanu speaks of exist – Zushio has left a mark on society back in his home district – but Mizoguchi is also depicting these stirring to exist on extremely insecure foundations (13). Transgression is still the status quo of this landscape. The ultimate message of the film seems to be that being human in this world hurts. It hurts more than humans can bear, if a human is even allowed to live long enough to experience these feelings. Life is, indeed, a torture. Zushio and his mother are in the end left with the most painful of emotions, alone and abandoned in a spiritually desolate world – what will come of this humanistic awakening? What can come of it? Is the world we live in today any more or less desolate than this one, and is it any easier to be a human now than it was for these characters in the far distant past?
These are the questions Mizoguchi leaves us with, and they may be applied to Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, a film that is set in the present, but depicts a world that is no less transgressive or dehumanizing than the one Mizoguchi illustrated, albeit more streamlined in its cruelty. This is represented by the film’s clear dichotomy between transgressive and non-transgressive space. Even moreso than Mizoguchi’s film, Kitano makes the dividing lines clear, assigning the space of transgression to urban environments, and the space of non-transgression – or, as we might more accurately call it in this film, the space of humanity and humanistic awakening – to the natural environs of the beach. The film is divided into three fairly distinct ‘acts’ (though not in the Hollywood sense of the term), with the first taking place in the urban settings of Tokyo and Okinawa, the second almost entirely confined to the natural and remote setting of the Okinawan beach, and the third featuring a mix of the two in which both spaces ultimately blend into one. We are introduced to the characters and their transgressive status quo (and, by extension, the transgressive atmosphere of the world at large) in the first act, witness a sort of humanistic awakening for these deeply repressed people in the second, and see the limits of this awakening tested when the transgressions of the outside world intrude upon the natural, humanistic space of the beach in the third act.
Compared to Sansho, the urban setting of the first act appears to be an evolved, streamlined form of the spiritual desolation seen at that film’s conclusion, one in which people exist, but ‘humanity’ is entirely absent. This is best represented by Kitano’s choice to center the action entirely around the Yakuza (only one character in the film, Miyuki, who serves double thematic duty as the picture’s lone female, does not belong to organized crime), who are not shown to be a social aberration, as criminals are so often depicted to be, but a wholly ingrained part of urban life. They wear normal clothes, walk to work like anyone else, get on buses together, and even, in one of the film’s more deftly absurd moments, share ice cream as a form of social bonding. They are structured as bureaucratically as any social institution, act with total impunity – there are not even hints of law enforcement in the film, which is in and of itself a statement about this society – and are only opposed by people ignorant of how this society operates (like the tragically foolish Kanemoto, who crosses protagonist Murakawa in the film’s first scene and is later executed).
Cinematically, Kitano emphasizes the desolation of modern life through what Casio Abe calls the “pathology of discontinuity” (118). Through the use of techniques like discontinuous editing, which skips over important events or moments of action to show only end results, and shot composition that emphasizes the discontinuity of existence through the amputation of the body via framing, Kitano’s techniques constantly give the viewer a feeling of intense desensitization – a life experienced discontinuously is one desensitized to the sensations of living – and even more profound dehumanization (Abe 118-20).
These ideas are manifested most clearly during the sequence where Murakawa and his men execute Kanemoto, using a crane to dunk the man underwater for increasingly long stretches of time (note also that the use of a crane and the setting of a construction site creates a connection between industrialization and violence, and underscores the film’s equation of urbanity and transgression). Abe observes that the film’s compression of time – two minutes becomes thirty seconds, and three minutes is reduced to forty-five – and the contrast between Yakuza indifference and Kanemoto’s extreme pleas for mercy (similar to those expressed by victims of brutality in Sansho) are both forms of meaningful discontinuity, while the absence of all traces of Kanemoto while he is underwater also underscores “the fundamental discontinuity” of existence. (120-1).
Yet the most important takeaway from the sequence is that while Murakawa’s methods are wildly sadistic, “the true cruelty of this scene does not derive from the violence of Kanemoto’s treatment ... [but] because of the utter indifference to whether Kanemoto lives or dies that is apparent on the faces of Murakawa, Katagiri, and the other Yakuza” (Abe 120). This is true throughout Sonatine, for every act of violence is presented by the film and viewed by the characters as utterly mundane (think also of the shootout in the Okinawan bar, when Murakawa loses a subordinate and engages in a long firefight without so much as a hint of discomposure). These mundane actions and reactions emphasize how deeply repressed these characters’ humanity is, if it exists at all; the characters in this world are not just unawaken to their humanity, but positively slumbering.
The one character this cannot be said of, at least not in full, is Murakawa, played by Kitano himself. While Murakawa is absolutely a product of his environment, desensitized to violence and seemingly devoid of empathy, he is also the sole figure who seems to have a mild stirring, from the very beginning, of dormant humanity. Our first hint comes when he transgresses against his own social structure – the Yakuza – by smoking during a meeting before given permission by the boss. “From this one cigarette,” Abe notes, “Murakawa’s position as an outsider is revealed, and the contrast between him and the other leaders in the organization – who for the time being at least are subservient to the boss – is instantly made clear” (128). That he refuses to fall in line tells us that Murakawa either feels apathetic or unfulfilled, and in sharing his desire to retire with subordinate Ken, it appears to be the latter. Murakawa’s words do not necessarily betray any meaningful desires – he only tells Ken that he is “worn out” – but when he expresses this impulse to retire in the car, the expression on Kitano’s face portrays a certain amount of longing, a disconnect between what he presents to the world through words and what he feels inside. In contrast to the characters Kitano plays in Hana-bi (1997) or Brother (2000), both of whom start the film firmly planted in the realm of death, without desires or dreams, there is a certain amount of ‘life’ to Murakawa from the start; he can smile, laugh, and even become legitimately angry (the one violent moment in the film that is arguably non-mundane is his impulsive beating of underboss Takahashi in the bathroom, whom Murakawa feels has wronged him), which means it is possible there are quiet, subtle stirrings of humanity inside him. Feeling unfulfilled is, in and of itself, a humanistic instinct symptomatic of desire; that Murakawa can long for something greater than the life he leads – however subtle and understated that longing is – indicates that he is at least subconsciously self-aware of his desensitization and repression, where other characters are not.
Murakawa will be fully ‘awoken’ to his repression when the action moves to the beach, and while the same level of self-awareness does not necessarily come to the other Yakuza, all the film’s main characters will experience stirrings of humanity during their time at the beach. In contrast to the transgressive urban context in which these characters have for so long been entrenched, the beach, a natural space, allows for a sort of ‘clean slate,’ in which the characters may explore themselves and their relationships with one another unbound by the repressive rigidity of urban life.
This becomes powerfully apparent during the sequence in which Murakawa sees Ken and Ryoji, the two youngest Yakuza, playing a dangerous William Tell-esque game on the beach, with one person balancing a can of beer on their head while the other fires at it with a pistol. The complete and utter disregard for their own lives shows how deep Ken and Ryoji’s desensitization and dehumanization runs, but they are nevertheless severely shaken – shaken into a more sensitive, humanistic space, one might argue – when Murakawa arrives to turn their game into a full-on version of Russian Roulette. But the focus of the scene is undoubtedly Murakawa, who appears downright deranged until it is revealed – when he gets to the last bullet in the chamber and fires at his own head, smiling – that the gun was empty the entire time. Thus, it can be said that Murakawa is simultaneously playing with death while clinging to life, and though it may appear to be a joke on the surface, the nightmare Murakawa experiences that evening – in which the scene is replayed, but with the gun loaded and the suicidal action consummated – reveals that he may in fact have a pathological aversion to death. When the bullet pierces his head in the dream, Murakawa’s smile is abruptly broken, and when he wakes up, he looks positively terrified.
In short, being in the non-transgressive space of the beach allows Murakawa to realize that death does, in fact, scare him – something he is even able to admit to Miyuki, the woman he reluctantly rescues from rape, later in the film – and that newfound sense of self-awareness marks a subtle but profound change in his attitude. In the days that follow, Murakawa begins relishing life in a way he had not done so before, finding things to take actual pleasure in, even if they are as simple and silly as the various games he and his fellow Yakuza play. He truly enjoys himself, finding a semblance of actual human fulfillment in this natural space that exists outside of his prior urban and Yakuza contexts (note that usual Yakuza decorum breaks down completely on the beach, with respectful terminology and attitudes abandoned very quickly – something Murakawa never seems to mind).
The same can, to a lesser extent, be said of the other Yakuza, for through the many games these characters wind up playing with each other – dancing, playing makeshift rock-‘em-sock-‘em robots (with paper and with people), digging trap holes in the sand, playing Frisbee, and shooting fireworks at one another in mock combat – they each start to ‘enjoy’ life in a way they never could in the transgressive setting of the city. Each of the games has an element of violence embedded within – and the overzealous Murakawa often heightens this, as with the Russian Roulette scene or the Fireworks game, where he begins firing an actual pistol – but all are ultimately nonviolent, non-harmful expressions of dormant passions (passions that would, in the ‘real’ world, be realized through actual violence). By playing these games, the Yakuza start to free themselves from repression, each learning to enjoy and actively engage with life and with each other, rather than being passive arbiters of animalistic brutality.
These are the early stages of human awakening, of course; no character in Sonatine, not even Murakawa, ever ascends to the level of enlightenment as the protagonists in Sansho, and questions of morality are never raised. But as previously noted, these characters are starting from an even more repressed, dehumanized level than the inhabitants of Mizoguchi’s work, and where Mizoguchi’s definition of humanism is rooted in intellectual command over emotions and actions, Kitano is more interested in studying the baseline urges, passions, and emotions that make us human. In the contrast between the utterly dehumanized figures of the first act and the un-repressed, expressive playfulness of the second, Kitano tells us that human life is defined, at least in part, by a zeal for living, something urban spaces and transgressive environments prevent us from feeling. More complex ideas like morality can come later – the first step is to have an actual, vested interest in living, rather than simply going through the motions as our transgressive, dehumanized contexts dictate.
Yet so long as these contexts exist, such passion for living shall, inevitably, be repressed, and just as in Sansho, the transgressive space of the outside will eventually intrude upon the non-transgressive space of the beach. During a frivolous game of Frisbee (and target practice), a mysterious assassin, disguised as a fisherman, infiltrates the beach, shooting Ken through the head and abruptly ending not only the fun of the single game being played, but signifying the death of the beach as a space of humanity. The film’s pathological discontinuity returns in full force in this sequence, as Murakawa and company attempt no retaliation for Ken’s murder (even though Murakawa himself is holding a gun), and the assassin does not bother targeting anyone else. On a purely logical level, the construction of the scene makes no sense – neither the assassin’s motivations nor the Yakuza’s reaction are clear. The scene should instead be viewed as representative; the assassin is the arbiter of transgression, ensuring dehumanizing uniformity across all spaces, natural or otherwise, and in murdering Ken before Murakawa, Ryoji, and Miyuki’s eyes, he has effectively written their ‘death’ sentences. By making it clear the beach is not, ultimately, any different from the urban transgressive environment – violence can still intrude just as forcefully as anywhere else – Murakawa and company have been dehumanized once again, for their humanizing space has been taken away from them.
Murakawa, however, is unwilling to let this space go. In one of the film’s most understatedly tragic moments, he keeps throwing the Frisbee long after Ken has died, tossing it over and over and being unable to catch it each time. The symbolism is not hard to grasp: the ‘fun’ times are over, and try as he might, Murakawa is and will continue to be unable to recapture them. But Murakawa nevertheless tries and tries again and again, indicating just how much the beach as it previously existed meant to him, and how little he wants to return to the dehumanizing space of the ‘real’ world.
But return he must, and the third act – the start of which is prompted by Ken’s murder – sees Murakawa moving back and forth between urban and natural spaces, allowing the walls between them to break down as he cleans up the mess he has been thrust into. The utter efficiency of Murakawa’s movements – finding Takahashi, torturing him for information, and finally taking out the entire Yakuza hierarchy with only a modicum of effort – indicates both that his skill as a Yakuza is almost unparalleled, and that were it not for being distracted by the allure of the beach, Murakawa probably could have ended this entire conflict much earlier (hyper-competency is an almost universal trait among Beat Takeshi’s dramatic characters). But he had little enthusiasm for the job in the first act of the film, and he has even less now; why he does what he does in the final act is ambiguous (and rightfully so), but it is likely Murakawa is as fueled by a desire for self-eradication – removing all traces of his former life from the earth – as he is retribution for his fallen Yakuza brothers. Murakawa has had his space invaded, when the beach he had come to find happiness in was symbolically taken from him, and in denying the Yakuza hierarchy a chance for further transgressive perpetuation, Murakawa returns what he received in kind.
The final sequence of Sonatine, set on the beach as Murakawa commits suicide, projects a similar sense of spiritual desolation as Sansho’s finale, albeit with an added ripple of tragic irony: where we did not previously know the space in which Zushio and his mother’s reunion is set, the Okinawan beach is all too familiar to the viewer – and Murakawa – at this point. It used to be a non-transgressive space, a beautiful space, something that stirred humanity and inspired a desire to live. Now, it has ultimately proved unredeeming, and the same landscape that once seemed so full of potential, to both the audience and to Murakawa, now appears as barren and hopeless as the urban space from which the beach once provided a reprieve. As with all other non-transgressive spaces, society and the violent, transgressive forces it harbors intruded upon here as well.
This may be what goes through Murakawa’s mind as he sits in his car, staring out at the ocean – the beautiful, eternal, healing ocean – only to confirm he can no longer see anything in it. No hope. No redemption. No humanity. Not out there, and not in himself. If humanity does exist inside him, it is clear by now that with the beach taken away there is no real outlet in this world for such feelings – the emotions are too painful to live with, and it would be preferable to reject his own humanity. Thus, Murakawa commits suicide.
Viewed in isolation, it is undeniable that Mizoguchi’s Sansho contains many more seeds of optimism than Kitano’s Sonatine. The final scene of Sansho may be among the most devastating ever committed to film, but that devastation is also, in some small way, celebratory, for the fact that Zushio and his mother have endured as humans allows for the possibility that others shall be able to access and maintain their own dormant humanity as well. Kitano leaves no such avenue for hope. The stirrings of humanity are ultimately too much to bear for his character, and whatever humanity came into being over the course of the narrative is eradicated by the film’s end. Thus, taken in combination and offering the viewer an artistic interpretation of humanity’s relationship to transgression in both a modern and period setting, viewers of these films may conclude that, if mankind is not entirely hopeless, we have yet to fully awaken as human beings. The problems Mizoguchi highlights in Sansho are also fundamental to Sonatine and to our modern age, and as long as transgressive spaces continue to triumph over spaces of humanism and morality, that awakening will be delayed, until such a time as being human may be a rewarding emotional experience, rather than one that is painfully unendurable.
Abe, Casio. Beat Takeshi Vs. Takeshi Kitano. Trans. William O. Gardner and Takeo Hori. New
York: Kaya Press, 2004. Print.
Cavanaugh, Carole. “‘Sansho Dayu and the Overthrow of History.” Sanshô Dayû. Dudley
Andrew and Carole Cavanaugh. London: British Film Institute, 2000. 11-40. Print.
Le Fanu, Mark. “The Lessons of Sansho.” On Sansho the Bailiff. The Criterion Collection. New
York: The Criterion Collection, 2013. 6-16. Print.
Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu). Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi. Perf. Kinuyo Tanaka, Kyoko Kagawa,
Eitarō Shindō, Yoshiaki Hanayagi. Daiei Film, 1954. Blu-Ray.
Sonatine. Dir. Takeshi Kitano. Perf. Beat Takeshi, Aya Kokumai, Tetsu Watanabe, Masanobu
Katsumura, Susumu Terajima, Ren Osugi. Office Kitano, Shochiku, 1993. Netflix.
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Jonathan R. Lack has been writing film and television criticism for ten years, for publications such as The Denver Post’s ‘YourHub’ and the entertainment website We Got This Covered, and is the host of The Weekly Stuff Podcast with Jonathan Lack and Sean Chapman. His first book – Fade to Lack: A Critic’s Journey Through the World of Modern Film – is now available in Paperback and on Kindle. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanLack.