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January 2016


cast: 'Beat' Takeshi, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima, and Tetsu Watanabe

director: Takeshi Kitano

103 minutes (18) 1997
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Third Window blu-ray region B

RATING: 8/10
review by J.C. Hartley


When I began reviewing films many years ago I started with martial arts or 'wushu' movies. I quite enjoyed them, having grown up watching Kung Fu on TV in the 1970s, and there seemed to be something of a resurgence in the genre at the time; also the stylised violence meant that the films were something I felt I could safely watch with my kids. Gradually, however, I became a bit bored. From martial arts I took a sidestep and discovered Seijun Suzuki and his yakuza pictures Tokyo Drifter (1966), and Branded to Kill (1967), although to suggest Suzuki's films are simple gangster flicks is to do him and them a disservice. I toyed with the idea of trying to specialise in this particular genre of Japanese cinema but being lazy and shallow I never pursued the interest. This is a long-winded introduction to explain how Hana-bi (aka: Fireworks) comes to be the first Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano film I have seen, given the actor and director's productivity, and his particular association with the yakuza movie genre.

Hana-bi begins with two blue-overalled workmen confronting Kitano's Nishi, channelling Charles Bronson, in John Lennon 'granny' shades and a natty blue suit. Some sharp cutting reveals that the pair have messily eaten their lunch off the wing of Nishi's car. Nishi's hand comes out of his pocket, and in the scene immediately following we see one of the men washing the car, when he slips on the fender Nishi boots him in the backside.

The next time we see Nishi he seems older, scruffier, and shambling, bowed down by something to the extent of being bow-legged. This turns out to be one of those 'sometime earlier' scenes, and Kitano uses a flashback/ flash-forward technique over the first half-hour to bring the back-story up to date. While cop Nishi is visiting his wife in hospital, where she has been diagnosed with leukaemia, his partner Horibe (Ren Osugi) takes over the stakeout duties that their junior colleagues are reluctant to continue after their shift has ended. While Nishi visits his wife, Horibe is shot.

We later see Nishi in a bar with his junior colleagues, they tell him not to blame himself for what happened to Horibe and Tanaka, and in a flashback we see Nishi covered in blood, and Tanaka also being shot. Two yakuza thugs enter the bar and hassle Nishi over unpaid interest on a loan, one of them goads him by saying he is no longer a cop, "just a bum." Nishi gouges one of them in the eye with chopsticks and beats up the other. As the narrative resolves it is revealed that when Nishi and his young colleagues tackled the thug who had shot Horibe, Tanaka was shot and killed, and Nishi after killing the thug with a single shot to the head emptied his gun into the corpse.

Nishi, either retired from the force voluntarily, or sacked over the shooting of the dead thug, visits Horibe who is wheelchair-bound, and suicidal. His wife has left him, taking their child, and he has nothing to distract him from his situation. Horibe talks about taking up painting, ruefully commenting on the likely cost of artists' materials. Nishi visits the yakuza loan-shark and increases his borrowing, using some of the money to buy paints and other materials for Horibe. He then buys a police siren and a stolen taxi from a crooked car and scrap-dealer, telling him that he intends robbing a bank.

The shambling dowdy Nishi we encountered early in the film was the cop, he seemed distracted and uncertain, bowed down under the worry over his wife. Nishi now appears younger, stylish, and more confident. He has a plan and a purpose. Completing a paint job on the stolen taxi to turn it into a police car, Nishi then robs a bank. His wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) waits at home, bags packed. Clearly this was Nishi's intention; steal the money to take his dying wife on a trip of a lifetime.

The film now follows Nishi and Miyuki's trip, in counterpoint with Horibe's development as an artist; meanwhile it is revealed that Nishi has paid back his loan to the yakuza but they still want the interest, and Nishi's erstwhile police colleagues have put two-and-two together and are also on his trail. The difference between the two Nishis is quite pronounced, and a clever trick by Kitano. The shambling careworn cop would have been a difficult hero to take to; the slick driven bank robber draws us in. However, the problems faced by an ageing cop with a dying wife would have made for a profoundly different film, as it stands Hana-bi rather defies categorisation.

It impressed the judges at Cannes in 1997 enough to win the Golden Bear, but what did they think they were watching? Is it a Chekhovian comedy? It certainly has comedy elements. It also has moments of great pathos and sentimentality as Nishi and Miyuki make their road trip; pathos, with moments of sudden violence. When a tourist mocks Miyuki for watering dead flowers, Nishi beats him up. Nishi's former colleagues discuss what a good team Nishi and Horibe were, Nishi would stop Horibe getting carried away, but when Nishi lost his temper he was far more dangerous.

While Nishi and Miyuki spend some quality time together, Horibe pursues his artistic endeavours, producing pictures of curious animal-flower hybrids and pictures of happy family life, presumably harking back to days spent with his own estranged family, using a palette reminiscent of Tove Jansson. These pictures, and some that the camera lingers on in the early hospital scenes, and later in the couple's hotel, are Kitano's own, produced while recovering from a motorcycling accident that left him partially paralysed and feeling suicidal. Horibe's final painting is a snow-scene, where the snow flakes and flecks of light are rendered by the Japanese characters for 'snow' and 'light'. 'Suicide' is written on the snow in red, and when the picture is suddenly splattered with red liquid we assume Horibe has committed seppuku, but he has simply tossed red paint onto his canvas.

Nishi has repaid his debt to the yakuza but when they pursue him for the interest he has no compunction about beating them up or gunning them down. Considering he was a cop his actions beg the question why he robbed a legitimate bank, when he could simply have robbed the yakuza loan-shark. The temptation is to read into this some abstruse notion of honour; in an interview in a featurette on Kitano on the disc he is asked if he knows any yakuza, and if he likes them, in a quite legitimate answer he replies that he does know some but he can hardly say he does like them, and he can hardly say he doesn't.

Yakuza hoods despatched, Nishi and Miyuki end up on a beach where the cops finally catch up with them. Nishi asks for a moment with his wife. He has two more rounds left in his gun. A young girl (Kitano's daughter) is trying to fly a kite on the beach, when she asks for Nishi's help in launching it he only succeeds in tearing it. As Nishi and Miyuki sit close together on the beach, and the girl vainly runs with her kite, the camera pans out over the sea, the viewer knows what is coming; two shots ring out. In an action as inappropriate as Ray's aborted suicide in a children's playground in In Bruges (2008), Nishi has shot Miyuki and himself in front of the young girl whose staring face is the final shot of the film.

This blu-ray disc features a retrospective of Kitano's work in a chronological sequence of trailers, and a little documentary featuring footage and interviews. He reveals that within Japan he is unknown as a movie director, and still thought of as a comedian, pop singer, and TV personality. He says that when he appeared in serious films, and spoke dialogue on screen, audiences would burst out laughing; such was their identification of him with his comic persona. As a consequence he gave himself little dialogue in his own films.

I had thought this might be to enable him to concentrate while directing; he has hardly any dialogue in Hana-bi, when Miyuki's doctor tells Nishi he must talk to her all the time this is the best joke in the whole picture. Kitano says he has no problem in showing violence in his films but shies away from any depiction of intimacy, be it sex or eating. A complex man, but a renaissance man as well, in his way. A curious mash-up this, a sort of Tokyo Story meets Bad Lieutenant, but an enjoyable introduction for me to the work of Takeshi Kitano.

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