Released in 1997, Hana-bi (meaning fireworks) cemented Takeshi Kitano’s reputation in the West as a filmmaker of superior talent. He’s long been well-regarded in his native Japan, albeit known as much for his “other” career as a comedian as a film star. But Hana-bi, coming a few years after the similarly well-regarded crime flick Sonatine, brought Kitano’s work to a global audience.
I bought this film on DVD a few years after it came out, and re-visiting it now, I was surprised how dated it felt; but the grainy look suits the subject matter. Hana-bi is a slow film in many ways, and it certainly takes a while to get going. It starts by showing us several police officers setting up a stakeout, and it seems like a mundane business: the cops are much more concerned with worrying about domestic issues and their personal lives than they are with the job at hand. Indeed, whereas so many films either glamorize police work, or attempt a self-consciously “gritty” portrayal, Hana-bi just shows the detectives treating it like a regular job; until something goes wrong, at least.
The long, languid scenes that Kitano favours create a naturalistic atmosphere, and there is a realism and tactile physicality to the film that feels exceptional. The slow, almost treacly pacing is punctuated by scenes of extreme violence, with unsettling results. The film’s editing – with many important scenes told in flashback, revealed only in part, in-progress and with information missing – adds to the sense of confusion and uncertainty, mirroring what it’s like to be caught up in violent events and confrontations.
Kitano wrote, directed, edited, and starred in this film, playing the main character, Nishi. He was also responsible for the artwork which appears throughout its second half: he created it while recovering from the motorcycle accident which also caused the partial facial paralysis which is noticeable throughout. His character is mute for long periods of the film, but he still injects a surprising amount of warmth and humor into his performance. This is especially striking in the scenes with his wife, who is dying from cancer. Their early scenes together are decidedly somber, as you’d expect; but they gradually become happier and more bittersweet. It’s clear that, for all the misfortune the couple has endured, they’re still deeply in love. That such tenderness, intimacy and comedy is conveyed in their almost silent scenes is a credit to their craft as well as to Kitano’s script.
But as well as a loving husband and kind friend, Nishi is a violent man prone to extreme and excessive outbursts. In its total aversion to romanticizing cops or the yakuza, Hana-bi almost feels like a deconstruction of those genres, but to see it as such would probably be missing the point. This is a reflective and poignant film and one to make you think about deep themes like the meaning of life, love, friendship, and so on. In other words, not your typical genre film, and essential viewing for anyone interested in Japanese cinema or Kitano’s oeuvre.