Hana-bi is Japanese for “Fireworks”, but might we suggest “Zen and blood-letting” instead?
Violence punctuates Takeshi Kitano’s essay on life and death like exclamation marks. In between sudden bursts of gunfire, punching, kicking and head-butting, two police officers contemplate their fate. One has been partially paralysed during a shootout and now creates vivid paintings by the seaside. The other becomes a criminal to give his terminally ill wife the holiday of her dreams.
The Japanese multi-hyphenate talent’s 1997 movie is set in the same world of ultraviolent yakuza and remorseless police officers from which his previous films emerged. In his simply titled debut Violent Cop (1989), Kitano plays a police officer who loses his balance after his sister is kidnapped by a yakuza clan. In Boiling Point (1990), two gormless petrol pump attendants get involved with Kitano’s deranged yakuza in their quest for revenge. Sonatine (1993) sees Kitano’s yakuza enforcer being sent by his boss on a suicide mission to bring peace between two warring gangs.
Sonatine contains the shot-taking rhythms and editing patterns that became distinctive in future productions. In this early Kitano gem, politeness and psychosis are sides of the same coin. The excessively formal yakuza resemble corporate executives and government bureaucrats in their love for suits and obsession with hierarchy and rituals, but they eagerly welcome the opportunity to lose their tempers. In a hilarious, and typical, juxtaposition of cruel comedy and wince-inducing savagery, Kitano’s loose cannon gangster attacks the bookish lieutenant who has ordered the reconciliation mission in a restaurant toilet as an attendant waits patiently outside with a hand towel.
The mix of manners and mayhem is beautifully rendered in Hana-bi. The lengthy takes, laconic characters with unforgettable faces, meditative silences, bursts of brutality, unexpected tenderness, editing tricks that show the aftermath of violence before the actual act, deadpan comedy, and a love for art are all packed into Hana-bi’s 103 minutes. Apart from being a comedian in Japan (he performs under the stage name Beat Takeshi), and a writer, editor, and filmmaker, Kitano is also a painter. The pointillist works by the wheelchair-bound Horibe in Hana-bi are actually by Kitano.
The movie maps physical and spiritual journeys. Horibe (Ren Osugi, a regular face in Kitano’s films) tries to kill himself before seeking comfort and meaning in painting. Kitano’s Nishi, who is escaping a bad loan to a yakuza gang, decamps with his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) after a bank robbery.
Sections of Hana-Bi, which has been movingly scored by Joe Hisaishi, play out like a silent movie. Hideo Yamamoto’s camera watches from a respectable distance as Nishi and Miyuki contemplate their fate. Miyuki wordlessly conveys her pain and suffering. She speaks only at the end of the movie: “Thank you. Thank you…for everything.”
Kitano’s Buster Keaton-inspired inexpressiveness had already been on display in his previous films. The right side of his face was paralysed in an accident in 1994. Kitano’s inscrutable visage has remained unchanged in the films that followed the accident, and he has added the involuntary tic in his right eye to his spare mannerisms. Although his conflicted police officer in Hana-Bi says little, Nishi’s deep love for his wife and his sorrow over Horibe’s condition are expressed through actions, but sometimes, like the fireworks that inspire the title, he is just waiting to explode.
There’s the time a passerby berates Miyuki for watering withered flowers. The scene is typical: pastoral calm, followed by an unwanted intrusion that is dealt with by Nishi in a few swift and painful moves.
Kitano’s filmography has its share of diamonds and duds. He applied his idiosyncratic style to tremendous effect in Zatoichi (2003), his version of the fictional blind masseur and master swordsman character that has inspired several adaptations. A period revenge drama starring Kitano in the lead, Zatoichi features gorgeously choreographed and edited swordplay sequences as it follows the blind warrior’s one-man slaughter of a cruel yakuza gang.
Like Hana-bi, Zatoichi has gentle humour, tongue-tied characters (including Tadanobu Asano’s ronin), unhurried moments, and sequences of blood-letting that rip through the quiet like a sword cutting through a cloth.
When he isn’t making meta-movies about himself (Glory to the Filmmakers! Achilles and the Tortoise), Kitano pays mock-serious homage to the yakuza code. In his international hit Outrage (2013), in which a yakuza gang implodes through a series of betrayals, Kitano dispenses with the Zen and sticks with the blood-letting.