Hana-Bi (Cert 18)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 103 minutes approx.
It is remarkable for us on this side of the world to comprehend how Takeshi Kitano was not regarded as a credible filmmaker in his native Japan until Hana-Bi won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film festival. Until then he was simply one of Japan’s most beloved TV performers, comedian, actor, painter and writer.
Third Window Films are reissuing some of Kitano’s late 90’s films in brand new 2K HD remaster, affording us the opportunity to reappraise his work. Kicking off with this 1997 gem, Hana-Bi (lit. trans – Fireworks) is arguably the slowest, quietest and quirkiest violent crime drama ever made.
Police officer Nishi (Kitano) takes early retirement to tend to his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) who has terminal leukaemia, following a shootout during a stakeout in which one fellow officer was killed and another, Horibe (Ren Osugi), is left paralysed. Stricken by guilt and wanting to do right by everyone while heavily in debt to Yakuza loan sharks, Nisihi embarks on a dangerous and illicit plan to solve his problems.
Anyone exploring Kitano’s films after seeing him in the seminal Battle Royale will be in for a shock as his directing and presentation style is quite esoteric and unorthodox, often taking on the same freeform spirit of his paintings. Kitano is very much an advocate of exploiting the visual medium to its fullest and this is embodied in the way he keeps certain shots lingering or incorporates his artwork into the film.
Hana-Bi also exemplifies Kitano’s symbolic use of light and shade. The bleak subject matter of this film and the hard-hitting violence is offset by the vibrancy of the imagery, full of life and colour. The film’s final scene take place on a sunny beach with the pale sands radiating next to the clear blue rush of the sea, accompanied by a jaunty musical score from Joe Hisaishi, completely distracting us from the grim reality of what is about to happen.
Kitano takes his time in unfolding the story with the first forty-five minutes or so told via intermittent flashbacks and non-linear set ups before settling into the present day. There is a slight slow patch involving the symbolic artistic epiphany Horibe experiences, before peaking with the tragic but oddly uplifting final act.
One particular forte of Kitano’s is the application of violence when you least expect it, and usually it is brief and to the point. Whilst there is quite a body count before the film ends, nothing is protracted or indeed excessively graphic, although arguably unpleasant – the restaurant scene where two Yakuza try to collect the money owed to their boss and Nishi deals with them with a pair of chopsticks is a prime example.
Despite being on the right side of the law, Nishi is a dangerously violent police officer when it comes to lawbreakers, a trait he shared with his partner Horibe who was equally slaphappy if a perp refused to cooperate. Nishi’s guilt over Horibe’s injury is due to Nishi leaving a stakeout early to visit Miyuki in hospital with Horibe covering his shift when a younger officer, Nakamura (Susumu Terajima), refuses to work late as he has a date.
Nakamura, who goes on to replace both Horibe and Nishi, is later shot by Horibe’s attacker while Tanaka (Makoto Ashikawa) dies acting as a shield for him. Nishi vows to help Tanaka’s widow (Yûko Daike), again believing he was at fault, and encourages Horibe to take up art, buying him the necessary drawing equipment; the paintings used are Kitano’s, done while recovering from his motorcycle accident in 1994.
The most interesting facet of this story is the Jekyll and Hyde personality of Nishi, switching from no nonsense stone faced cop to smiling, playful devoted husband to Miyuki. Nary a word is shared between husband and wife yet the atmosphere created between the two needs no words, the mutual love and dedication warmly emanating from the screen. Indeed the film’s humour comes from their interactions – from Nishi’s remarkable card reading trick to a failed photograph courtesy of a passing car.
Much of the film is played out in silence, with Kitano himself barely uttering more than a few lines, Miyuki even less. The bulk of the dialogue comes from other people Nishi interacts with – colleagues, the Yakuza, or a dodgy junkyard owner Tesuka (Tetsu Watanabe) who supplies Nishi with all he needs for his audacious money making plan.
The fact Nishi barely speaks adds hugely to his on screen presence as the anti-hero, exuding the kind of tacit cool that Jô Shishido was presumably looking for in Branded To Kill. Hiding behind a pair of shades Nishi refuses to flinch even when a gun is pointing at his face prior to dextrously turning the tables on his opponent, usually with bloody results.
Edited by Kitano, the length of the shots will vary depending on the mood of the scene, from the quick cut to the overly protracted. The photography also veers from the highly proficient to the rather oblique but one thing this superb HD transfer does is lift the visuals to a stunning new plane. If it wasn’t for the lame fashions of the era, you’d never know this film was almost twenty years old.
Kitano wears many hats when making a film – writer, director, producer, editor, artist – yet the pressure never seems to manifest itself in his performances (unless the violence is his outlet) nor does it prevent him from getting the most out of his cast, with Ren Osugi and Kayoko Kishimoto both deserving of praise for their work here.
Hana-Bi is an odd contradiction of a film in that crime dramas aren’t supposed to be so humane and emotive, yet we are wholly engaged as if this was the sprawling, high-octane affairs beholden to the genre. For a film already highly treasured, this gorgeous HD reissue will reaffirm its venerated status.
Japanese DTS-HD 2.0
Audio Commentary with Mark Schilling
Interview with Director Takeshi Kitano
Takeshi Kitano Retrospective
Rating – ****
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