Hana-Bi Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

The problem was that I had never directed and I had never studied directing, even though I had watched a few films in my time. There was a crew who had studied the usual methods, which were based on the Western influence-- moving the camera, getting different camera angles. The problem with moving the camera in Japan, though, is that when you move it, you always get something you don't want in the frame. So I had to fight with my staff to get these shots with very little movement. After the movie came out, people said I didn't know how to make films.

- Director Takeshi Kitano

Takeshi Kitano

Director and actor 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano, who turned fifty-one this year, is a man of startling contrasts. Turn on the television in Japan, and you'll see him hosting up to seven television shows per week (as his alter-ego 'Beat' Takeshi), paying the bills with boorish talk shows that make "Jerry Springer" look like "Nightline". During the commercial breaks, watch him hocking various brands of beer or instant noodles. Go to the local video store or movie theater, and see his intense and poignant cinematic masterpieces that speak to themes of redemption, honor, loyalty, and the inevitability of death. Open the newspaper and read one of the many columns that he writes. Alternatively, you can read about his thuggish behavior, such as the time he smashed up the office of a magazine that ran an unauthorized photograph of his girlfriend. Happy-go-lucky funnyman... sensitive and intelligent auteur...and pugnacious bully. These are the clashing guises of Takeshi Kitano-- and the hallmarks of his films.

During the Seventies, Takeshi was a well-known comedian, pairing up with Kiyoshi Kaneko to form 'The Two Beats' (hence the nickname). Popular with students and the younger generation with their quick-witted, ill-mannered, and irreverent comedic routines, they soon grabbed the comic limelight on Japan's national broadcaster, NHK. It was also during this time that Takeshi had his first serious dramatic roles, first in his portrayal of a serial killer in a popular television series, and then his memorable portrayal of a Japanese soldier in Nagisa Oshima's "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence".

It was in 1989 that Takeshi got his first chance at directing. Takeshi was originally set to star in "Violent Cop" as a ruthless 'Dirty Harry'-type cop, but when director Kinji Fukasaku bowed out, the producers asked Takeshi to take over the helm. Starting with this very first film, the Takeshi Kitano style began to emerge, which was further refined in his follow-up effort "Boiling Point", which was based on a script that he wrote about a garage mechanic taking on the local yakuza. In 1991, Takeshi switched gears away from the organized crime genre with "A Scene by the Sea", a comedy about a deaf garbage collector learning how to surf. In 1993, "Sonatine", which has been lauded as Takeshi's best film to date, marked a return to the organized crime genre with Takeshi as a world-weary yakuza confronting the inevitability of his own death.

Takeshi's most recent offering is "Hana-Bi", which took top honors at the 1997 Venice International Film Festival. This film, in many ways, is a further refinement of his previous explorations into the organized crime genre. The Japanese title translates into 'Fireworks", but if you look further into the basis of the Japanese character for 'fireworks', you will see that it is composed of two smaller words-- 'fire' and 'flower'. And like the linguistic basis of the title, the story and style of "Hana-Bi" is the synthesis of two opposing images, one being an agent of destruction, and the other a symbol of birth and renewal.

'Beat' Takeshi is Nishi

Told in a non-linear fashion, Takeshi's vision of capricious nihilism begins with Nishi (Takeshi as his alter-ego 'Beat' Takeshi), a police detective, on a stakeout. His partner, Horibe (Ron Osugi), suggests to Nishi that he go visit his wife, who is stricken with terminal leukemia. Nishi takes his partner's advice, and goes to the hospital. However, in his absence, Horibe is shot and the injuries he sustains confine him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. During the pursuit of the shooter, another police officer that Nishi works with is killed, and his wife must work in a restaurant to pay the bills. These events, and the impending loss of his wife, compel Nishi to bring closure to the loose ends of his life. He takes his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) on her 'last' vacation, helps Horibe discover a newfound passion for painting, and provides money for the dead officer's family.

Despite the melodramatic qualities of the story, "Hana-Bi" is the prototypical Takeshi Kitano film, a bizarre dance of silence and violence. The most noticeable feature of "Hana-Bi" is Takeshi's penchant for long, serene static shots that suddenly explode into brutal violence, a technique he first developed in "Violent Cop". Instead of glamorizing acts of violence, like his Hong Kong counterpart John Woo, Takeshi prefers to provide an inescapable perspective on the shock of violence, from the point of view of an unblinking camera (according to the Takeshi, he was influenced by the famous documentary footage of a suspected Viet Cong guerilla being executed by an American soldier). These spontaneous bursts of violence are constantly counterpointed by the tranquil images of Horibe's paintings, and some subtle yet slapstick humor, an extension of Takeshi's many years as a comedian.

Silence and violence

Another aspect of Takeshi's films is the 'contemplative' camera work, which has the camera linger on the facial expressions of its subjects or dwell longingly on a landscape, conveying the perspective of the introspective mind. The long-static shots and 'contemplative' camera work, while achieving Takeshi's minimalist vision, can be frustrating to the unaccustomed viewer, who may see the film as a poorly-paced, meandering, and pointless exercise.

The typical Takeshi protagonist is usually subject to opposing internal forces, and not surprisingly, Nishi is a character of stark contrasts, brilliantly underacted by Takeshi. He is a man of few words with an almost immutable stern facial expression-- one of the running gags in the film is how little Nishi speaks, even when a doctor suggests that Nishi talk with his wife to help her deal with the illness. He is also a loving husband to Miyuki, and takes responsibility for his fallen comrades. On the other hand, he is subject to outbursts of pugilistic behavior-- a man on a beach makes fun of Miyuki putting dead flowers into water, and Nishi brutally beats him. However, one differentiating aspect of "Hana-Bi" over Takeshi's previous films is the juxtaposition of the tragic protagonist with a redemptive character-- Horibe. Nishi and Horibe are on divergent paths: the former is on a self-destructive path to bring closure to his past, while the latter, through his new-found past-time of painting, eschews his violence-ridden past for a path of self-enlightenment. In Takeshi's worldview, it seems that there is only one path to redemption-- to face impending loss with a welcoming and tractable outlook.

"Hana-Bi" is a poignant tale of tragic loss, and of our reactions to such loss, in a world rife with contradiction. Those viewers expecting the over-the-top action of Takeshi's Asian peers will be disappointed-- his films are more European in flavor, atmospheric both in intent and execution. But once you overcome the initial aversion to the idiosyncracies of Takeshi Kitano's minimalist style, you will begin to understand why he is considered one of the world's foremost directors.

Go Back to Movie Review Archive Index