Director: Takeshi Kitano
Production: Television Tokyo Channel, Tokyo FM Broadcasting Company, Office Kitano, Bandai Visual; color, 35mm; running time: 101 minutes. Released 3 September 1997 (Venice Film Festival), 11 November 1997 in Germany (theatrical premiere), 24 January 1998 in Japan, and 20 March 1998 in the United States.
Producers: Masayuki Mori, Yasushi Tsuge, Takio Yoshida; screenplay: Takeshi Kitano; photography: Hideo Yamamoto; editors: Takeshi Kitano, Yoshinori Oota; art director: Norishiro Isoda; set decorator: Tatsuo Ozeki; original music: Jo Hisaishi; costume designer: Masami Saito; sound: Senji Horiuchi.
Cast: Takeshi Kitano (billed as "Beat" Takeshi) ( Yoshitaka Nishi ); Kayoko Kishimoto ( Miyuki, Nishi's wife ); Ren Osugi ( Horibe ); Susumu Terajima ( Nakamura ); Tetsu Watanabe ( Tesuka ); Hakuryu
Awards: European Film Awards Five Continents Award, Venice Film Festival Golden Lion, Sao Paolo International Film Festival Critics Award, Camerimage Golden Frog (Hideo Yamamoto), 1997.
Rooney, D., in Variety (New York), 8–14 September 1997.
Burdeau, E. and others, interview in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1997.
Saada, N., "Mirage de la vie," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1997.
Ciment, Michel, interview in Positif (Paris), November 1997.
Goudet, S., in Positif (Paris), November 1997.
Vasse, C., in Positif (Paris), November 1997.
Buccheri, V., in Segnocinema (Vicenza, Italy), November/December 1997.
Rayns, Tony, "Silent Running," interview in Sight & Sound (London), December 1997.
Rayns, Tony, "Flower and Fire," in Sight & Sound (London), December 1997.
Kehr, Dave, in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1998.
* * *
Superficially, the main character in Takeshi Kitano's Hana-Bi might be the hero of a generic Hollywood cops-and-robbers thriller. He is Yoshitaka Nishi, a tough veteran police detective who is the picture of cookie-cutter cool. Nishi rarely is without his trademark sunglasses, and he hardly ever displays emotion while going about his professional duties. In this regard, he parallels Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson's character in Death Wish. Yet effortlessly, if not breathlessly, the character and the film transcend these cosmetic trappings, with Nishi becoming a tragic hero of Shakespearean proportion. There are dents in his armor and, as his world crashes in around him, this cop is no indestructible Superman. Nishi (who is played by the filmmaker, billed as "Beat" Takeshi) starts out with a couple of strikes against him, as his young daughter has recently died and his wife is fatally ill. A third strike directly relates to the hazards of his business; over the image of two men tossing a baseball, it is noted that Nishi's "daughter dies, [his] wife gets sick, and he's a damn cop." The reality of police work is that it is a brutal, high-pressure profession. A cop may die in the line of duty, or he may be crippled, or a blunder may result in incalculable tragedy. All of these catastrophes befall Nishi. Once upon a time, he and his longtime partner and friend, Detective Horibe, were "a great team." Yet at the outset, Horibe is shot and crippled. Additionally, Nishi is involved in a bloody confrontation with a criminal, resulting in the death of one colleague and the maiming of another. Nishi's sense of responsibility towards his wife and the deceased cop's widow leads him to borrow money from the yakuza, whose emissaries now are calling for a payback.
In Hana-Bi , the characters of Nishi and Horibe are laden with obstacles. But are there solutions? In a standard Hollywood entertainment, a happy ending would be de rigeur ; it would transcend whatever anguish is experienced by the hero during the course of the scenario. Suffice to say, Hana-Bi is no Hollywood escapist product, no cotton-candy amusement. The wheelchair-bound Horibe, who has been abandoned by his family, commences contemplating nature and painting what he observes. Whatever pleasure he derives from this pastime is transitory and meaningless. "I paint pictures to kill time," he says, matter-of-factly. Meanwhile, Nishi responds to his stresses by becoming prone to increasing outbursts of violence. Not all of his victims are the thugs who harass him for money; Nishi will arbitrarily smack an unsuspecting stranger who has the temerity to mix with him. For instance, he beats up a man who innocently chides Nishi's wife for watering dead flowers on a beach.
Conversely, when in the company of his wife, Nishi is gentle and loving: a model of compassion in a cruel contemporary world. In this regard, Hana-Bi offers a stinging portrait of an icy-cold society in which cityscapes and bright lights and all the modern conveniences are poor substitutes for warmth, caring, and basic humanity. Society, as depicted by Kitano, is defined by violence and gangsterism—and Nishi, the officer of the law, is reduced to the level of the street thug as he is impacted by his work, his surroundings, and his personal hell. Throughout the film, characters suffer ill luck. When they or their loved ones are afflicted with disease or paralysis, they are left to their own inner resources, their own inner demons, their own solitude.
Hana-Bi is a soulful film, with Kitano often employing the soft sounds of pianos or violins to create moods of melancholy. Most impressive of all, the film is loaded with visual and aural juxtapositions that infuse it with a profound sense of irony. Sometimes, the opposites are strictly in the imagery; on other occasions, an image may be contrasted to a sound, or a penetrating silence. For example, a shot of Nishi quietly, somberly lighting a cigarette while visiting his wife in her hospital room is followed by one of a gun blasting into the gut of Horibe, who grimaces and falls to the pavement. The second shot begins just as Nishi lights the cigarette. Later on, Nishi peacefully sits in a bar. Violent images pass through his mind. Kitano visualizes these thoughts, which appear in slow motion and without sound. As a result, the serenity of the moment is contrasted to the violence replaying in Nishi's head.
A shot of blood flowing out of the mouth of a thug Nishi has just smacked is followed by a long shot of waves crashing into a beach and two adults and a child walking in the sand. A medium shot of a man standing passively is accompanied by the groans and grunts of a violent confrontation. Nishi aims a gun at a man who is running from him; just as he pulls the trigger, Kitano cuts to Horibe splashing a glob of blood-red paint across his latest artistic creation.
Occasionally, Nishi's wife utters a giggle in response to something he does or says. Otherwise, she is silent throughout the entire film—until its final moments. "Thank you. Thank you for everything," she tells her husband, as she tenderly rests her head on his shoulder. Here, Kitano incorporates the film's final juxtaposition. His camera lingers on a long shot of an idyllic sand-and-waves setting. Then, to emphasize the point that there will be no reprieve for Nishi and his wife, the lilting music on the soundtrack is interrupted by the sound of two gunshots.
The literal English translation of Hana-Bi is "fireworks." Split in two, the title is made up of the words "flower" ("hana") and "fire" ("bi"): a contrast that potently mirrors the two aspects of Nishi's character. He is a cop who knows all too well that violence is an intrinsic part of contemporary society; when stretched to his limit, he is a willing purveyor of violence. Yet concurrently, in his dealings with his wife, he is capable of extreme tenderness. All of this is most poignantly played out in Kitano's visual and aural juxtapositions, which ultimately mix devotion with outrage, beauty with anguish.