Production Company: Bandai Visual, Television Tokyo Channel 12, TOKYO FM, Office Kitano
Release: 24 January 1998
Length: 103 min.
Format: 35 mm; 1:1.85
Director: Kitano Takeshi
Producers: Mori Masayuki, Tsuge Yasushi, Yoshida Takio
Screenplay: Kitano Takeshi
Photography: Yamamoto Hideo
Music: Hisaishi Jo
Art Director: Isoda Norihiro
Editor: Kitano Takeshi, Ota Yoshinori
Nishi: Beat Takeshi
Miyuki, his wife: Kishimoto Kayoko
Horibe Taisuke: Osugi Ren
Nakamura Yasushi: Terajima Susumu
Tojo Seiji: Hakuryu
Scrap dealer: Watanabe Tetsu
Kitano’s Inner Lives Bloom in ‘Hana-Bi’
After winning the coveted Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival for his new film Hana-Bi, Kitano Takeshi boasted of his exploit to the sports papers in typical Beat Takeshi fashion: “I am the master!”
The statement was certainly the kind of showing off that the comedian is famous for, but it also expresses the in-your-face pride of an artist whose film work has been given recognition after years of being ignored by the mainstream Japanese media. Hana-Bi itself can be seen as Kitano’s declaration that he is indeed a master of cinema. But as such, it sometimes loses the unconventional edge that makes Kitano so special.
Hana-Bi does expand on previous Kitano themes while breaking new ground. The title, meaning “flowers and fire” in Japanese (and “fireworks” when read as a whole), evokes the motifs of life and death and the violence that connects them that have been central to his works.
Two police detectives, Nishi (played by Takeshi himself) and Horibe (Osugi Ren), are the film’s central opposition because of their location along the flower=life/fire=death axes. After Horibe was shot following Nishi’s departure from a stakeout to visit his sick wife (Kishimoto Kayoko), Nishi, like Murakawa in Sonatine (“Sonachine,” 1993), comes to resemble the walking dead. He is laconic to the extreme, almost as empty an existence as Masaki in Boiling Point (“3-4 x jugatsu,” 1990); his only means of expression seem to be unexpected outbursts of violence.
The now half-paralyzed Horibe also initially chooses death by attempting suicide. But he forges a new life upon encountering a mass of blooming cherry blossoms which spark in him the urge to paint. It is his rediscovery of the power of life and the decision to open himself up to its creative inspiration that allow him to tread the opposite path to Nishi.
Yet Kitano’s deft editing, repeatedly connecting the two men’s actions, establishes them as doubles, indicating the degree to which the director does not treat life and death as opposites, but as two-sides of the same coin.
This is most evident in the character of Nishi. Despite expressing a virtual death wish, Nishi’s violence is oddly productive. He fends off the pursuit by the yakuza over his bad debts, and thereby protects his terminally-ill wife’s happiness as he maintains their life together.
But paradoxically, it is as they fall towards death when Nishi takes her on a last holiday at the end, that enables them to experience life to the fullest. Life and death, play and violence, are eventually joined at the location that often serves as Kitano’s boundary between existence and non-existence: the beach.
This intertwining of life and death may have autobiographical roots. Kitano has noted in interviews how Nishi in some ways represents himself before, and Horibe himself after, his near fatal scooter accident in 1994. Both Nishi and Horibe are in fact “directors” within the movie, molding their environments and narrating stories. But Horibe is the closest to Kitano, the self-styled “the master of cinema,” since it is through his paintings that Nishi’s tale is told.
Like Horibe, after his accident Kitano rediscovered the beauty of flowers he had long ignored and began painting, creating the works that figure significantly in the film’s art design. Horibe and the paintings are more than anything else Kitano’s declaration that he is the artist of this film.
But just as the film’s visualization of an artist’s inspiration (the cutting from Horibe’s face gazing at flowers to the resulting surrealist works) is a bit cliched, Kitano’s rather conventional proclamation of his own artistry threatens to undermine an otherwise superior film.
His previous work amazed and infuriated critics by breaking rules, subverting narrative convention and refusing to descend to generic emotionality. This was most evident in the poker faced characters who never revealed an inner life and were thus the more frighteningly violent for that. This was a critique of identity best represented in the Kitano’s destruction of the characters he portrayed himself. But in his new identity as auteur, Kitano has created a different world. While never exhibiting the conventional emotionality of Hollywood characters, Hana-Bi’s individuals have an inner life never seen in a Kitano film before. Maybe this is a continuation of the post-accident turn towards realism begun in Kids Return, but the new film shares little of that work’s cruelly cold gaze. Hana-Bi frankly borders on the sentimental and, perhaps because of that, exhibits a defect Kitano’s previous work never had: predictability. Kitano Takeshi has proven in Hana-Bi that he is a master of cinema. But I’m left wondering maybe it is that kind of recognition that this brilliantly unconventional director should avoid.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 22 January 1998, p. 9
Copyright 1998: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow