Both poetic and contemplative in its narrative and visual language, Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi is something as rare as a subtle crime film.
A bit of backstory is perhaps needed for this one. Outside of making some of the most critically acclaimed films in the samurai, horror and animation genres, Japan has a long and proud history of making urban crime films – mostly focusing on their very own organised crime syndicate, the yakuza. These films have mostly been ignored by mainstream audiences in the West since especially America has its own fascination of Irish and Italian controlled mobsters in the US shown in such films as Howard Hawks Scarface from 1932 and Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus Goodfellas from 1990. Their Japanese counterpart most certainly has similarities – from their sudden bursts of violence, focus on male relationships and the inevitable corruption and downfall of individuals and state alike – but the Japanese cultures’ unique sensibilities makes for an obvious marriage of American crime culture seeping into Japan’s rigid hierarchies.
That brings us to today’s film Hana-bi (Fireworks) – a film about two police officers trying to find solace in an unsatisfying everyday life after having been kicked off the force. It is a gorgeous film, beautiful in its use of subtle visual storytelling, haunting in its depiction of depression and mental illness and through both of these elements; deeply challenging and an equally rewarding watch. The film kicks off as the arrest of a murderer goes horribly awry, leaving one police officer paralysed, two others killed and the last one forced to gun down the perpetrator. The two surviving officers are the main focus of the film as one, Horibe, finds himself confined to life in a wheelchair comforting himself by painting, while the other, Nishi, played by the writer/director Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano, is left riddled with guilt and trying to reconnect with his catatonic wife, suffering from leukemia.
While the films main plotline is pretty strictly focused on Nishi’s exploits, it’s a film mostly free of any traditional narrative structure. The film will at random switch from Nishi, to the paralysed partner only tangentially related to his story and even at times focus on characters almost completely unrelated such as a violent lackey to the yakuza hounding Nishi for money and an aggressive used car salesman who, despite only having to do with Nishi buying a used taxi, has several scenes solely dedicated to his character. Like the rest of his filmography (or at least the films I’ve seen, which is Outrage and Violent Cop), Kitano’s tales are ones of characters defined by the violence they cause others. The focus on extraneous characters in Hana-bi help to flesh out both the universe and the thematic backdrop of the film showing how violence is a prime expression both of the yakuza, the police force and the civilians portrayed. Nishi in particular remains mostly silent for the duration of the film, using his fists and revolvers to solve conflicts, only appearing calm when he’s with his wife. The mostly silent protagonist is a testament to the biggest strength of the film; the use of visual- and filmic language to tell its story rather than the tired cliché of using a narrator spouting expository dialogue.
Like I said, these characters are defined by their violent acts, but these aren’t portrayed as a way to merely shock the audience (as it is the case with the horrifically brutal Violent Cop). Violence in Hana-bi is instead treated as an ugly shadow, weighing these troubled souls down, ultimately destroying both Nishi, as his outbursts of violence towards the yakuza ever increasingly grows, and Horibe, as his paintings start to take the form of contemplative suicide. It’s a refreshing change of pace in a genre that usually relegates its use of violence as a way to have the characters appear ‘badass’ or is shown as a viable coping mechanism. Like how great is it to have a crime film in which the main female character isn’t used as a punching bag?
Usually with a movie that truly leaves you with an impression – whether that is good or bad – there’s a moment you can clearly identify as the moment you decided your feelings on the film. For this film, one scene immediately springs to mind: We see Nishi silently sitting at his wife’s bedside. The camera then cuts to him lighting a cigarette. At the moment he lights, it cuts to a close-up of a revolver going off and we see Nishi’s partner Horibe getting shot twice in the back. It’s such a simple cut, but so effectively aligns the irony of Nishi smoking besides his leukemia-stricken wife to the deadly force of a gun going off and at the same time showing how every person close to Nishi is in mortal danger. The film is filled with this kind of intelligent visual trickery which is what at least for me makes it not only one of best narrated films ever but also one of the most beautiful, ranking up there with the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Under the Skin and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. If you ever wanted proof of how much cinema has to offer outside of Hollywood, this is definitely