Words by Jonathon Smith
Hana-Bi is a hard film to talk about. When that’s said it isn’t meant as a deterrent, it is in fact a compliment. A film leaving one speechless is in and of itself an achievement. To do that while talking about a difficult subject matter is remarkable. Allow that to be combined with a unique combination of both traditional artistic forms and avant-garde techniques, and you have a volatile and yet voluptuous film with a deeply important message.
The literal translation of Hana-Bi from Japanese to English is ‘Fireworks’. They, much like the film are unusual objects. Nothing remarkable in their initial appearance, but when they explode, they present a fusion of beauty and violence. After all that, they splinter into the night’s sky and disappear as if they were never there to begin with.
Writer, director, editor, producer and star, Takeshi Kitano, crafts a film whose form adheres to this definition, but whose content and meaning also follows the same methodology. He plays Nishi, a former detective whose past lingers long in his memory while his present hurts him on both a physical and emotional level. His is a life of paradoxes, where he commits good by doing bad. A new-age Robin Hood if you will.
From these humble beginnings, Kitano crafts a film designed to show that life is filled with serene and beautiful things to love, but also rife with graphic violence and unstable chaos. The opening for instance plays on this theme. Set to an absolutely sumptuous Joe Hisaishi score and filled with shots of Tokyo’s remarkable skyline, Kitano intercuts the music with over the top, stylised sound-effects, designed to punctuate a beating Nishi is delivering with great apathy.
Takeshi Kitano’s star persona often contrasts this indifference with remarkable acts, whether good or bad, and is one of two emotions his characters seem to experience in their filmic lifespan. The other is happiness which is typically subdued, but in Hana-Bi flourishes, particularly bursting forth as Nishi shares the screen with his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto), most noticeably in the second half of the film where their relationship begins to take a central role.
However, there is always the feeling that Nishi is constantly bubbling under the surface, ready to strike and lash out at the world. Nishi is not a vigilante for the greater public good, rather he is a personal one, experiencing a status of mourning for events that have already taken place and those that are yet to come. He looks to avoid the inevitable and forge a future that he can dictate and control.
This is apparent in the way Nishi’s memory is shown, first in fragmented pieces, broken and untidy, and then in a complete form where the bigger picture is revealed. Again, this adheres to the firework theme – abstract pieces of light, spawned from a greater image. It is also where the concept of negative space crops up in the film. The events depicted are small details, drawn together to create a larger piece on a somewhat blank canvas.
A great deal of Japanese artists, cinematic or otherwise, use this technique based on woodblock designs where the carving or painting would be minimal and with the original material largely intact. So the image would be composed of minimal brush strokes or cuts and still be clear, the artist using the canvas’ space more so than the details they have added, thus the use of a ‘negative’ space.
Kitano employs this technique time and again in his films and no more so in Hana-Bi than in images featuring black and white contrasts. His attire is an obvious example, with the black jacket and trousers and white shirt symbolising a yin and yang style conflict within his character. This is a simple, easy to understand and universal signal of conflict. More complicated variations of the theme arrive in the forms of surrealist paintings which crop up time and again using mostly one or two prominent colours with a minimalist design within that canvas.
These painting are in fact the work of Kitano himself, and again tie the film back to the personal relation between the director and his work. The final painting shown is both an accompaniment to the events presently occurring in the film and also the film’s climax, foreshadowing the great beauty and pain of the film’s final movement.
That final movement is a remarkable scene where Nishi actually cries. This is something of an anomaly within both the film and the broader context of Kitano’s filmography; a rare chance to see truly raw emotion from a man who typically, both on and off camera, only shows coldness for the world. This is the reaction of a man who has come to accept what we call the human condition.
It is a deeply affecting scene and calls back to the opening where Kitano intercuts the pleasant visuals and score with the guttural violence of his persona. That persona takes on a whole different meaning with the film’s end. Hana-Bi is a deeply personal tale for a filmmaker in need of self-reflection and one that all still adheres to his traditional codes and conventions such as ultra-violence and highly stylised mise-en-scène. It uses a simplistic theme and allows it to explode into moral uncertainty and emotional dizziness. It is nothing short of a captivating, intoxicating, heat-felt piece.