Hana-bi is one of great films of the 1990s, by one of the world's most remarkable filmmakers. Takeshi Kitano – a pop culture phenomenon in his homeland of Japan – takes himself extremely seriously as an artist: this film begins by proclaiming itself as Volume 7 in his rapidly evolving cinematic career. It is a fair indication of the poverty of film distribution and exhibition in Australia that it was only the first of his seven features, to that point, to obtain a theatrical release.
Unsuspecting viewers who – following the obligatory promotional nods to Quentin Tarantino – go expecting a mixture of cool thrills and low laughs from Hana-bi will be disappointed, even dismayed. It is a rigorous, understated, elliptical, often contemplative film – and one carrying a slowly building, emotional depth-charge.
Kitano's only nod to a familiar genre – as well to his earliest films, Violent Cop (1989) and Boiling Point (1990) – is in his basic premise. The director plays Detective Nishi, a policeman haunted by the memory of a shocking, traumatic incident that is gradually revealed to us in the course of events: two of his partners were killed on the job. Malign destiny has an awful way of repeating itself for Nishi: later, while visiting his sick wife, Miyuki (Kayoto Kishimoto), another friend, Horibe (Ren Osugi), is injured by criminals.
These essential narrative events are chronologically scattered. Moreover, they are often conveyed in extremely indirect ways. Kitano – who claims (ingenuously or not) to have developed his unique film language without reference to previous masters of the art – has an unerring eye and ear for the incidental, peripheral details of situations. The special, extraordinary tension of his work comes from the alternation of seemingly dead moments – the waiting, watching and thinking before and after an event – with sudden, lightning bursts of graphic action. Directors everywhere could learn much from a close study of Kitano’s expressive brilliance in handling even the simplest and smallest of gestures.
The late ‘90s marked a grim and even morbid time among the world's finest filmmakers: Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997), Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997) and Alain Resnais’ Same Old Song (1997) all explored themes of death and dying, pain and grieving, sickness and old age. Hana-bi deserves its place in such illustrious company. Its images and situations obsessively circle the topics of death, illness and physical vulnerability. But, more than anything, the drama is about the emotional pain experienced by Nishi – and the slow road he takes to something resembling peace and inner reconciliation.
There is nothing easy or sentimental about the “journey” (a term currently beloved by Hollywood) that Nishi contrives for himself and those around him. He is the classic hard-boiled hero raised to a enigmatic and sublime level: his facial and bodily movements betray little of what is going on within, and he never announces the logic or plan of his sometimes puzzling actions (such as, in a wonderful set-piece, robbing a bank with the aid of a fake police car).
Ultimately, Hana-bi alights upon a profound human theme: the renewal or revitalisation of existence in the face of so much individual and collective agony. Inspired by the details of Kitano’s own near-death experience in 1994, the story builds to magnificent, epiphanic moments – such as the joy felt by Miyuki as she gazes upon the fireworks of the film’s title. But, once again, Kitano’s masterpiece never becomes mawkish: the hard truths of pain and mortality are always close at hand.
As befits a proudly self-taught film-artist, there is a touch of wilful naïveté in Kitano’s style. Hana-bi is almost a manifesto on behalf of the cultivation of such a style: the odd, disconcerting compositions which are invariably static and front-on; the frequent recourse to Horibe’s paintings (actually Kitano’s own) as symbolic expressions of emotions and actions; the steady, plaintive musical score by Joe Hisaishi – all these devices may test the defences of hip, “sophisticated” viewers.
But to anyone who is open to distinctive, original cinema, there are few films as lucid, absorbing and wonderful as Hana-bi.
© Adrian Martin September 1998