There’s a scene that takes place towards the end of Hana-Bi (also known as Fireworks). We watch a girl run around in circles on a beach, trying to get her kite to take off and fly in the wind. At times, it does rise into the air, but most of the time, it just kind of limps across the sand. I can’t help but take that as a visual metaphor for the feeling I got from watching this film. At times brilliant and interesting, I often found it slow and just barely limping along.
Directed by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (who also wrote and edited the film, and is the star), Hana-Bi has had gobs and gobs of praise heaped upon it. Why, I don’t know. Critics have praised his movies, using words like “heartstopping” and “thrilling.” Those words couldn’t be further from the truth. As I said, there are scenes that are certainly wrenching, visually and emotionally. But they are few and far between.
Takeshi himself is the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The guy doesn’t really act. He kind of just sits there, like he was carved with stone, letting the camera focus on him. In the slower scenes, it’s simply unnerving to watch this man who shows less emotion than Mr. Spock. But at other times, it’s captivating to watch because you just have to wonder what emotions are seething behind those sunglasses and that iron facade.
Takeshi plays Nishi, a former cop whose life has fallen to pieces. His only child died at a young age, his wife is currently dying from cancer, and his partner and friend has been shot and paralyzed because of him. He also has dealings with the Yakuza, raking up debts. However, none of this seems to bother him at first; he seems so utterly wrapped up in his thoughts that no expressions come through.
Perhaps we’re supposed to believe that, as a tough cop, he’s built up all of these walls around him and the film consists of him slowly lowering those walls as he must deal with the tragedies around him. As Nishi, Takeshi does this perfectly. Again, in some scenes it works wonderfully, because we’re just left to wait for Nishi to explode in some outburst or reaction (which he does). But other times, he just comes across as insensitive, the stony facade hindering rather than helping the film.
If you were to read the movie’s sleeve, the compliments heaped on Takeshi’s use of violence would make you think that this guy’s the next John Woo. This is not the case. True, Takeshi uses shocking scenese of violence, but they don’t have Woo’s choreography. Instead, the outbursts of violence are just that, outbursts. Even though you know they’re coming, you’re suprised when they happen. A great deal of this has to do with Takeshi’s stony exterior. Any show of emotion or action comes as a surprise. In fact, the violence almost seems surreal because of it’s rarity and suddenness. And as soon as its done, the stony exterior slips right back into place.
In order to deal with his current situation, Nishi robs a bank, pays off his debts, and takes his wife on a trip into the countryside. Here, the film shifts mood. Whereas before it’d been an urban cop flick, here it takes a slightly more pastoral feel, and often throws in a lighter, comedic touch. Of course, the violence is still there, as Nishi’s Yakuza dealings slowly catch up to him. The ending seems incredibly unavoidable, because if you’re a careful viewer, you’ll be able to catch all of the visual clues. A big one is provided by Nishi’s former partner, who has now become an artist and whose works often serve as seques.
One thing I do like is the fact that is a “visual” film. Takeshi keeps dialog to a bare minimum, though Joe Hisaishi’s score is excellent and often underpins the scenes better than any dialog could. Nishi barely speaks, and Nishi’s wife doesn’t say anything until the end. Instead, we have to pay attention to the film and the visuals that Takeshi uses in order to know what’s going on. Scenes often seem incomplete, so we have to fill in the gaps with what we’ve previously seen, or are about to see.
The first half of the film is presented in a non-linear pattern that barely holds together and often makes no sense at first. As Nishi and his wife go into the countryside, the film becomes more linear, which works as we begin to see Nishi open up towards his wife. Interspersed are scenes of Nishi’s former partner coming to terms with his paralysis and loneliness by turning to art. At times, however, the use of these scenes seems out of place, as a visual counterpart to Nishi that doesn’t always work.
Part of me really wants to like this film, to find it meaningful on some level. Is it a comment on self-destruction and personal demons or is it just a cop flick trying to become philosophical, a thinking man’s “heroic bloodshed” film? Honestly, I can’t decide. I do think this is a better film than Takeshi’s previous work Sonatine (which, for some reason, was billed as the Japanese Goodfellas). Hana-Bi feels and looks better, though I must admit that I still feel underwhelmed as to why everyone praises Takeshi so much.
Parts of this film really work for me, and though rare, Takeshi’s use of violence is often quite visceral and thrilling to watch. But a good deal of the film just seems to not work, and I’m only going to spend so much time trying to look for hidden meaning and deep content before I realize it just isn’t there, or simply wasn’t delivered well.