Release Date: January 24th, 1998 (Japan)
UK Release Date: January 11th, 2016
UK Distributor: Third Window Films
Running Time: 125 mins.
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Writer: Takeshi Kitano (Screenplay),
Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima, Tetsu Watanabe,
Takeshi Kitano is one of the major figures in the Japanese movie industry. He graduated from television to the film scene in the 1980s with a role in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983). His real impact was felt in 1989 with Violent Cop, the film with which he established himself as a director of crime tales. Soon, his presence became synonymous with the Japanese hardman but it is arguable that his best films don’t feature him on the screen at all as people who have seen A Scene at the Sea (1991) and Kids Return (1996) may attest. When Kitano is present on screen he sizzles with barely restrained energy and coolness and a cracked sentimentality of sorts. No film epitomises this more than Hana-bi (1997), a title where his writing and directing reached its heights of brilliance.
Hana-bi is ostensibly about the fallout of a stakeout gone catastrophically wrong and its effects on the main character, Yoshitaka Nishi (Takeshi Kitano) but it’s really about the man’s love for his friends and his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto).
When we first meet him he is staking out a psychotic criminal’s apartment with his partner and best friend Horibe (Ren Osugi). Nishi’s wife Miyuki is ill with leukaemia. The two, unfortunately, are used to tragedy since the death of their daughter at a young age. The tough assignment and an ailing wife is what prompts Horibe to suggest that Nishi visit Miyuki in hospital. While Nishi checks in on her the stake-out turns into a disaster as Horibe is shot and left paralysed another cop is wounded and one killed.
This spike of violence radiates out to many others, the cops at the scene, the wives and children at home. Nishi is affected really badly. He is plunged into a pool of guilt and sees his only way of emerging from it is by trying to fix the broken lives of his loved ones and to do this he needs money. Nishi concocts an audacious plan to rob a bank. He intends to provide for his partner, help the dead cop’s widow, and take one last holiday throughout Japan with his ill wife and share a final taste of happiness.
This puts him on the radar of a Yakuza loan-shark and his ex-colleagues in the police…
Hana-bi is pure Kitano from the taciturn macho central character with hidden emotions he plays (all acted in Kitano’s usual deadpan manner), the sudden and sharp moments of shocking violence and savagery that are couched in stillness and light-hearted comedy as part of his use of contrasting genres and it is all rolled out with an austere aesthetic Kitano favours.
Almost immediately the viewer is thrown off kilter as the stake-out is withheld from the audience for a considerable length of time. Instead we are shown people recovering from the losses incurred. Nishi visits a widow, Horibe talks about his new life in a wheelchair, Miyuki is home from the hospital. When the violence is shown it is displayed in the form of fragmentary flashbacks told out of synch through elliptical editing and a staccato script with the inclusion of Yakuza loan-sharks to muddy the water even further. We see the results of the violence before the action, the emphasis on the emotional pain of the characters rather than the gunplay which might normally dominate other films. Once the narrative of the movie despatches with the actual stake-out the narrative remains defiantly non-linear as the story splits itself into showing what happens to the various characters and Nishi and Miyuki go on their final trip.
Hana-bi becomes meditative at this point and increasingly melancholic as the editing and script calm and become stiller, presenting longer sequences with which the viewer can be absorbed by. The camera usually frames faces and bodies full on and without fuss, scenes usually without too much movement. Dialogue is still hard to come by but the emotions and motivations are clear. It is here that the film engages in a moving and sentimental portrait of a couple in a loving relationship and people allowing themselves to rely on others.
Nishi and Miyuki’s journey is one fraught with bouts of brutal violence as the Yakuza dog the couple. That Nishi is a violent man is made clear from earlier in the film and he despatches with all would-be aggressors with sudden and frightening efficiency, no sadism involved if Kitano’s almost expressionless face says anything.
This violence is shocking but it is clear that this isn’t the point of the film. We take more from seeing Nishi and Miyuki’s innocent games and their holiday together. They travel to the north of Japan taking in picture postcard sights such as Mount Fuji, a traditional garden, an inn, a shrine, and beaches. They play card games and puzzles and instead of cloyingly sentimental dialogue professing love, they take photogaphs share cakes, help each other out of a fix, laugh at each other’s goofs, and remain close. When Miyuki, seemingly made childlike by the tragedies she has endured and silent throughout the film, finally speaks it is at the end of the film and a heart-breaking affirmation of her love and an acknowledgement of his and an acceptance of everything that has happened and will come next. Nishi, that taciturn violent man, finally embraces her. We knew we’d get to this moment we just had to keep looking.
Balancing out this journey filled is a parallel narrative charting the recovery of Horibe. After his life falls apart we expect that suicide will be coming to join the list of tragedies but Nishi sends a care package to his best friend, an expensive art set. It is a gift that brings the man back from the brink of death and allows him to come to terms with his life. Art allows Horibe to channel his feelings into surreal and colourful paintings of people and animals with flowers for heads. Horibe’s paintings¹ act as a Greek chorus of sorts, telling the audience what the characters will do and bringing themes to the screen, the pictures of families watching fireworks, mother, father and daughter echoing that empty space in the lives of both Horibe and Nishi.
The sense of loss, the absence of a child in particular, is in this film. Painful reminders are scattered in many different scenes, not just the paintings. There are discarded shoes of a child and the tricycle in front of Nishi’s apartment, a man and his grandson at a shrine, the girl with the kite who Miyuki and Nishi play with, the two adults tasting the family life they missed out on. These moments, together with the constant games the couple play and their evident, though unspoken concern for each other help build the sense that Nishi and his wife Miyuki share a love that is unshakeable and that the two are of one mind which helps deliver the overwhelming sense of love and softens events.
It has been over a decade since I last saw it but with Third Window Films releasing Hana-bi on Blu-ray this week following a 2K restoration overseen by Office Kitano I got to watch it over again. Revisiting films always holds the threat of disappointment but Hana-bi soared above my cloudy memories and breached my lofty expectations – I have long regarded this as a great of modern Japanese cinema. With the benefit of years more experience of watching films and in living life I was able to enter this beautifully tragic drama and engage with it a lot more and found that it reveals the profound depth of sadness and peaks of joy in a relationship of absolut trust and sacrifice and Kitano is skilled enough that he doesn’t have to over-egg or embellish the story. This elegiac film is depicted in a sensitive style that contains horrific violence but more beauty and a moving depiction of love.
Third Window Films have put together a great package so whether you are new to the film or already have it on DVD, I’d recommend picking this up!
¹ Painted by Kitano himself
Hana-bi took the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Film Festival and was named Best Non-European Film at the 1997 European Film Academy Awards and it is now available to own on Blu-ray with a new 2K master from Office Kitano.
The first 1000 copies of each feature cardboard slipcases with new illustrated artwork by Marie Bergeron supported by Filmdoo’s Film Creativity Competition.
30 minute documentary from the film’s original release
Interview with Takeshi Kitano from the film’s original release
New Audio commentary by film critic Mark Schilling