The fantastic, paradoxical world of Takeshi “Beat” Kitano has never been more eloquently (and cinematically) depicted than in his 1997 masterpiece HANA-BI (Fireworks), now in its long-anticipated American Blu-Ray debut from Film Movement Classics.
Kitano, a true auteur, wrote, directed, stars in and coedited this neo-noir epic of a quietly violent cop gone rogue, but for all the right reasons.
Beat is Yoshitaka Nishi, a top detective in an elite Japanese police squadron, whose specialty is cracking drug cases, hard cases and cold cases, with a sideline in felon’s heads (to quote his associates: “When Mr. Nishi lost it, he was even more frightening [than the Yakuza]”). His recent life has been a train wreck, as his loyal BFF partner Horibe (Ren Osugi) sympathetically bemoans. Nishi’s child died young, forever draining his positive emotional vent, left hanging by a thread due to his loving wife, Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto). Then, she is diagnosed with inoperable leukemia, and confined to a nightmarish ward in a local hospital.
Nishi leaves the force due to a detention incident gone horribly wrong, which at least allows him to spend as much time as he can with his mate, while Horibe carries on. The former partner considers himself the lucky one of the pair, happily wed to a healthy, adoring wife and father to a devoted family. Then a stakeout/bust goes south, and Horibe is paralyzed. Forced to care for her now-invalid husband, Mrs. H takes the only option she deems viable. She leaves the wretch to fend for himself, moving out with their children. Ain’t life a bitch? Horibe, now in as deep a depression as Nishi, contemplates suicide, but prolongs it just long enough to discover art, and begins painting a series of extraordinary canvasses.
Meanwhile, Nishi hasn’t been resting on his laurels. When his wife’s lead surgeon suggests that her final days might be more pleasant at home, the stoic detective takes the advice and plans to move his near-vegetative love from the sterile, depressing surroundings.
Nishi recalls the wonderful trips the family used to have; and from there appears the acorn from which mighty oaks grow. He plans a bank heist, in part to payback a loan he took from the Yakuza, hoping the robbery will be blamed on the local mob contingent, and using the leftover money to give his beloved wife the time of her life.
The subsequent onslaught is quite sanguine, but does succeed, and the Nishis drive off for their dream vacation. And the effects are startling. Mrs. Nishi begins to laugh again, the lethal symptoms temporarily replaced by genuine happiness. This changes Nishi’s demeanor too, and the couple enjoys what precious time they have together, carrying on like newlyweds. A key moment, ergo the title, comes when the Nishis view a fireworks display. The fireworks literally define the title, but also the explosions of emotions, color (from their formerly bleak existence) and job-related physical ferocity. Like the narrative, HANA-BI, in toto, carries a complex, multi-leveled meaning.
That the Yakuza, along with the police, eventually converge on the dirty cop and his unsuspecting wife brings yet more fireworks and a volatile, yet touching climax.
Suffice to say, HANA-BI is unlike any movie you have ever seen. It is a moving, spiritual drama, a sensitive love story and a savage crime pic all rolled into one. And the damn thing works. It’s as if Kitano has been channeling Kurosawa at various stage of the famed iconic director’s career. As such, HANA-BI is a seamless hybrid of Ikiru and High and Low (with a generous sprinkling of Throne of Blood). Even with its raging brutality, HANA-BI is truly one of the most beautiful movies of the past twenty-five years.
Aside from the terrific acting by the principals and directing, Kitano has stacked the deck with luxurious color cinematography that is almost Sirkian (kudos to Hideo Yamamoto). In addition, a major portion of the movie’s triumph is the brilliant score by Joe Hisaishi. Rather than go for the usual by-the-numbers churning crap that often passes for movie music these days, Hisaishi has embellished this celluloid poem with a melodious, lush composition reminiscent of a late-1950s work by Hugo Friedhofer or Franz Waxman or Alfred Newman. The music is gorgeous. I cannot finish this article without commenting on the superb editing of HANA-BI (as indicated, a task Beat shared with Yoshinori Ota). Even the solemn and serene, gentle moments contain a quivering sense of foreboding tension. I’ve rarely experienced anything like it.
A footnote: Kitano’s wearing of many hats took its toll several years ago when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack. While convalescing, Beat, like Horibe, took up painting. Many of the results are the remarkable tableaus that dot the backgrounds of HANA-BI. I’m tellin’ ya, this guy can do no wrong.
Film Movement’s Blu-Ray of HANA-BI is outstanding, crystal-clear ebullient rainbow imagery matched by a dynamic stereo-surround track (particularly the bass which will kickass-test your audio system like a muthafucka). If that’s not enough, there are some enticing extras, including audio commentary from Rolling Stone critic David Fear, a making-of featurette and a beautifully illustrated booklet. This one’s a keeper!
HANA-BI. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.0 DTS-HD MA (Japanese w/English subtitles). Film Movement Classics. SRP: $39.95.