Flowers and Fire

A hyphen separates life and death, and a comedian show's the world that he can portray it as poetically as anyone else in the unforgettable Hana-bi.

by Tim Henderson

'Beat' Takeshi Kitano is a man of two faces. Or, for that matter, multiple faces of various different colors. He is one of the most famous people in Japan (if not the most famous), and he has been so for an absolutely staggering number of years, somehow retaining his popularity without ever going stale. His name has been known in the West for quite some time now as well. In his homeland, he is largely known as a comedian who shot to fame after taking over as the producer of comic material for his comedy partner and himself, known collectively as The Two Beats, a name perhaps inspired by his love of Jazz. (alongside everything else, Kitano has even spent time being a beatnik!) However, the West knows very little of this side of the man.

Vulgar to many, The Two Beats re-invented a traditional duo structure and shot to increasing levels of fame in spite of relentless critical complaint. And so, Japan came to know a man called Beat Takeshi. But who is Takeshi Kitano?


Takeshi Kitano is perhaps most easily and simplistically described as the more complex man behind the Beat persona. In part or in full, this man is known to the West primarily as a filmmaker. Most anime fans probably know him more specifically for his fairly recent re-working on the once-unstoppable Zatoichi film franchise, a particularly great film in itself where many conventions of the chambara genre were taken back to their very essence and re-worked from the ground up. Everyone else knows him for Hana-bi.

One of the most eloquently brutal films ever made, Hana-bi sees Kitano in the familiar shoes of a 'tough guy' character, in this case as the complex and morally ambiguous cop, Nishi. These shoes may have always been polished black, and they may have been always a natural fit, but it takes some good time for an audience that associates the person wearing these shoes with comedy to see them as anything other than oversized and bright red. People in these parts of the world were shocked when slow motion turned back to real time as a man took a blow to the head from a baseball bat in Kitano's first feature, Violent Cop; when Japanese audiences saw him on screen, their instinctive reaction was to laugh. Some may have been shocked, but within an entirely different context. Reflectively, Kitano notes that it took around fifteen years to shake the shackles of a completely comedy association.


The story of Hana-bi suffers a multiple personality complex similar to that of its creator. While many of the events and situations that go on within the tale rely upon a level of coincidence that pushes the boundaries of what can be taken seriously until they're balancing on fishing-wire, the way in which it is told is delicately calm and contemplative, and at times, it is punched with sudden outbursts of violent energy. It's tricky, and it can and will successfully fool you out of realizing that the story itself could easily have descended into cheap melodrama in the wrong hands.

As it stands, Hana-bi is more of an exquisite melodrama balanced out with violence -- sharp violence -- that actually succeeds in displaying many of the filmís more heartfelt moments with an odd type of sincerity. The plot essentially focuses around Nishi's life tragedy and his quest of brutal redemption. He is a man of few words, standing silent with an almost permanent vacant expression with his hands tucked into his pockets, a man who lost a daughter to leukemia and whose wife is now mortally ill as well. Granted time to visit his dying wife in hospital while on a stakeout, they sit together in perfect silence, while Nishi's partner, Horibe is shot and paralyzed from the waist down. In a move foretelling a twisted equivalent of Nishi's own inevitable fate, the now wheelchair-ridden Horibe has to deal with his wife and daughter leaving him.


And so, the spark is lit with simple tragedy. The first half of the story is told through an intricately constructed chaos, a series of puzzle fragments in need of arrangement, cutely played on as Nishi's wife is seen regularly trying to arrange the wooden blocks in front of her into a variety of different possible shapes. With everything else that has gone on, it is with the completion of this puzzle that the full weight of guilty responsibility on Nishi's shoulders comes to light.

Little is really known of Nishi's time spent as an officer of the law other than he and Horibe made for a good team, and that at times he could display a tendency for frightful violence. The Nishi that the audience knows is that man set free into the world. Now, however, he is doing what he can to be a good husband and friend... with a tendency towards frightfully sudden outbursts of violence. His cares are very specific ones for very specific people, and he isn't going to turn away from pointing a gun at, or beating the shit out of anyone who disturbs his personalized moral crusade. A beautiful parallel of the romantic futility of this endeavor is drawn when we see his wife watering dead flowers, an image that carries heavy resemblance to what he is doing with her during the vacation trip that occupies the second half of the film. She is interrupted and picked on by a man standing next to her, skimming stones. It takes Nishi minimal time to knock over this poor weed of a man who seems to have appeared as if out of nowhere, and kick him face-first into the water by the back of the neck, a cloud of blood quickly forming under the force.


As with many things, Kitano has a unique means of portraying his acts of violence. He grew up in Adachi ward in Senju, one of Tokyo's poorest and roughest neighborhoods, and he was an occasional witness to actual Yakuza punch-ups. This is something that he has reflected upon in interviews, and while he may not be strictly against the impossible beauty of many Chinese martial arts movies, his own style derives from actuality where people fall from a couple of punches and then get the worst of it if the fight continues. Violence in life often comes quickly and suddenly, just how Kitano depicts it, and he can't see himself approaching it from any other way. It is in key contrast to the rest of his film style that he is able to make his violent moments seem so forceful.

Kitano's trademark style, broken away from the bleach-haired crowd pleaser that was Zatoichi, is typically still and contemplative. He hesitates to move his frame, and he treats his location like a performance theatre, leaving footage running for a couple of seconds after the actors have left the 'stage'. Hana-bi may display a couple of crane shots, but it still keeps largely true to the general formula that Kitano created after he re-wrote and took over directorial duties for Violent Cop. Just as in Violent Cop, the violence of Hana-bi finds its power precisely in its ability to break a still, water-like surface. It's a matter of contrast; a vicious act comes across more dramatically simply because of everything else that surrounds it.


In actuality, the violence in Hana-bi comes in select spates that tend not to last very long. As Kitano has himself pointed out, it's over as soon as it begins. Some may find themselves shocked by it, but as a filmmaking device, it's incredibly powerful, made only more so by the complex character who frequently initiates it.

You will need to possess a reasonable amount of patience to really appreciate Hana-bi; there's no way around that. Like most of Kitano's directorial work, Hana-bi was not made to be a general crowd-pleaser, and the man himself has joked about feeling bad about taking the money of people going into the movies in order to have fun.


From those who knew what they were getting themselves into, the reaction to the film was an immensely positive one. Hana-bi received the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and cinema schedules in Japan were forced into the odd pothole because audiences would do the unexpected and actually stay in silence until the end of the credits. Itís an unnerving pause of adoration or rejection, at least until an enthusiastic applause eventually breaks out.

True to unfortunate form and despite thirteen nominations, the only Japanese Academy Award for the film went to Joe Hisaishi for his musical score. This wasn't the first instance of an Academy snub, and although nothing can be known for absolute certain, the general theory seems to be that the lack of an actual award may be the Academy's way of holding a grudge against a man who for several years beforehand had shown up in his complete 'Beat' persona, deflating the seriousness of the event. Award or not, it matters very little in the end, as Hana-bi has received overwhelming critical acclaim, and it has displayed amazing staying power. Dating back to 1997, the film is still able to command strong attention and nuzzle its way onto recommendation lists.


For someone who rose to fame through such crude humor as to deflate one year's Academy Awards event, Kitano made a major breakthrough with Hana-bi. Not merely a darker film with a tough-guy role and sadistic violence as a means of producing a counter-image, there is also a complicated emotion sincerity on display. Neither extreme is overplayed, and the means of communicating with the audience so often verges on perfection. Questionable deeds lead to good ones: providing support for some, and a chance for wheelchair-bound Horibe to find peace in painting. (The paintings themselves were actually done by Kitano, as if he didn't have his fingers in enough pies already.) The greatest subtly may come in Nishi's relationship with his wife, one that isn't portrayed as particularly sexual. Rather, the link between the two is seen in the simple games and content silences that they share. Neither character ever says very much. Likewise, Nishi's straight-up means of dealing with the Yakuza who follow them through their holiday comes with a distinct air of protectiveness.

Anyone looking to take to the road with Nishi and his wife should expect a journey that is uplifting, one that finds a sense of redemption and reunion through a slightly twisted means, and one that displays a sacrificial love in the process. Ultimately though, it is best to expect to be upset. Hana-bi is one of the best examples of mono-no-aware that I have ever seen, and beauty isn't going to come without an equally balanced heartache. Perhaps it's best to simply see the DVD as a ticket to one of the most intricately crafted emotional roller coasters you will ever have the opportunity to ride, and one that will be well worth it both today and several years on from now.

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