Hanabi is the Japanese word for fireworks. Insert a hyphen, and you break the word into its component parts: flower and fire. In the translation into English, of course, you lose that subtlety, and all you’re left with is Fireworks. That’s a shame, because while Fireworks may evoke the image of guns blazing, it misses the duality that Kitano explores.
On the one hand, Hana-bi is violent enough to turn your stomach. On the other, it’s one of the most searching, guileless explorations of devotion and grief in recent film history. The whiplash transitions from the one mode into the other may seem like a gimmick, but they’re illuminating a character who demonstrates his love for one person through the violence he commits against many others.
Billed as “Beat” Takeshi, director Takeshi Kitano stars as Nishi, a cop whose daughter died of leukemia and whose wife, Miyuki, is slowly succumbing. His face is stony and impassive, a Kitano trademark that was apparently amplified by damage he sustained in a 1994 motorcycle accident. While Nishi’s visiting his wife in the hospital, his partner Horibe is shot and crippled. Horibe’s wife and children leave him; faced with nothing but loneliness in his future, Horibe purchases a beret and takes up painting.
Alongside those two story threads is another sort of sub-thread having to do with the death of another policeman, Tanaka, in a gunfight. The exact circumstances of the killing are revealed to us only in flashback, and only a little bit at a time, but they seem to have had a profoundly scarring effect on Nishi, who decides to effectively drop out of the police force in favor of sharing his wife’s last days with her. In order to finance the vacation, he becomes a criminal himself. And what’s more, he’s deep in debt to yakuza loan sharks, who pursue him relentlessly.
So much noise and turmoil in this film, and yet it’s regularly drowned out by extended moments of ineffable beauty. Long, wordless stretches of film highlight Horibe’s beautiful yet disquieting paintings (actually created by Kitano) of animals with flowers for heads. Nishi’s escape with Miyuki to the Japanese countryside includes Mount Fuji as a breathtaking backdrop and winds up at the sea, that handy metaphor for all the possibilities of eternity.
Along the way, Nishi hurts a lot of people. So focused is he on the experience at hand, on the here-and-now urgency of taking care of his beloved wife, that he deals with any threat to the serenity of that experience with the back of his hand, the muzzle of his gun, or a well-placed pair of chopsticks. It’s over the top, but it’s rich in meaning — a cautionary tragedy.
Kitano’s previous Sonatine is perhaps less finely honed than Hana-bi, but makes use of the same dramatic juxtapositions. Sonatine‘s spellbinding midsection, during which a troupe of gangsters goes into hiding at a beach house on a deserted shore, is bookended by depictions of super-heated gunfights, including the ambush that drives them into exile. These action scenes are stylized to the hilt, more Clint Eastwood than John Woo — Kitano pumps copious heat from his pistol, but his face remains absolutely impassive. When a victim is hung from a crane and dunked repeatedly under water, his death comes as if by accident, with a deadpan Kitano and his boys speculating on how long a man can hold his breath. This is the face of a man who’s been deadened by his grim profession.
Sonatine‘s beach scenes, then, are all the more poignant as Kitano allows his gangster demeanor to crack and then fall away. The thugs laugh, dash around, play childish games with one another. Kitano exhibits a rather morbid sense of fun, but is markedly relaxed, eventually allowing himself the luxury of falling in love with a beautiful stranger with a thing for gunmen. But the world they create for themselves still vibrates with our certainty that, because this is a gangster film and because there’s unfinished business in the larger world outside of this beach resort, Kitano will eventually be pulled away from this happiness, back into the business of killing.
Of course it happens, impressively and sadly. Compare the journey taken by Kitano’s character to the “character arc” on exhibit in a typical American action film. Both Sonatine and Hana-bi identify the defining events in an aging gunman’s life, and show the transformations that ensue. Sonatine is the story of a businessman trading in violence whose world is shattered by the realization of how much more full life can be when you allow it to be empty. And Hana-bi is a sharp, uncompromised study of a man whose love for his dying wife manifests itself by rubbing out everything that threatens to intrude on that relationship. Brutal? Sure. Also invested with an instinctive humor, sensitivity and gravity that puts the action output of today’s Hollywood to shame.