Here’s one I’ve been itching to do for a while, since I started this blog in fact! Takeshi Kitano’s “Hana-bi” is (without making this sound like the cliched line I seem to be using all the time) perhaps one of the most vividly memorable and strikingly beautiful films I have ever experienced. Released to great critical acclaim in 1997, Kitano’s feature was among an ever-growing body of work that was slowly becoming more recognized outside of his native Japan. His previous feature Kids Return, made just one year before, was his biggest success with Japanese audiences and had inevitably given him a tall order to exceed for his next project. An order that he would greatly surpass after Hana-bi‘s release.
It’s no surprise during a Kitano picture for there to be violent imagery, especially gang related violence featuring the Yakuza foremost of all. What makes Hana-bi stand out as a different feature from the tide of his other films such as Violent Cop (1989) and Boiling Point (1990) is that Kitano decided to focus on the idea of a crumbling relationship between the main protagonist and his terminally ill wife. You could look at the film as several adventurous genres all rolled into one: a bank heist, a road trip, a violent gangster drama, a detective thriller, and a love fable; all of these plots are delivered to us in just over 100 minutes throughout Hana-bi‘s narrative but none feel at all rushed for the sake of pacing. We are introduced to all of the elements that will come back to haunt Yoshitaka (Kitano) with plenty of time to ponder about the relevance of certain sequences that at first seem ludicrous to the point of self-indulgent and yet eventually become crystal clear. Why does Yoshitaka visit a car garage to buy on old model car and then spend ten minutes of screen time painting it? It is only once he is finished do we realize that he has painted the car with police colors and is about to rob a bank to pay off his debt to the Yakuza, who also are hell bent on killing him so he can go for a final holiday with his dying wife, and so on and so forth.
One of the films most memorable features that Kitano employed into his filmmaking method was the way in which he edited the narrative’s structure. We often witness tiny snippets of visual imagery which have no relation to the current scene we are watching but will then come into play a few sequences later. With this style of approach Kitano perfected how he wished to deliver tension for us on the screen, showing us the results of the future threat before revealing it. It’s a brilliant method that he only incorporates twice into the film, but the edit’s overall effects last for much longer. With that said, Kitano’s other brilliant post-production decision was in hiring composer Joe Hiashi to create the score for the film. Similar to Tim Burton’s and Danny Elfman’s relationship, Kitano has used Hiashi on eight of his features with Hana-bi and his next film “Kikujiro” (1999) easily being the best work out of the collaboration. The score for the film is truly incredible when listened to and I would recommend anyone who is reading this to go to Youtube and type in “Hana-bi Painters” and treat yourself to a simplistic but absolutely haunting piece of music from one of the more touching sequences in the film.
Hana-bi can appear to be a strange film to many with its editing style, Japanese sense of humour, unusual cinematography during the sparse bouts of violence and the wonderfully eclectic imagery of the Japanese landscape. All can seem to be too much of an strange and unusual mix at first glance. However Kitano doesn’t allow any of these ‘outer’ elements to get in the way of the story he wishes to tell, which although could be considered basic is actually heart wrenching thanks in part to its minimalism. An emotionally numbed hard-boiled cop finally takes time off to be a supporting husband for his dying wife. The only problem is that he has long since forgotten how to be loving and caring, and so goes through the transformation from monster to man almost like a child would. It is this beautifully melancholy element that is the most memorable from the film but Kitano certainly gives you a fun ride whilst viewing what becomes a powerhouse of poetic Japanese cinema, right up to its shocking climax.