What Takeshi Kitano proved in the 1997 Japanese film Hana-Bi (Fireworks in English) is that he is able to present people’s desperate need to find elegant, heart-warming beauty, once their worldview has turned bleak and pessimistic. Hana-Bi is a film that’s hard to watch, but hard to turn away at the same time. Thanks to Kitano’s amazing directing, we ,as audience members, are able to take the same slippery emotional journey like the characters in the film.
Hana-Bi follows Nishi (played by Kitano), a quiet yet explosive police detective whose grim outlook on life started even before the film began; his daughter, who was implied to be either five or six, died not so long ago, his wife is dying from leukemia and he is in debt with the Yakuza. To make matters worse, Horibe (played by Ren Osugi), another police detective, became so badly injured during a stakeout, that he has to spend the rest of his life on a wheelchair. A gunfight involving Nishi, a Yakuza member and two other police detectives (Nakamura and Tanaka) left Nakamura also very badly injured and Tanaka dead. The actions were all committed by members of the Yakuza. With his depression getting more severe and his desperation growing, Nishi quits the police office and spends his time taking care of his dying wife Miyuki (played by Kayoko Kishimoto). In hopes that he will finally find something beautiful to help put these feelings of despair and regret behind him.
What makes Hana-Bi unique is its emphasis on the consequences of an event and how it alters people’s state of mind, not the events themselves. Like what was said before, Nishi was depressed since the very beginning. We didn’t see his daughter dying, we didn’t see Miyuki being diagnosed or the early stages of her leukemia, nor do we see Nishi’s first negotiations with the Yakuza. In Hana-Bi, showing these events is not important. What is important is for us to understand how these events affected Nishi and the type of man he has become. Nishi rarely speaks in the film and he doesn’t really have any distinct facial expressions. His blank facial expressions and his small amount of dialogue both indicate that Nishi is a man who has registered the tragedies of his past, but he still fails at learning how to react to them. Another indicator that shows how past traumas effected Nishi’s mental state are his unexpected, almost-random outbursts of violence. Throughout the film, we see Nishi in the state mentioned before; quiet, lost and unassuming. But once something happens that triggers his rage, he reacts viciously. Near the beginning of the film, we see Nishi having beer with Nakamura and another police officer at a noodle shop. Once Nakamura and the other officer left, two Yakuza members enter the noodle shop and reminds Nishi of his debt. In response, Nishi stabs one of them in the eye with a chopstick, done so quickly without any hesitation. These violent outbursts have a purpose. They are to show that Nishi is scared, he’s always on his toes, just to act mercilessly back at anyone who dares to anger him. Nishi is unsure of his surroundings, and he fears for the worst, so he must strike back not matter what.
One standout scene I felt truly captured Kitano’s purpose behind Hana-Bi, and shows how expressive he can be as both a director and an editor was the scene where Horibe, on a wheelchair, goes to a flower shop to buy some flowers. Horibe is buying flowers for himself, as he also yarns for the feelings of joy and enlightenment as Nishi. Once he arrives at the flower shop, he stares at the flowers with a blank facial expression with a hint of sadness. The scene cuts between pictures of different types of flowers and different paintings (made by Kitano himself) with shots of Horibe looking at the shop’s display. This editing choice may seem odd at first, and possibly even pretentious due to the paintings, but these cuts are essential at showing Horibe’s struggling to maintain that feeling of ecstasy, even though it might be short lived. The shots showing Horibe’s face is longer and we are in that same angle even time it cuts back to him. As the sequence progresses, we see him becoming more depressed. This is deliberate, it’s to further emphasize Horibe’s struggle to conserve those feelings to aid his already shrinking, cold reality. But unlike Nishi, Horibe eventually finds comfort in his life as he begins to paint several different artworks, which the films transitions into multiple times.
The conventional way of displaying how a character feels in a particular moment is to subtly imply it in the dialogue, the acting or the surroundings. Hana-Bi, however, also displays it subtly, but with the change of behaviours. Kitano links different emotions to the different behaviours a character may be displaying, which helps the audience distinct for themselves what the characters are feeling in that situation. Both Nishi and Miyuki go for a nice, relaxing holiday, knowing that Miyuki doesn’t have much time left. In the car, both of them play a little game which consists of Miyuki showing cards, with the back facing Nishi and him having to guess the suits on the cards (like ace of spades.) Unknown to Miyuki at first, Nishi can see the suits of the cards on the reflections of the car mirror. This eventually escalates to both of them laughing. This may be seen as something small and comedic at first, but the change of Nishi’s behaviour shows that he is achieving a significant feat. Kitano has connected Nishi’s quiet, explosive and emotionless behaviour to him failing at escaping his tight, conflicting emotions, and his talkative, somewhat joyful behaviour to him following the right track of achieving enlightenment. His newfound behaviour is maintained as Nishi and Miyuki carry on with their holiday, doing activities like walking along the beach, sightseeing, taking pictures of themselves, all the little things couples do in holidays. But these things are not little for Nishi. He desperately needs it the same way he desperately needs to spend time with his wife. These escapes from his torturous past are precious to him, and he tries his hardest to not let anything interfere with it.
Hana-Bi is an amazing, breathtaking film that shows Kitano’s sense of neo-realism and skills as an artistic filmmaker. With Kitano being the writer, director, editor and main actor of the film, he’s still able to get his purpose across without getting unnecessarily convoluted. The film ends with a fantasy shared between Nishi and Miyuki, which includes their daughter, finally showing us what she looks like. This fantasy leaves us with a haunting question that is left for interpretation; “is this fantasy the result of Nishi finally finding happiness, or is it just another distraction from the unresolved, twisted events of the past?”