Hana-bi はなび (1997)
Not your typical Yakuza flick, Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi is as much art film as it is dramatic confessional, a beaten man’s last breath to share on highs and lows in life, triumphs in work and love and regrets for not being more resourceful. To say this is an odd film would be an injustice, and it asks for much reflection on our part to cipher its peculiarities for sympathy and philosophical depth. For your consideration, understand that the timeline in this narrative is somewhat askew, Kitano’s way of showing the characters are not necessarily in a reality like yours or mine. Rather, it plays like a fable or a dream, a tall tale of one man’s hand holding and site-gazing with his dying wife during her last days, much flower and ocean symbolism to keep us through all the transitions.
A Man with Little Left to Say
(Beat) Nishi, Kitano’s character, is a ripe example of the melodramatic cliche gone too far. A seasoned cop who just lost his daughter to cancer, and his wife, Miyuki, recently diagnosed with Leukemia, this material should call into question a screenwriter’s resourcefulness as a creative lead, it all being too much for an audience to take seriously, almost to the point of the ridiculous, but somehow, with Kitano’s choice in music composition, from the wonderful Joe Hisaishi (Spirited Away), and his very steady, grounded, camera work, the narrative becomes palatable, an art exhibit to stand and question, much oohing and awing. To add onto the struggles, Nishi’s partner(s) are subject to Yakuza violence, some injured, others killed. And through all of it, Kitano remains silent, also feeling responsible, intending to let the moment pass, even if he can’t, not tainted or further flawed with his words or actions. He is mute through it all, a man with little left to say.
He makes it a point to spend his days with his wife then, leaving his position with the police, with what little time she has left, and the remainder of the film from that point follows the two together as he tries to ease her last days.What the film becomes provides much information, backstory that unwraps a large portion of the confusing, and it, with brief snippets of Nishi in a junkyard, a deli, a shopping mall, the beach, and a bank, explains of critical choices in Kitano’s directorial changes with flashback.
Of the characters, Kitano was very conscientious of personality imagery, creating very distinct color schemes and memory associations for the front roles, the Yakuza boss and bodyguard, the police friends (one specifically set apart by his place in a wheelchair), two (four really) running gangster goons, and his wife. Him especially, with his face scarred and ticking, resembles that of an old watchdog, its eyes drooping with exhaustion, only recently understanding that his role in most of life was a submissive one; he can now cut down all the barking and huffing that gave him much comfort, shut down, living for whatever comes next. Even his wife treats him this way, like a common thing, as if buddies for so long they can spend an entire afternoon not in conversation. They’re together in silence, but always loud and joyous too.
It’s a movie with subtlety and then much excess, some scenes full of blood, too much for conditioned cinephiles to expect of a small jab or stab, but strengths are afforded in the movie with its heaviness in red and fight byproduct. Flashbacks make events seem darker and uber-active, despite the slow-motion. It has affected Nishi severely, and the use of more than is needed tries to explain it as being overwhelming.
To better appreciate this film, perhaps it’s best to take notice of what fills the frame the most in every scene. When a person fills much of it, piece together the previous scenes to make halves whole. What makes them important enough to then lead toward him or her now, here? And if a gun or a knife fills the frame, as they often do in gangster films, is it a hostile insert for things to come, or is it something violent to chance these characters next, a precaution simply there from habit or a randomness? Obviously it is not random, but hold true to your individual intuition. Your subjectivity makes for the most enjoyable of experiences with a film like this.
In one scene, Nishi preps a taxi for a newly plotted project. He has boxes of ammunition and a fresh gun beside the table. These elements heighten our expectations for scenes to come. In another, Nishi is home bringing his wife pastries as she fixes some tea. They both sit and solve a puzzle, enamored by the other’s contentedness for being collected and still.
It can be an overwhelming film, it all playing on image/action associations, but it is never intentionally dull. Some scenes may drag without an assumed interest in moving things forward, but they do. If for anything else, enjoy the film’s difference in color and tone as it is a shifting one. The Hisaishi score is a fabulous one to behold too, it guiding more than shadowing. I must admit this is my first venture into Kitano’s work; it will not be the last.