Hana-bi on Blu-ray

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  Hana-bi on blu-ray

It has been 20 years since Takashi Kitano’s “Hana-bi (Fireworks)” land on our shore. The lyrical film about cops, yakuza and a rekindled love between a man and woman is being released on a remastered Blu-ray edition that is scant on extras but rich in story in “Hana-bi" on Blu-ray.

"Hana-Bi (Fireworks)" is an unusual work by any film standards, but is darned interesting to watch nonetheless. The multi-talented director, Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, has, in his seventh film outing, created a complex, sometimes lyrical, drama about cops and the yakuza (the Japanese mob), a husband and wife coping with imminent death and the earlier loss of their 5-year-old daughter, and the story of a man cut down by gang violence, paralyzed and on the brink of suicide.

The story follows, in flash-back and flash-forward, the final phase of the life of Tokyo detective Yoshitaka Nishi, a dedicated cop whose wife, battling, hopelessly, against leukemia, he has neglected because of his job and not knowing what to do about her condition. A yakuza hit on Nishi's partner, Horibe, results in paralysis of his legs and the desertion by his wife and child. Nishi is wrought with guilt about his wife and partner, leaving the force and getting increasingly in debt to the mob. As Nishi's wife, Miyuki, weakens, he commits an elaborate, single-handed bank robbery to take her away one last time.

Kitano creates a singularly unique film that is impossible to tag with a genre. It is a hard-boiled detective yarn with mob violence, brutal beatings and gangland murders. It is a melancholy romance of a couple, grown apart through illness, work and misunderstanding, who find each other again. It is about a man, struck down in his prime, finding, first, solace, then rebirth in his art. All the threads are fully developed. The cop drama, and its ultra-violence (though the worst takes place off-screen with abrupt, immediate, cuts to the aftermath) winds around the romance tale without intruding. The story of Horibe is punctuated with very long, lyrical looks at art and nature and their combination in forming the salvation of the crippled ex-cop.

Beat Kitano, as Nishi, gives one of the most minimalist performances since Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. It is fully 30 minutes before Nishi utters his first line in response to a colleague's announced marriage - "Who to?" It's another 10 minutes before he says anything except "Hello." The beauty of the performance is it allows those around Nishi to carry forth the narrative with the detective always a mute focal point on the screen. It's a fascinating performance and makes me look forward to the upcoming release in the U.S. of Kitano's 1993 film "Sonatine."

The violence of the detective story is countered by the melancholy rekindling of the love between Nishi and Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto). He had estranged her from his life and dedicated himself to his work in an attempt to deny her pending death. Their final journey through the varied Japanese countryside allows a rekindling of their former love for one another, happy to just be together in the end.

Ren Osugi, as Nishi's crippled partner, gives a heart wrenching performance as a man devastated by his bad luck and paralyzed condition. An off-the-cuff remark by Horibe to Nishi about maybe becoming an artist and getting a beret results in an anonymous package of art supplies arriving at his door, complete with the artist hat. The catalyst of this gift slowly turns the man's abject depression around, resulting in several beautiful montages of flowers and art that is positively poetic. (Kitano, who currently stars in seven weekly TV shows in Japan, created all the paintings used in the film.)

Detracting from the film are the incredibly sappy, syrupy, saccharine score that wells over the quieter scenes to the point of annoyance. There is an extended sequence at the end of the film with a prepubescent girl attempting to fly a kite, not too successfully. I understand the symbolism intended by the scene, but went on far too long, lessening the impact of the ending. Some of the transitions from the ultra-violent to the lyrical are abrupt and distracting, as the pace takes a sudden speed change. Mostly, the unusual story and its telling works well.

"Hana-Bi" is a very different kind of film working hard on several levels and succeeding. I give it a B+

The blu-ray:
There are, of course, extras available on the Blu-ray edition of “Hana-bi,” with a commentary track by Rolling Stone writer David Fear; a “Making of…” extra; and a look at the Japanese theatrical trailers from Kitano’s first six films. A print essay on the film, by Jasper Sharp, is also included in the package.

The commentary gives an American’s viewpoint of Takeshi Kitano’s first film imported to the North America market in 1997. David Fear is an obvious fan of the filmmaker and regales us the insights into “Beat” Takeshi’s long career, first as a part of a comedy team “The Two Beats” and on to a prolific TV career in Japan – he would often have up to eight different shows on the air. All the while, Fear talks about “Hana-bi” as it unfolds and his commentary draws you in as he helps sort out the film’s many layers. Of particular note is Fear’s analysis of Kitano’s use of both violence and comedy, sometimes near slapstick, that works beautifully in “Hana-bi.”

The “Making of…” track is an amusing look at the production, its problems and pluses and an interview with the director where he says more words in about one minute than his character, Nishi, says in the entirety of “Hana-bi.” (A word of warning: on the commercial Blu-ray disc we watched for review, the “Making of…” extra is at the end of the trailers of his previous films. You have to fast forward through the trailers to get to the how-it-was-made extra at 11:40.)

The six theatrical trailer extras will whet the appetite of fans of the director/actor and those of the 80s and 90s Yakuza gangster flick era. They include, as named on the Blu-ray Special Features, “Violent Cop,” “Boiling Point, “ “The Quiet Earth,” “After the Storm,” “ Harmonium,” and “Soul on a String.” If TCM decides to run a retrospective of Kitano’s early films, I will be all over it. 20 years ago, I gave “Hana-bi” a B+. I give the new Blu-ray edition an A-.

Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Film Festival, Takeshi Kitano's "Fireworks" explores themes of life and death via Takeshi's character of Nishi, a Tokyo detective. Nishi is facing the terminal illness of his wife, Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto, "Dolls"), after having already lost his young daughter. When his partner Horibe (Ren Ôsugi, "Audition") insists on taking over a stakeout so Nishi can visit his wife in the hospital, Horibe is shot by the Yakuza hitman they were waiting for and is paralyzed. Ridden with guilt, Nishi quits the police force, robs a bank, and takes his wife on what could be their last vacation together.

Beat Takeshi is a Japanese phenomenon - when he made this film, he was appearing in seven weekly TV series, had authored fifty-five books and appeared in many films (most notably for U.S. audiences, he was the Japanese Sgt. that said the line "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" in that film.)

While this was Beat Takeshi's first film to achieve U.S. release, it's his seventh feature. "Fireworks" is the product of a unique vision, which breaks cinematic rules to create new ones. The film is oddly structured, not at all linear in its storytelling, but the flashing backwards and forwards work to underscore Nishi's frame of mind (Takeshi also edited this film - fourteen times).

I found "Fireworks" to be primarily about loss and was terribly moved by it, particularly by the character of Horibe. When Horibe is paralyzed, his wife and young daughter leave him, just as Nishi's daughter has and wife is about to. The symbols of a young girl haunt the film, from images in the paintings Horibe takes up (painted by Takeshi), to the small shoes Nishi finds on the doorstep of his apartment building, to the innocence and childlike games of Nishi's wife, to the final scene where a young girl flies a kite on the beach.

Nishi is an intense character who's fiercely protective of those he cares for. It's Nishi who sends art supplies (including a beret in a wistful touch) to Horibe and who sends money to the widow of another colleague slain in the line of duty. Nishi rarely speaks, but can make his wife laugh with a few words. He can also pump bullets into a corpse he's created and take out a man's eye with a chopstick. He's a multi-decorated detective who takes money from the very Yakuza he fights in his job and robs a bank when he leaves his job. Why? Maybe because we're presented with a rather grim look at Japanese society where the widow of a slain police officer is barely scraping by. Nishi and his wife tellingly and ironically find humor in the small blows life deals them.

"Fireworks" is an intensely visual film. In one glorious three minute scene, we see the artist in Horibe come alive when he's moved to tears by the sight of an abundance of flowers on display outside a shop. Each different flower becomes incorporated into an animal in the paintings forming in Horibe's mind.  There is also a lot of humor in Kitano's work, often silent observations reminiscent of Jacques Tati.

Grade:  A-

The Film Movement blu-ray:

Released on blu ray for the first time in the U.S., Film Movement's disc features a glorious looking HD digital restoration of the film.  The disc begins with trailers of the filmmaker's previous movies, all of which can be found listed in the Special features section as well.  Be warned that in order to view the 'Making of' featurette listed on this menu, one must fast forward 11 min. and 40 sec. to get to it as all of those trailers inexplicably precede it again (you cannot chapter track through them).  The featurette is comprised of a series of behind the scenes snippets punctuated by sunflowers which show Takeshi's playful nature behind the camera and reveal how one of the film's most striking shots stood in for a longer sequence botched by an actor.  There is also a 'highly caffeinated' commentary track by Rolling Stone film critic David Fear, who kicks things off by explaining that the studio nixed the original title of "Kitano Volume 7" and that while "Hana-bi" does indeed translate to the English title "Fireworks," it is also a combination of the Japanese words for 'flower' and 'fire,' an even more apt title.
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