aka Hana-bi


Japanese language. Japan, 1997. Rated R. 103 minutes.

Cast: Takeshi Kitano (as "Beat" Takeshi), Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima, Tetsu Watanabe
Writer: Takeshi Kitano
Original music: J Hisaishi
Cinematography: Hideo Yamamoto
Producer: Masayuki Mori, Tasushi Tsuge, Takio Yoshida
Director: Takeshi Kitano


Grade: A Review by Carlo Cavagna

I f we accept that Japanese art favors minimalism and understatement, then Fireworks must surely be one of the most Japanese films ever. Writer/director/star Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine) makes movies that marry poetic beauty with vicious, unglamorous violence. For this reason, he has been likened to Martin Scorsese, but their cinematic voices are totally different. Scorsese's films are active, energetic epics filled with aggressive tension, so much so that he sometimes desensitizes his audience to the violence. Kitano makes static, understated movies about existences wasted, and rediscovering the joy of being, for a brief time, alive. Rather than a constant presence (overt or implied), violence comes in sudden bursts, as a shocking interruption.

Fireworks concerns Nishi (Kitano), an oft-decorated detective who leaves his partner Horibe (Ren Osugi) alone on a stakeout to visit his terminally ill wife (Kayoko Kishimoto), during which time Horibe is shot and paralyzed. Nishi's subsequent vendetta inadvertently results in the killing of another detective, Tanaka (Makoto Ashikawa), and the wounding of a third, Nakamura (Susumu Terajima). Wracked by guilt and disgusted by the police force's failure to nurture its own, Nishi quits to provide for his colleagues and ease his wife's last days—by any means necessary.
Takeshi Kitano in FIREWORKS
A bloodied Takeshi Kitano in Fireworks

The second half of the film takes an odd Kitano turn, as Nishi and his wife rediscover the simple delights of relaxing at the beach or fooling around with a deck of cards. They play. They set off simple fireworks in a field, whose sudden bursts in the tranquil countryside are like Nishi himself, calm, easily contented, yet explosively violent when set off. Yet even in quiet moments, an aching melancholy lingers between Nishi and his wife, attributable both to her terminal illness and to the recent death of their young child. Death for Nishi, in the form of the yakuza loan sharks hunting him, is also never far away.

As he has in other movies, Kitano the director puts Kitano the actor at the center of Fireworks, where he performs with an disconcerting impassivity. His favorite reaction shot is an expressionless closeup of himself. He never seems to say anything. Rather, other people say things to him. He waits, he considers, and when the moment is right, he acts, with forceful, bloody determination.

Hideo Yamamoto's camera is equally impassive. It rarely pans and almost never zooms. Often Yamamoto and Kitano establish a shot for a second before the action moves into it, and allow the shot to continue running for a moment after the action has left, much as Kurosawa does. This technique serves to emphasize the permanence of the surroundings and the impermanence of the people who pass through them, suggesting life is short. Find ways to enjoy it, Kitano is saying, even if the enjoyment cannot last.

This is where Kitano is a social critic. In Japan, the conformist pressure to dedicate your life to an employer, and to always do your duty, is much stronger than it is here. Nishi and his colleagues spill their blood for the police and the public good, and what do they get in return? Whatever disability payments Horibe might be receiving are insufficient even to buy painting supplies, not that he has any idea how to enjoy his new hobby, which he regards only as a way of passing the time. Work is all Horibe has ever known. Nakamura echoes this sentiment when he observes a girl running with a kite on a beach, and remarks, "I could never live like that." Evidently pensions and medical benefits also leave a lot to be desired, because Tanaka's widow (Yko Daike) is reduced to working at a fast food counter, and Nishi has borrowed millions of yen to pay for his wife's treatments.

Kitano never expresses any of his opinions straightforwardly—or the plot, for that matter. Like his impassive protagonist, Kitano says little, and he feeds us the story piecemeal, sometimes via flashbacks spliced into the film with no commentary. It takes a good half hour to forty-five minutes before even the basic premise is discernible. The film is like the dots on Horibe's pointillist painting—Kitano fills in a bit here and a bit there, in no particular order but with painstaking attention to detail, and the big picture gradually emerges. Horibe's artwork in the movie is actually Kitano's own work, much of it serenely whimsical, from the primitive paintings at the hospital to Horibe's figures of animals with flower buds in the place of their heads or eyes. Kitano often juxtaposes a thing—raindrops, cherry blossoms, and, of course, fireworks—with a painting of the thing. Life and art are the same, indistinguishable, like the shot of a blue Mount Fuji set against a blue sky, looking exactly like a two-dimensional Japanese print. The most arresting artwork in the film, though, is a large painting of a snowy landscape at night that, similar to a pointillist work, is actually composed of a multitude of tiny kanji (Japanese) characters that spell out each element of the painting (e.g., the snow is made up of tiny characters that mean "snow"). In the middle, splashed in red, a much larger character violently mars the painting's tranquillity. If you haven't yet seen the film, it is best that you find out what the character represents for yourself. The tone of the painting, however, corresponds to the tone of the film. For Kitano, human life is like one of Nishi's fireworks in the countryside—it begins as a spark, then explodes as a momentary, ferociously intense flash in an otherwise serene world.

Review © October 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.

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