One of the most idiosyncratic exponents of new Japanese cinema, Takeshi Kitano will further consolidate the international reputation he established through such films as “Sonatine” with his poignant reflection on love, violence, grief and loss, “Hana-bi.” This contemplative drama about a tough ex-cop tying up the loose ends of his life and taking his terminally ill wife on a farewell journey is pure poetry. While it’s definitely a specialist item, enterprising arthouse distribs can count on critical muscle to help sell the prestige release in discerning markets.
Detective Nishi (Kitano, appearing under his acting alias, Beat Takeshi) has lost his infant daughter and is about to lose his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) to a protracted illness. Absenting himself from a stakeout to visit her in hospital, he receives a double blow when doctors inform him that nothing can be done for his wife, advising him to take her home to die, and a colleague brings news that his partner, Horibe (Ren Osugi), has been shot and seriously wounded.
Nishi later visits Horibe at the seaside home where he has been abandoned by his family. Now confined to a wheelchair, Horibe considers buying a beret and art materials and taking up painting, but is unable to finance the expensive hobby. Borrowing money from the yakuza, Nishi supplies his friend with the cash to do this, also providing financial support for a young police widow (Yuko Daike) who is forced to work in a fast-food bar after her husband is shot and killed during an arrest.
Plagued by flashes of the violent deaths of his colleagues and by remorse and the impending loss of his wife, Nishi calmly carries out a plan to right some of the wrongs in his life. Having since quit the force, he buys a stolen taxi from a disreputable auto-wrecker (Tetsu Watanabe) and re-sprays it to pass for a cop car. In police uniform, he robs a bank single-handedly — this is amusingly filmed through a security camera — then delivers packages of loot to Horibe, the widow and the loan sharks to pay off his debt, keeping the rest to fund a trip that will give his dying wife one last taste of happiness.
It’s a lyrical, cleansing journey that builds to a soulful conclusion. There’s a masterfully balanced marriage of aching tenderness in the serene, gently humorous scenes between Nishi and his wife, and calm, considered bursts of violence in Nishi’s bloody encounters with the yakuza, who claim his repayments were short on interest.
Very much a visual filmmaker, Kitano conveys a great deal with minimal dialogue. Onscreen, he makes a sublime tough guy, looking ultracool behind his shades and never flinching, whether he looks down the barrel of a gun or beats up a hapless passerby who unwisely insults his wife. Kishimoto has even less dialogue — with just one line in the closing act — but the love and sadness between the couple is palpable.
While the nonlinear structure and constant time shifts of the opening create initial confusion about the sequence of events, Kitano’s approach is sufficiently mesmerizing to sustain interest while the plot becomes clear.
As in his earlier films “A Scene at the Sea” and “Sonatine,” the director choreographs much of the action here in peaceful, open spaces like the seaside or snow fields, captured by Hideo Yamamoto’s highly controlled lensing, which is still and composed without being too rigid.
Visually, the film also gains much from Kitano’s paintings and drawings. These are seen extensively in the bank and hospital, but also in the bizarre flower-animal hybrids that Horibe paints. Composer Joe Hisaishi, whose contribution was key to establishing the tone of “Sonatine” and Kitano’s last feature, “Kids Return,” again contributes an effective, melancholy score.
The Japanese word hanabi translates literally as fireworks; hyphenated as in the title here, the two words mean flower and fire.