If you haven't seen any Takeshi Kitano (Kikujiro no Natsu, Achilles to Kame, Kantoku: Banzai!) films yet, Hana-bi is probably one of the best starting points in the man's oeuvre. It's one of his more accessible films, but it still goes a long way in highlighting his various skills. While still very unique and different from Western cinema, there are enough elements to pull in people not quite familiar with Asian film making.
Back in 1997 Hana-bi earned Kitano a Golden Lion (Venice International Film Festival). Even though he needed the help of Shinya Tsukamoto to convince the jury of Hana-bi's qualities, the film went on to become Kitano's big break-through in the West. A break-through that was already imminent when he released Sonatine a couple years earlier, but apparently an internationally respected prize goes a long way when it comes to Western interest. Hana-bi stands at the source of the renaissance that Japanese film making experienced around the turn of the millennium and in that way it is definitely one of the most important Japanese films made in the past 20 years or so.
Just winning a lauded festival prize isn't quite enough though, as '97 Cannes winner Unagi illustrates (who remembers that film these days?). You need a film that also differentiates itself from others. Hana-bi does just that, as is the perfect mix of Kitano's trademark elements. Snappy and and short bursts of violence are alternated with a quirky sense of humor and more poetic/dramatic moments. Kitano constantly plays around with these different elements to create a film with a very unique feel, able to shift tones in the blink of an eye while keeping the overarching atmosphere more or less consistent.
Kitano plays Nishi, a demotivated cop who is suddenly confronted with several deaths around him. Not only did his he just lose his daughter but his partner got killed in action, a close colleague lost both his legs and his wife was diagnosed as terminal. Nishi decides it's time to take a break and stages a bank robbery to allow him and his wife to undertake a little road trip, away from all everyday worries. Of course things don't go as planned and before long Nishi finds himself being chased by a gang of yakuza and a small team of former colleagues.
You're excused if at times you feel like you're watching an 80s flick. It seems that back in those days Japan was a little behind on fashion, which gives the film an older feel that its production date suggests. On a technical level, it's Kitano's editing style that demands the most attention. Kitano's unique timing lends the film some very interesting shots, but it's the things Kitano doesn't show that make for the best surprises. More than once does he leave out the crux of scene, only showing the events leading up to a certain event and immediately cutting to the aftermath. It's cause and effect, without the actual event in between.
Hana-bi was scored by Joe Hisaishi and while not his best collaboration with Kitano (Hisaishi made more memorable tracks for Dolls, Kids Return and Kikujiro) it still contain some pretty great pieces of music. If anything, it gives the film a pretty laid-back atmosphere that functions as an ideal constant, tying the different tones of Hana-bi together.
When Kitano takes up the lead role you know that you need not worry about performances. Kitano plays (a fraction of) himself and once again knows to charm in a role that isn't necessarily sympathetic. Nishi may be rude, violent and annoying, he still makes me smile every time he does something quirky or unusual. The secondary cast is stellar too, with Susuma Terajima and Ren Osugi taking up most of the screen time. Kayoko Kishimoto is present too as Nishi's wife, the start of a long and successful collaboration between Kishimoto and Kitano.
Kitano takes center stage in Hana-bi. Not only in front of the camera, but with just about every aspect of the film. As an actor he is irreplaceable, as an editor he gives Hana-bi a unique rhythm, as a comedian he inserts some genuinely funny jokes and as a director he keeps a perfect balance between the different tones that are present. And if that wasn't enough, Kitano litters the film with his own paintings. They may not be sprawling examples of technical mastership, but they are certainly unique and amusing.
Hana-bi is a real delight. It's a simple, accessible film but with enough unique elements to keep you surprised and interested. The film is also the perfect showcase for Kitano's versatility. It's funny, poetic, violent and leaves you with a perfect dramatic punch in the gut. If you're new to Asian cinema, Hana-bi is definitely a good starting point. If, on the other hand, you're a seasoned fan already, I cannot image you haven't seen this film yet. If not, be sure to make it a priority.