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Fireworks (Hana-Bi)

Review by Eddie Cockrell
Posted 17 April 1998

  Directed by Takeshi Kitano

Starring "Beat" Takeshi, Kayoko Kishimoto,
Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima, Tetsu Watanabe,
Hakuryu, Yasuei Yakushiji

Screenplay by Takeshi Kitano

Pain, and the internal management, external uses and deleterious effects of it, are central themes of this brooding, placid film from Japanese hyphenate Takeshi "Beat" Kitano in which an outwardly impassive but inwardly grief-stricken ex-cop tries to set right the wrongs – some assumed, some arbitrary – in his life. Inspired by, of all things, a motorcycle accident (more on that later), Fireworks is, in the spirit of it's original Japanese title Hana-Bi (more on that later too), a hybrid of styles that juxtapose to create a powerful emotional aura that isn't soon shaken.

At the urging of his partner and childhood friend Horibe (Ren Osugi), Tokyo Police Inspector Yoshitaka Nishi ("Beat" Takeshi) skips a stakeout to visit his ill wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) in the hospital and learns from the doctor (Kenichi Yajima) that her condition is terminal. Meanwhile, Horibe is ambushed by a young thug and left for dead. Paralyzed as a result of his gunshot wounds, he is abandoned by his wife and child and moves to the seaside where he spends his days in virtual solitude. After leaving the police force, Nishi borrows heavily from a yakuza loan shark (Yasuei Yakushiji) to buy art supplies for Horibe and send money to the widow of a colleague killed in the line of duty. Seemingly uninterested in paying back the loan, Nishi concentrates instead on keeping Miyuki comfortable and entertained – until a painful memory prompted by a trip to a junkyard near Tokyo Bay (the owner is played by Tetsu Watanabe, the warrior in Akira Kurosawa's Ran) prompts him to plan and execute a bank robbery that will allow him to repay the debt and take his wife on a trip to the Japanese countryside. Yet Nishi cannot escape his past, and pursuit by yakuza hitman Tojo (rocker-turned-actor Hakuryu) and dogged newlywed detective Nakamura (Kitano regular Susumu Terajima) leads to an oceanside showdown that is eerily predicted by the paintings of the increasingly suicidal Horibe.

Fireworks is a multileveled movie that demands rigorous attention: edited 14 different times under Kitano's supervision, it is presented in a complex series of flashbacks and flash-forwards that metes out important narrative information in tantalizingly brief increments (presumably guaranteeing the movie's perpetual popularity on tape, disc and DVD) – with much of the action of the film occurring off-screen and important bits of information hinted at in passing or avoided altogether (how did Nishi's daughter die? When and how did he quit the force?).

Yet vigilance is rewarded, as the narrative is distilled into Nishi's nearly wordless quest for redemption in a bland world of urban sprawl, a journey made somewhat more colorful during the vacation sequences late in the film that begin with the snows of Mt. Fuji and conclude at the seaside (the latter is an ongoing Kitano obsession; his 1991 film is called A Scene at the Sea).

The dualities of the film – love and violence; deadpan humor and abrupt gunplay; rusted junk and bright, imaginative art – is explained by the original Japanese title Hana-Bi. Separately, the words mean flower ("Hana") and fire ("Bi"), while unhyphenated it is the word for fireworks. "I wanted to portray life and death subjectively through the characters, who took on life and death without escaping from them as they were confronted with cruel realities, when unexpected events suddenly befell on them," Kitano explained. This tension, heightened by Joe Hisaishi's lush, unabashedly sentimental score, gives the film much of it's power, as what isn't said propels what is. Viewers never learn what exactly compels Nishi to do what he does, but the viciousness of his temper, combined with the tenderness of his impulses, are conflicting character traits with which everyone can empathize – and which make for great drama.

A huge media personality in Japan (a 1995 Spy! magazine poll there anointed him the country's best-liked man), he appears on around a half-dozen weekly TV shows on all the Japanese networks (including "Super Jockey," "Takeshi's Book of Genesis" and "Takeshi's 'Anyone Can Be Picasso'"), has published upwards of 50 books of criticism, poetry, essays and fiction (a recent title: "Why They All Hate Me"), has since 1989 directed seven films that have been met with varying degrees of critical acclaim (prompting one prominent critic to compare him simultaneously to Jean-Luc Godard and Jerry Lewis), and has appeared in 17 more (including Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in 1983, Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic in 1994 and Toshihiro Tenma's 1993 adaptation of his satirical novel about Japanese cults, Many Happy Returns).

He first entered the public eye in the 1970s as half of a comic duo called Tsuu Biito ("The Two Beats" – the name Kitano acts under to this day) that performed in the manzai style which closely resembles the vaudevillian interplay between a suave straight man and his disheveled partner.

In the early 1980s he struck out on his own in an ensemble show called Oretachi Hyokinzoku ("We Are Wild And Crazy Guys") with a persona that suggests a Japanese blend of Don Rickles' scabrous confrontational comedy with George Carlin's often absurdist social criticism. At the same time he began the long-running late-night radio show "All Night Nippon," which featured his unique views on the world.

After a night of revelry in 1994, Kitano drove a moped into a Japanese Jersey Barrier. The resulting skull fracture left him with facial paralysis that, in a final irony, lends his often silent protagonists an enhanced air of sinister concentration (it was during his convalescence that Kitano took up painting and had the idea for what eventually became Fireworks – that's his distinctive artwork in the film).

In addition to that expressive silence, a central component of Kitano's style is the vacuum of action, each episode of violence occurring either in silent slow motion or with the jagged abruptness of lightning during a particularly bad storm. "Hollywood films used to be able to shock you," the director told journalist Makoto Shinozaki. "Those were the times. The audience loved it back then. But then it became bigger and bigger, and we got used to the most amazing explosions. None of it shocks us anymore. It's like a fireworks show. It gets old fast to be told that they're going up and then seeing them explode. If you don't expect it, a little firecracker can scare you. I think that's the way to do it." More recently, he told the New York Times "I believe that even the most normal-seeking people have the capacity for violence." Thus Nishi can spend time helping Miyuki assemble a simple yet deceptive wooden puzzle (a neat metaphor for the movie itself), but still has the capacity to jam a chopstick into the eye of an offending thug – and cryptically apologize for it later.

The subject of articles in recent editions of such disparate publications as "Pulse!," "Atlantic Monthly," "Box Office," "Detour," "Vogue," "Wired" and "Film Comment" (the cover story), Fireworks – winner of the Golden Lion best film award at the 1997 Venice Film Festival – is the must-see movie of the moment for those interested in the newest and most vivid developments in film language and style. And deservedly so: along with his 1993 yakuza film Sonatine (coming soon to an art-house theater near you courtesy of Quentin Tarantino's Miramax-funded distribution imprint Rolling Thunder), Fireworks heralds the arrival in America of a talent who blends the conflicting emotions of his own life into stylized morality plays in which characters win some and lose some – and maintain a kind of inarticulate dignity in the process. There is enough pain – of recent and impending loss, of ideals, of messy wounds and fists, of face, or respect – in Fireworks to make the emotion almost palpable, but it is offset by a brooding, fragile beauty that ultimately balances the grief. And that's a duality that makes for great and memorable art.

Fireworks is currently in limited American release through Milestone Films, which can be e-mailed at for information on upcoming playdates, theaters and news on Takeshi Kitano.

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