Film Review: Hana-Bi

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Takeshi Kitano, director of Hana-Bi, is one of the most well-known Japanese directors in the world. Hana-Bi, was released in 1998, and was awarded Leone d’Oro in the Venice Film Festival. Kitano is involved in the film not only as the director, but also as a protagonist acting by Beat Takeshi (Kitano’s stage name).

This movie is about a police-man, Nishi (played by Kitano), and his feelings of guilt because he blames himself for the injuries and the death of his coworkers. Nishi lost his daughter in the past, and he is living with his wife who is suffering from leukemia. A yakuza, Japanese gangster, insists that Nishi pays back a large amount of money which he borrowed from them in order to take care of his wife and to buy gifts for his injured coworker Horibe and a widow of another who died in the line of duty. After Nishi quits his job, he commits bank robbery to get money and goes on a trip with his wife. At the end of the trip, Nishi decides to end his dead-end life by committing suicide with his wife.

The title, Hanabi, means fireworks in Japanese, but Kitano separates the words into two parts Hana-Bi (花:Hana and 火:Bi). Hana means flower and Bi means fire in Japanese, and this unique title can be seen in Nishi’s characteristics: considerate and violent.

Throughout the story, Kitano effectively uses music composed by Joe Hisaishi for the film. Joe Hisaishi is one of the most notable composers in Japan, and his amazing music has been used in many famous dramas and movies such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Ghibli movies. The music provokes a nostalgic and lonesome atmosphere in the film, and it matches each character’s agony and situations in the story. Since most of characters, especially Nishi and his wife, do not speak much in the film, the music considerably helps viewers detect the mood of each scene and how each person is feeling.

There are also many shots of Japanese traditions and specialties, but Nishi breaks many of the rules which Japanese people generally follow. For instance, Kitano uses shots of Mr. Fuji, a temple, Japanese garden, cherry blossom tree, winter fireflies, stone stature of Jizo, a Japanese-style hotel, and a traditional kite. These shots are stereotypical “Japanese” images especially for foreigners watching the film. On the other hand, Nishi (Kitano) disrupted a traditional Japanese garden by falling down on the beautifully designed gravel. These nonstandard behaviors give viewers both stereotypical imagery of Japan and a non-stereotypical Japanese persona who breaks the social and cultural order.

Kitano uses many drawings in the film, and some of them were drawn by Kitano himself. The drawings vary, one including the combination of plants and animals, another a very colorful picture of dragons, some Japanese woodblock prints, and so on. Kitano uses very specific and unique Japanese woodblock prints in this film. For example, in the scene where a yakuza holds a meeting in a bar about their money, there is a Japanese woodblock print on the wall. The Japanese woodblock print depicts two men: a normal man wearing traditional clothing and a man whose face is skeletal. The skeletal face conveys the coldness and dreadful inside of human-beings, just like a yakuza’s inhumanity.

Considering the derailed artistic touches in this movie, Hana-Bi can be seen not only as a story about a police-man’s agonized life, but also as an artistic work, which appeals to the audience though its significance and power of non-verbal expression. Kitano efficiently uses the music, traditions of Japan, and classic Japanese drawings to convey what actors cannot communicate though their behavioral acting. At the same time, he injects a fresh and unique essence into these artistic works and creates a different kind of world in the film. This movie has many Japanese artistic and traditional elements in it, but also, surprisingly breaks some stereotypical “Japanese” imagery, which many viewers would not expect to see in a Japanese film.