HANA-BI, directed by Kitano “Beat” Takeshi, is a tale of two men’s journeys to deal with depression and loss. The film made its debut at the Venice film festival in 1997, taking home the Golden Lion award, and after its success on the international film circuit, was released in theatres in Japan in January 1998. HANA-BI was nominated for several Japanese Academy Awards and won the award for Best Score.
HANA-BI follows the lives of two retired police officers, Nishi and Horibe. Horibe, who retires after becoming paralyzed in an accident, struggles to fill his time and overcome the grief of losing his job and his family. He eventually takes up painting, and the film is filled with shots of his colorful, surreal paintings. After the retirement of his partner, Nishi leaves the force as well in order to spend time with his wife, who was diagnosed with Leukemia. The main plot of the film follow’s the “journeys” of the two men—literally in the case of Nishi, who travels to Mount Fuji with his wife –in their effort to overcome grief.
The title of the film is the Japanese word for fireworks, a motif which shows up at multiple points throughout the film. Separately, the word consists of the words hana, or flower, and bi, or fire. The spelling of the film’s title as HANA-BI, which separates the two, hints at the film’s unique pacing and aesthetics. The film’s slow, deliberate pace contributes to a peaceful atmosphere and the intimacy between the couple portrayed in the film. Yet just as Nishi’s trip with his wife is constantly interrupted by the yakuza to whom he owes money, the calm of the film is punctuated with moments of extreme violence. These bursts of violence and the bursts of color provided by Horibe’s paintings (painted by Kitano himself) stand in stark contrast to the slow pacing and simple shots of nature within the film.
In addition to its unique pacing, another aspect of HANA-BI that stands out is its silence. Although the film does feature an original score composed by famous composer Joe Hisaishi, who has written scores for several films including those from Studio Ghibli, dialogue in the film is minimal. Yet Kitano manages to express a sense of closeness and affection between Nishi and his wife without ever showing the couple exchange words; the only time the wife speaks at all is at the very end of the film, simply saying “thank you” and “I’m sorry.”
Through his use of striking pacing and aesthetics, Kitano was able to create a moving story of loss and depression. Although the uneven pacing and extent of the violence depicted in HANA-BI can at times be off-putting for viewers, it is the pacing that gives the film its unique feeling, and makes it a memorable viewing experience.