Takeshi Kitano might still be best known for his ultra-violent gangster pics, but after making it into the international arthouse repertoire with Sonatine back in the early ‘90s it was Hana-bi which put him on the map as one of Japan’s most prominent exports. This time Kitano plays the lead in the film, once more adopting his cooler than cool persona with occasional flashes of violence - only this time on the side of the law (to begin with, anyway).
Told in an initially confusing flashback structure, Hana-bi follows middle-aged policeman Nishi who experiences several life changing events in a short space of time. At the beginning of the film he’s let off a stakeout and told to go visit his wife who’s ill in hospital. Unfortunately, as we later find out, this will prove to be a poor decision as pretty much everything goes wrong - Nishi’s partner, Horibe, is shot and ends up paralysed, one of his other men is wounded, and tragically another killed right in front of Nishi’s eyes. After being told that nothing more can be done for his wife and it’s better that she just come home from the hospital, Nishi quits the police force, gets involved with the yakuza and robs a bank before taking off with his wife for one last holiday.
Actually, the film skips over its climactic event until quite a way into its running time. Kitano unsettles us right away by giving us very little explanation for what we’re seeing. He shows us Nishi meeting with the widow of a man we didn’t even know was dead yet (not that he really told us who she was anyway). We’re left to piece events together like a detective listening to a confused witness testimony, only our information is primarily visual - there isn’t even a lot of dialogue to guide us on our way. This refreshing technique is one the generally laconic Kitano seems to favour and greatly adds to Hana-bi’s low-key style.
Kitano never says too much in his movies anyway, but this time his wife is also near-silent, uttering the grand total of two words in the entire film, both of which come in the final scene. We know that she has a terminal illness (though it isn’t clear that she knows this, or how much she understands). Nishi and his wife also apparently lost their young daughter not long ago and it’s implied that perhaps she just hasn’t been fully present ever since. Her lack of speech, shyness and constant game-playing coupled with her outwardly cheerful (if sometimes vacant) demeanour give her a child-like quality, but the two words she does offer at the film’s conclusion imply (at least in that moment) that she knows what’s going on and understands what is about to happen.
Nishi and his wife have an extremely close relationship; they rarely need to speak to each other. However, Nishi’s partner, Horibe, discovers that his marriage was not as secure as he assumed as his wife and daughter walk out on him after his accident. In an effort to give him something to strive for, Nishi sends him some painting supplies and henceforth Horibe’s artwork (actually designed by Kitano himself) becomes a prominent motif in the film. The first series takes animals and then people and paints them with the heads of flowers, but this then gives way to more complicated pointillist scenes. Many of Horibe’s works feature a repeated motif of a man, woman and child (neatly echoed in the films closing scenes) seemingly enjoying a happy family occasion. Perhaps this is an odd sort of masochism on Horibe’s part, lamenting everything he’s lost since his accident, but the two figures could also represent the Nishis reunited with their lost daughter.
Shot in Kitano’s trademark blues, Hana-bi is a melancholy tale. Flowers and fire, Kitano shows us both extreme tenderness and fits of violence as he’s both the loving husband, grieving father, nurturing best friend and hardline cop who bears personal responsibility for the loss of his own. This path only leads in one direction and we’ve figured out where we’re headed long before nearing the end of our journey. Nevertheless, Hana-bi is a rich, poetic experience which continues to prove deeply moving and endlessly fascinating.