Beautiful, violent, charming, unsettling masterwork from the most original director alive.
Mention Takeshi Kitano to most people and they'll immediately think 'violence' (at least to those that aren't thinking 'Who?'), but it would be unwise to assume that Beat is a one trick pony. Even ignoring his other works, Hana-Bi shows an effecting range of emotion and style, as well as hint of the slapstick comedy that first shot Kitano to fame. And to top that, it's also got enough violence in it to satisfy even the most ardent mob-movie fanboy.
Here Kitano takes the role of Nishi, a hard boiled cop who life is playing silly buggers with. His daughter has recently died, and through a conversation with his partner and friend, Horibe (Ren Osugi), we find out his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) is hospitalised with a terminal disease, to my recollection never named. The cops make their way to a stakeout to relieve junior partners Nakamura and Tesuka. As they are quite near the hospital housing Miyuki, Horibe offers to stand watch alone allowing Nishi to visit his wife. A conversation with Miyuki's doctor confirms that they've done all they can for Miyuki, and urges Nishi to take her home to spend her remaining time there. She's been understandably traumatised by recent events, and now does not speak to anyone.
Tragedy strikes the cast another blow when Horibe is shot by the Yakuza member he's watching. Surprisingly he doesn't die, but is left crippled. Horibe's family must be allergic to wheelchairs, as his wife immediately and somewhat callously leaves him, taking their son with her. Nishi and the wheelchair bound Horibe talk by the sea, with Horibe understandably devastated by events. Kitano's genius in writing shines through, with Osugi playing his part here to perfection. Very little is said, and very little has to be said to show the depth of feeling between Horibe and Nishi. It's easy to believe these two have been friends for years and have an unspoken understanding between them. Kitano puts on yet another superb performance, with a screen presence that's unmistakable yet difficult to define. He shows his guilt over the incidents in this movie incredibly well despite never uttering a word about them.
Later in a local bar, Nishi sits with some of his fellow detectives, who tell him he should not feel guilty about the other shootings. What other shootings he refers to aren't entirely clear at this time, but they are revealed through a series of flashbacks throughout the film to be the result of an ill-fated attempt for the police to move in on Horibe's assailant.
This proves too much for Nishi to remain in the police service. However, he owes money to the Yakuza who scent blood and move in to put the screws on. The scent of blood gets a lot stronger for the unfortunate goons sent to collect as Nishi gives them a sound beating, including a horrific scene of stabbing one of them in the eye with a chopstick. Violence permeates this film, yet looking back it's never the violence that stands out most, only as a symptom of Nishi's struggle with his guilt and his acceptance of his wife's illness. Horibe also struggles to come to terms with his situation, as we find out he's tried to commit suicide, but failed. In an effort to distract himself from his plight he takes up painting. The art Horibe draws appears throughout the film, having a strange, simplistic, child-like beauty to them. It irritates me to note that they are in fact drawn by Kitano, and he composes one of the musical themes in the movie as well. I suspect Kitano to have sold his soul to Ol' Nick himself to have so many skills in so many areas.
Nishi does the only thing possible in his situation - impersonates a uniformed police officer to rob a bank. He pays back the Yakuza and gives some cash to the family of the dead police officers, salving his conscious a tad. He sends Horibe more art materials and uses the remainder to take his wife on a holiday to Mt. Fuji. The Yakuza decide that it would perhaps be best is Nishi 'invested' the rest of the bank raid haul with them and go after him, and Nakamura and Tesuka are obviously out to track him down to bring him to justice. There are no manic chase scenes, but there's always a sense of time running out for Nishi and his wife. That aside, it's proving to be a nice little jaunt for Nishi and Miyuki, both relaxing and showing some of Kitano's penchant for off-beat humour in a few place, occasionally at the same time as his violent steak shows through.
As the Yakuza and the police try to trail him with some urgency, Horibe grows more confident in his artistic ability, to the extent of lapsing in reveries as the muse strikes him, giving us strange surrealist artwork revolving around animals with flowers for heads and suchlike. Odd, yet arresting. In terms of the action things start to come to a head once Nishi and Miyuki travel to the snowy peak of Mt. Fuji. The Yakuza finally get a proper hold of Nishi, as a previous encounter at lower altitude ended badly for the Yakuza goons thanks to Nishi's high-tech 'rock wrapped in towel' weapon. He faces down one of the goons trying to shoot him by the unbelievably painful looking method of quickly jamming his finger between the goon's revolver hammer and firing pin, drawing a fair amount of blood. He is eventually corralled into the waiting limo, where the Yakuza meet an unexpected and bloody end. It's really difficult to do justice to Kitano's acting here. He moves effortlessly from being caring and affectionate with his wife to going outside and immediately becoming a believable, unshakeable rock of no-nonsense attitude. At all times, he gives off an aura of, well, just plain coolness. The Fonz has nothing on this man, ladies and gentlemen.
Leaving the chaos behind them Nishi and Miyuki travel back down the mountain, leaving just before Nakamura and Tesuka discover the slain gangsters. They finally catch up with them as Nishi and his wife stop at the shore. They allow their one-time partner some time to be with his wife, as a little girl runs around the beach trying to fly a kite. Nishi tries to help her get the thing airborne but meets with less success than his violent endeavours. One particular shot of Nishi and Miyuki sitting side by side watching the kid play, clearly thinking of their lost child is understated yet heartbreaking. Miyuki speaks for the first time in the movie, simply saying 'Thank you' to Nishi. It's strange that one simple sentence should have so much power and have such emotional effect that a hundred schmaltzy Hollywood efforts couldn't reach a hundredth as deeply.
Part of Kitano's fame is his shocking ending to movies, making sure the audience leave rattled as the credits roll, and this is no exception. As Horibe adapts to his new life and situation, Nishi fails. The film's conclusion is as powerful as it is unsettling, sealing the film's already substantial impact in the audience's mind. Many scenes in this movie are stunning. The brutal action scenes are deeply unsettling, yet the many scenes of Nishi with his wife or with Horibe are beautiful, with superb cinematography showing off natural beauty in ways that only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can rival. Kitano's direction is both brave and effective, holding many essentially still shots with the characters absolutely silent in ways that put Bergman to shame.
At it's heart Hana-Bi contains similar elements to Sonatine and Violent Cop but it manages to be far deeper, actually being touching rather than 'merely' being a good film. There's generally little to no emotional involvement in mob films, just a series of double-crossings and shootings. Making the central themes of the film Horibe's struggle adapting to his new life and Nishi's struggle adapting to the impending death of his wife make the film so much more than the visceral and comparatively emotionless violence of Violent Cop and a hundred other lesser movies from lesser talents. Hana-Bi is occasionally brutal, often touching, frequently amusing and always excellent.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 5/5 Tippymarks, and be tempted to break the scale. I cannot empathise the greatness of this film enough; you must see this before you die else your life will not be complete.
Kayoko Kishimoto (Miyuki)
Ren Osugi (Horibe)
Susumu Terajima (Nakamura)
Tetsu Watanabe (Tesuka)