Takeshi Kitano’s minimalist classic Hana-bi (1997) begins like a puzzle with a series of fragmented moments arranged like a perplexing, non-linear equation. Playing Detective Nishi, a man whose wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) is dying of leukaemia, Kitano exhibits very little in the way of external reactions. He’s an enigmatic figure, respected deeply by his co-workers, but rarely speaking, his expressions limited to flickering facial tics.
He’s alive with fascinating contradictions, much like the film itself, with a series of tender moments that somehow avoid treading onto sentimental ground punctuated by violent outbursts that shock with their immediacy. Many of Kitano’s transitions between scenes heighten the contrast – manipulating strands of past and present – with a sprinkling of motifs based around his own paintings, lingered upon like clues amidst the silence and Joe Hisaishi’s sweetly melancholic score.
As the pieces of the puzzle begin to arrange themselves into a more comprehensible time frame, we understand that Nishi’s life has undergone a metamorphosis following the shocking injuries sustained to his partner, Horibe (Ren Osugi), shot in the course of duty and now left wheelchair-bound. Not long after, another young colleague is killed in the course of an arrest, accentuating the stresses of his personal life, and Nishi has opted out of the police force, his attention turned primarily to sustaining the quality of his wife’s remaining time for as long as he can.
Danger still lurks however in the form of Yakuza thugs who are pursuing him to settle debts on behalf of their boss. As a solution Nishi concocts a plan to decorate a stolen taxi as a police sedan and commit the most unhurried bank robbery in history as he strolls in, dressed in full police garb (almost in mockery of the vocation he abandoned), and without a single word spoken soon strolls back out with a sack full of cash. It’s a simple, but perfectly executed scene from Kitano, and the view from a security camera reflects the seemingly nondescript nature of this peculiar transaction as it unfolds amidst the fray of the crowded bank, slack-jawed witnesses seemingly paralysed by Nishi’s audaciousness. That he gives some of the stolen cash away to a widow further emphasizes his selflessness and desire for repentance – through altruistic acts – for his unshakeable association with tragedy.
Art plays a large part in how Kitano communicates the film’s themes with the handicapped Horibe, left to fend for himself after being abandoned by his wife and child, turning to the solace of painting as a means of fighting off the personal demons that plague him. A dedicated police officer, the transition for Horibe to sedentary, passive observer of life is a difficult one to come to terms with and his painting – which he admonishes as amateurish – begins to blossom, and soon a proliferation of simplistic, but strangely compelling scenes adorn his walls. The evocative images depicted are interwoven into contemplative moments of serene isolation as Horibe goes about this despairing, solitary next phase of his life – transforming from reminiscences of the family he once had to bleak, metaphoric ruminations on suicide.
Meanwhile, the delicate relationship between husband and wife is carefully maintained; indeed, Miyuki seems fine outwardly, the only signifiers of her deteriorating condition being the air of moroseness which clings to her like a veil and preventing her from speaking more than a few words, using gentle gestures to communicate. She does smile though and it’s a thing of beauty when it emerges from the sad, naturalistic embrace of her pared-back existence.
One suspects the onset of illness has only exacerbated an earlier tragedy, one briefly mentioned by Nishi’s colleagues who refer to a daughter the couple lost. One of Kitano’s great achievements is how deftly he creates a sense of the intimacy binding husband and wife; together they’re thoughtful and composed, Miyuki still spellbound by her husband’s ability to make her laugh as he takes her on a final holiday around Japan, dispatching the Yakuza thugs with uncompromising but controlled bursts of violent anger when they attempt to intervene. No dialogue is needed to convince us of the love this couple share for one another and Miyuki’s simple thank you as the devastating climax is reached seems like more than adequate repayment for Nishi’s devotion.
Hana-bi is a film that demands a second viewing, brimming as it is with subtle nuances and a complexity of structure which, admittedly, can be a little confusing when viewed for the first time. Filled with vibrant art and a tenderness that verges on haunting, it’s also a very dark, often violent, film. With the aid of graceful cinematography from Hideo Yamamoto and the sublime thematic enhancements of Hisaishi’s music, Kitano has created a masterpiece of ambiguity – ensuring his audience finds reasons for admiring Nishi, an inscrutable anti-hero whose actions endear him to us in the strangest way: moved by his capacity for love and compassion, whilst secretly reviled by the blood on his hands.