“Fireworks (Hana-bi)” – Andrew Guarini

Fireworks (or Hana-bi) by renowned Japanese director Takeshi Kitano is a peculiar little movie occupied by countless silences, blank stares, uncomfortable chuckles and jolting gear shifts between woeful reflection and a little bit of the ol’ ultraviolence. Kitano (who also wrote and edited the picture) stars as Nishi, a cop known for his impulsive and violent nature but who usually gets the job done whilst blood staining a few fabrics in the process. However Nishi has seen better days: his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) is slowly dying of leukemia, and his most trusted partner Horibe (Ren Osugi) is shot and paralyzed while on the job. Nishi, feeling guilt over his partner’s injury and subsequent fractured mental state and wanting to spend more time with his wife is forced to retire from the force and in doing so must go through some dirty channels in order to fund his desperate and depressing downtime. That however is when things get a bit messy.


Much of the business of Fireworks is crafting a deadpan demeanor that is either violently or humorously (sometimes simultaneously) interrupted by the spontaneity of life and its tragedy. Kitano as Nishi almost never speaks but in an incredible compliment to his screen presence is extremely compelling and capable of displaying the always shifting duality of his character; never wholly satisfied and vicious at the most random of times. In his silence the character of Nishi becomes a complete paradox but also becomes the second half of his wife (who also almost never speaks) and a vast contrast to everyone else in the film who openly display their every feelings and inclinations at all times.


Horibe in his injury and subsequent departure of his wife and daughter becomes suicidal, bound by his wheelchair and bored with life in general. He passes his time by painting (the paintings were actually done by Kitano after his attempted motorcycle suicide in 1994) and being monitored by former partners who fear for his sanity from his immobility. Somehow though, the plight of Horibe, though undeniably interesting and tragic isn’t as unnerving as that of Nishi; his menacing smile, his still body and his dark frames hide any notion of audience certainty as to what he might do next. While other characters are driven by the need to always be doing something (the yakuza gangsters are constantly yapping away and in motion) Nishi and his wife are characterized by rare showings of emotion, movement and speech only if truly necessary. It seems that in a world complete with insincerity, their sparse interaction isn’t a sign of a broken connection but an understood need for each other’s space, both together and apart.


The minimalist tone of Fireworks is what makes the violence (chopsticks into an eye socket anyone?) work so effectively to convey the madness of Nishi. The film’s static, lengthy one takes serve to work alongside the languid pace as we monitor Nishi’s descent; when one partner tells him that his partner’s deaths and injuries are “not your fault” we can tell that his stone face could not believe the opposite anymore. There’s nothing elaborate about the picture’s direction by Kitano; not fanciful tracking shots or rapid cutting of the action when Nishi feels like taking some lives. What we do have is graceful panning and tilting when needed and characters placed in the center of the frame essentially immobile so we can watch them take in their dank surroundings and squirm.


It’s an incredibly damning approach by Kitano between this reserved writing and direction because it allows subtlety to work alongside the quirky terrain of the material. While watching the audience will observe every corner of the frames Kitano constructs because there is always something to take note of for Nishi, his wife, Horibe and just about everyone else; rarely is there a segment where a character’s motivation is presented outright. Even a bloody crime scene that constantly replays in Nishi’s head is a ballet of blood and slow motion that remains just another surreal piece of the mind of Nishi being warped over and over again by his dire situations.


Despite the fact that it’s consistently intriguing in its shifting morals and ambiguity, Fireworks can’t escape that it hits the occasional slow or repetitive patch where the patient storytelling by Kitano overstays its welcome and a jolt of energy comes a bit too late. But Fireworks is a truly creative cinematic endeavor that is really pretty hard to talk about without spoiling a bit of its charm; the basic plot outline sounds like something you’ve heard tenfold over but the turns the story eventually takes are surprising, intelligent and poetic.


The Japanese title actually says all that needs to be said; the Japanese character for “fireworks” literally translates into “fire” and “flower”. Fire designates a method of destruction, a bringer of death and chaos. But flowers (as Horibe sees over and over again in one heartbreaking montage) are representative of birth and renewal and in the way that these two interact is the way that life continues to cycle in an unpredictable fashion. What Kitano is able to do with Fireworks is make an undeniably beautiful film that says life is both beautiful and impossible to live and conveys this without too much sentimentality or brutality in an ending that can only be remarked as truly sublime.


Rating: ★★★☆


-Andrew Guarini

One Response to ““Fireworks (Hana-bi)” – Andrew Guarini”

  1. Papa Larry H Says:

    What year was” FIREWORKS” made? Just curious. I may give this film a look at. It sounds like there is more actual acting in it than the usual butt-kicking, bone-breaking, bad audio/video sync, one has come to expect from Japanese films. Is it available on Netflix? We will see how on the mark you are with your review. Thanks for your time. Papa Larry H

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