Fireworks (Hana-bi, 1997)

Director/Screenwriter/Star: Takeshi Kitano

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The hubby is the person whose enthusiasm for Takeshi Kitano got me into watching the works of this film entrepreneur extraordinaire. Using the stage name—Beat Takeshi—he still uses when acting, Kitano was one half of a popular comedy duo in Japan. He turned to filmmaking in 1989 with the film Violent Cop (Sono otoko, kyôbô ni tsuki), in which Kitano plays a cop who never met a rule he wouldn’t break to get results. Kitano frequently includes yakuza plotlines and characters in his films, but his seemingly endless imagination has never stopped exploring other ways of telling stories. The first Kitano film I saw, A Scene at the Sea (Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi), his third outing as a director, was a gentle, bittersweet tale without a yakuza in sight.

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Fireworks has some of Kitano’s trademarks—seaside scenes, yakuza, his own ensemble of actors—but strongly references the events and aftermath of his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1995. The film focuses on policemen Nishi (Kitano) and his long-time partner Horibe (Ren Oshugi) and the course of their lives following violent encounters with a yakuza gang. Nishi is a legendary cop with a tragic life—after his wife was diagnosed with fatal leukemia, their young daughter died. He has had to go to a yakuza loan shark to help pay for her medical care. Horibe pities Nishi, cherishing as he does his normal family life.

Hana-bi04.jpgOne day, Horibe approaches the stakeout car of two cops he and Nishi are training, telling them they will have to remain on stakeout longer than expected because Nishi must visit his wife. Nakamura (Susumu Terajima) says he has a date waiting for him across town. Horibe releases Tanaka because he is a family man and takes the duty alone. As he sits in the car, he calls home and talks to his wife and daughter. He learns from his daughter that she has drawn a picture. Comically, he listens to her and then opens his notebook to look inside. This is the last bit of normalcy in the film. In a quick shot, we see a yakuza with his hand wrapped in a newspaper, pointing his gun downward. Switch to a shot of Horibe on the ground, his hands impotently pushing at the air to shield himself. Bang.

The film plays with time and characters in a seemingly random fashion. Nishi talks with a woman, asking how she is. As well as can be expected; she has a part-time job now as a clerk in a deli. We learn what has happened in Shakespearean style, as two incidental characters confound our expectations of what happened and relate that Horibe has been crippled and that his wife and daughter left him. Tanaka has been killed; Nishi was talking with his widow. Nishi is no longer on the police force, having resigned in the wake of Horibe’s crippling injury and Tanaka’s murder at the hands of the yakuza soldier being watched. The latter event is revealed slowly in flashback.

Nishi visits Horibe. The former partners stare at the sea, and Nishi asks Horibe what he plans to do. Paint, he says, almost at random. We see Horibe alone on the sand looking down as the water splashes at the front wheels of his wheelchair. Two parallel lines in the sand trail behind the rear wheels.

Nishi plans to take care of everyone, from providing for Tanaka’s wife and his own to settling his debt to the loan shark and setting Horibe up with art supplies. How he does this is interesting and not without consequences. His ultimate goal is to be left alone to spend all his time with his wife in her remaining days.

Fireworks takes us far inside Takeshi’s creative process. For example, the responsibility Nishi assumes for his extended family of police officers and their families could very well mirror his regard for his regular collaborators on the screen and behind it. Beyond providing for those affected by the fall-out of the yakuza shooter, Nishi refuses to put Nakamura in a difficult position when he has to track down Nishi for the murders of the yakuza loan shark and his gang. He maintains his honor, even though he must now be regarded as a ruthless killer.

hanabi08.jpgHoribe is a stand-in for Kitano after his motorcycle accident. Months of recovery left the director time to learn how to paint. (All of the art in the movie is by Kitano.) We see Horibe regarding bunches of flowers and picturing animals and people with flower heads. The images are beautiful, alive, and meaningful, a reaffirmation of sorts of Horibe/Kitano’s desire to live and create. At one point, Horibe takes up a pointillist technique, producing an image interesting like Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of the Grande Jatte.” He refines this technique by substituting words for dots; the image at the beginning of this review has the Japanese pictogram for “star” forming the points of light in the sky. The bold, red word across this impressionistic landscape is “Suicide.” Horibe finishes the painting by splashing red on the canvas to resemble a blood spatter. This canvas certainly communicates not only the despair of many of the characters in Fireworks, but also that of Kitano as he mends and must come to terms with his disfigured face and noticeable limp. It also gives a graphic example of the rather pointillist construction of this film, in which the story assembles into a coherent whole from the out-of-sequence slices of life Kitano films.

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What lends the efficiently violent Nishi, and this film, its sad tenderness is the relationship between Nishi and his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto). Miyuki seems like a true innocent, enjoying simple pleasures like fishing and putting some wilted flowers in a vase and scooping water into the vase with her hand at the edge of the sea. The couple’s relationship is telegraphed in many intimate scenes. Nishi puts a sardine-sized fish on a stick and cooks it over a fire. He says, “Italian-style cooking,” and they both laugh, no doubt at some private joke this comment evokes. However, we don’t hear Miyuki speak until the very end of the film; rather Nishi “translates” her off-screen comments in his dialogue. He asks her why she wanted to see snow as they drive along a road plowed through a good 6 feet of snow. He stops and says, “Can’t you hold it?” Miyuki runs off into the snow, only to fall into a drift in one of the small comic moments Kitano peppers throughout the film.

Fireworks is an odd work that mixes almost cartoonish violence, comedy, and deep feeling to create a compelling and affecting film. “Beat” Takeshi Kitano is a wonderfully bold and original voice in world cinema who deserves your attention. l

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    16th/06/2008 to 8:31 am

    A Scene by the Sea is my favorite film by Kitano. I’ve seen a substantial number of his films. Fireworks was my first, seen theatrically. It wasn’t until I started seeing his films on DVD that I started to really appreciate his work though. I did take advantage of seeing his version of Zatoichi on the big screen. What I like is how he always goes in unexpected directions, both with the narrative, and with some of his visual choices.

  • Fox spoke:
    16th/06/2008 to 10:42 am

    Hey Marilyn-
    I whole-heartedly agree with your endorsement of Kitano. I think he brings a unique persepctive to violence and violence in movies. Then, as you said, he can shift into the sensitivities and humor of relationships.
    What’s constant is that great face of his. That blank stare isn’t really blank at all. With just a tweak here and there he can evoke anger, sadness, joy, or hilarity.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/06/2008 to 11:12 am

    Fox – Yes, he does have a great face! I didn’t think he looked that disfigured, but then, I never saw him before the accident in anything. The hubby has seen a lot of his stuff and said, “Oh yes, he’s disfigured!”
    Peter – I know what you mean about his multidirectional constructions, what I identify here as pointillism. I think he accomplishes a lot more with scenes like that than other directors could by using a minimalist approach to action and dialogue. I like the nearly wordless scenes; when the “payoff” comes (and I don’t mean that as something spectacular but rather the moment that drives the scene), it’s an unexpected delight.
    BTW, I thought the paintings were museum quality. I’d love to have one in my home.

  • Toronto realtor spoke:
    27th/07/2008 to 4:08 pm

    In Japan, this slightly loony bin of a man is an accomplished, if somewhat outrageous, writer, painter, director, and above all, comedian – and I can’t help but think “a well-rounded person” when I see his smirking face. I, for one, would welcome a similar presence in Toronto movies

  • Tim Cleminson spoke:
    11th/10/2011 to 4:42 am

    Just wanted to say that the red character in the centre is ‘Jiketsu’ which means self-determination. In the film suicide is the decision made, so in many ways the meaning is the same. However, jiketsu marks the moment of finality, the decision that stands out against the countless minutiae of the depressive inner landscape. Once the decision has been made fate is sealed.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/10/2011 to 8:42 am

    Tim – That is a wonderful bit of information and a very telling detail. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

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