Hana-Bi (Fireworks) didn't have quite the impression it had on me when I first saw it at the cinema some 13 odd years ago, but then I've seen a lot of films in those 13 years, not to mention most of Kitano's back catalogue. It's not quite the existential odyssey I remembered it to be, but its quality still shines through.
Hana-Bi is a bridge between Kitano's earlier yakuza films like Boiling Point and Sonatine and artier fare like Dolls. It still has moments of explicit violence but is essentially a subtler, more meditative film - albeit a less focused one. Once again, Kitano is lead actor as well as director, here playing Nishi; a cop who leaves his job to go away on a road trip with his dying wife, Miyuki. Running parallel to this is the story of Horibe - his old partner on the force, who was shot in the line of duty and is now semi-paralyzed; wheelchair-bound and alone. Horibe tries to find new meaning in life through painting, taking a different path across the wilderness to Nishi but ultimately arriving at the same bleak point.
In the scenes with Nishi and his wife, there's a convincing sense of long-abiding intimacy, but little dialogue between them - perhaps because there's nothing left to be said at this point in their lives. The comfortable silences and Nishi's compassion (made all the more striking by his violent run ins with the yakuza loan sharks who haunt his final days) have an emotional resonance that doesn't really need any exposition. Hisaishi's elegiac score has its own pull on the heart strings as well.
As is always the case with Kitano, the imagery of the film is deliberate and meticulous. The lingering stills of his own paintings are mysterious signifiers. What exactly do the stamen-headed creatures symbolize? The painting of fireworks, echoing the bittersweet sentiment of the film's title, seems to be about the lives of the protagonists - transient, vibrant, exploding into oblivion.
Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 1997