Hana-Bi (1997) Movie Review

Detective Nishi (Takeshi Kitano) is having a very bad week. It starts with the death of his 4-year old daughter, which leads to his wife’s hospitalization and discovery that she has terminal cancer, and while visiting his wife, Nishi’s partner, and best friend Horibe (Ren Osugi), who Nishi left at a stakeout to visit his wife, is shot by a crazed killer and paralyzed, which leads Nishi to track the killer and eventually kill him, but not before the killer takes out another fellow detective. After this kind of a week, how could things possibly get any worst? Well, ladies and gentlemen, since this is a Beat Takeshi movie, it does get worst. Much worst.

For whatever reason, Nishi is no longer a cop. Maybe it’s because he emptied his gun into the crazed killer, or because Nishi quit. It’s never clear why he’s no longer a cop. Kitano, also the writer/director, employs very subtle exposition. You won’t know what’s going on unless you listen to every single line of dialogue that is spoken. As is the case with the two Kitano movies I’ve seen (this one and 1988’s Violent Cop), there is very little dialogue going on within the movie, so when someone says something, it’s a good bet you better listen or you’re going to miss a lot of exposition material. Kitano is going for less is more.

To be honest, Kitano’s Nishi is a doppelganger for the cop he played in Violent Cop. Kitano doesn’t seem to really care about “being different” when it comes to character. His characters look the same, act the same, has the same facial tick — in essence, Kitano isn’t playing different characters, he’s playing himself under assume names. Kitano’s Nishi is a violent man and is prone to sudden moments of physical and bloody violence.

The entire movie, like Violent Cop, is filmed in a languid, even slow, pace. Everything has their time and moment, and after a series of sequences where nothing seems to be happening, Kitano throws a bloody scene to jar us out of our lapsed state. When the rest of the movie seems to be moving at a snail’s pace, the sudden introduction of violence and blood is surprising and has tremendous impact. I believe Kitano knows this, and this is why he continues to employ the same technique. Lull the audience into a sense of security, a sense of calmness, and then hit them with a hammer when they least expect it. It works.

The rest of Hana-bi’s plot concerns Nishi as he attempts to care for his ill wife, who he treats, and who acts, more like a child than a grown woman. The two rarely talk, and in fact their longest conversation is towards the end of the film. Besides Nishi’s caring of his wife, the movie intercuts between two other subplots. One involves Horibe, Nishi’s partner, who is paralyzed in a wheelchair after being shot. Horibe’s life is a mess, since his wife has packed up and taken their daughter immediately after he returned home from the hospital.

Now alone and without much to do, Horibe is a lost soul looking for a reason to keep living. The movie follows his struggles to remain anchored to life and intercuts it with a second subplot concerning a loan shark that Nishi borrows money from after leaving the force. After Nishi comes into some money, the loan shark decides he wants his share, and brings trouble in Nishi’s direction.

The one thing that makes Hana-bi different from Violent Cop is its inclusion of humor. Expect the unexpected. Much of the movie’s comedy comes from unexpected situations, as when Nishi and his wife are about to take a photo via a camera set on remote, and as the camera is about to snap, a van drives by. It’s completely unexpected moments like that in Hana-bi that gives the movie a much-needed lighter side. While not as nihilistic as Violent Cop, Hana-bi is still permeated with the sense of doom. People gets killed without notice and shootouts are as brisk and unexpected as the comedy.

This is not to say Hana-bi is a great film. Oh no. I think it’s a good film, but far from great. After watching two of Kitano’s movies, I have developed something of a problem with his style. His interpretation of the main characters (Kitano himself) leaves a lot to be desired. As presented to the audience, Kitano’s main character is almost always more machine than human.

While I believe Kitano is a talented actor, I don’t know how many times I would want to pop in a copy of his movies only to see him staring back at me with shades on. While I appreciate the presence of humor in this movie, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve seen it all before. Maybe it’s time to try something new, Kitano.

Takeshi Kitano (director) / Takeshi Kitano (screenplay)
CAST: Takeshi Kitano …. Yoshitaka Nishi
Kayoko Kishimoto …. Miyuki
Ren Osugi …. Horibe
Susumu Terajima …. Nakamura
Tetsu Watanabe …. Tesuka

Buy Hana-Bi on DVD