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FIREWORKS (Hana-Bi)(director/writer: Takeshi Kitano; cinematographer: Hideo Yamamoto; editor: Yoshinori Ota; cast: Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Yoshitaka Nishi), Kayoko Kishimoto (Miyuki), Ren Osugi (Horibe) Susumu Terajima (Nakamura), Tetsu Watanabe (Tezuka); Runtime: 103; Milestone Film; 1997-Jap.)
“This highly original film is at times a masterpiece and at other times it seems like a grade B-movie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director, acting star and artist, Takeshi Kitano, has broken ground from traditional films by taking risks and coming up with a film that defies classification. It sways between the two extremes of violence and tenderness; and, as the Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman so astutely states: “Fireworks seems to be a cross between Ozu’s Late Spring and Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry.”

Kitano is not noted for his films having good plot development and for understanding women. His forte is in the raw nerve of his films and the stark beauty of the cinematography. One should expect the unexpected. The violence is brutal and the story is fast-paced. For his effort in this film he has won the Grand Prize at Venice, the first time a Japanese film has done this since Rashomon (1950).

Nishi (Kitano) is part of a police stakeout of local gangsters with his partner, Horibe (Osugi), and two younger detectives. But Horibe tells Nishi to visit his hospitalized leukemia-stricken wife, Miyuki (Kishimoto), and dismisses the other two policemen. This turns out to be a bad move and Horibe is paralyzed by the gangsters. The narrative is told in flashbacks so any part of Nishi’s life could pop up on the screen and what would seem like a commonplace crime story unfolding, deceptively turns out to be much more than that. Nishi gets revenge on the gangsters who did this to his friend. The director is unafraid of bringing untold graphic violence to the screen. One of the punk gangsters, has a pencil stuck in his eye. But if that was all this film was about, the Dirty Harry description of the film would have been completely apropos.

Feeling responsible for Horibe and grieving for his wife, the film turns into a road movie and becomes more sensitive. The detective escorts his wife to the sights she wants to see for the last time, leaving him to wonder why she would choose to see snow before dying. He shows great tenderness toward his friend Horibe, and in his taciturn manner (he is not a man who likes conversation) he sends him art materials so he can somehow keep his mind occupied during the suicidal period he is going through. We see some magnificently colorful Surrealist drawings, which are the actual drawings of Kitano. In between these grand gestures, he violently confronts the gangsters responsible for his friend’s condition.

This highly original film is at times a masterpiece and at other times it seems like a grade B-movie. It is difficult for me to penetrate what it all means as far as a commentary on Japanese culture but the Japanese critics have been critical of his attacks on Japanese conformity, while the Japanese public accepts him as a popular performer and stage comedian; though, his films have not been as well-received in Japan as they have been in foreign countries. As far as I am concerned I prefer Ozu, I am more taken with his intellect, his humanity, and personal perspective. But I can appreciate the artistic direction Kitano is taking his violent subject matter to. I found this volatile film to be something that is visually special, but something I can’t completely comprehend because I don’t really know what he is trying to say.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”