Hana-Bi can be considered quintessential Kitano, and is one of his most acclaimed, and most frequently acclaimed, works. It was made after Kitano’s brush with death in a motorcycle accident that left him partially paralysed for a time, and carries the painful awareness of irrevocable loss that I’ve come to associate with Kitano films.
Kitano is probably best known as a director of yakuza films, or at least is perceived that way. While there is a certain amount of gangster action in this one, handled with the usual brutal thoroughness, it is not the main focus. Hana-Bi portrays the journey of a couple across Japan, revisiting old haunts and discovering new. Nishi, Kitano’s character, is a tough cop with a robust attitude to police brutality, but he softens into what is clearly an accustomed gentleness while travelling with his dying wife.
The beauty of this film is the evocation of lasting love without any overt romantic manifestations. We’ve come to expect a complete narration of plot, and full disclosure of any emotions, and regard the fizzing lust of two hormone-ridden teenagers (Romeo and Juliet) as the epitome of true love. But Kitano moves us in ways we don’t expect: his couple have been together for years, and are as undemonstrative as any long-married couple. But the love is still there, and still heartbreakingly clear, more visible in the tiny gestures than any impassioned declarations could ever be. Nishi’s wife, Miyuki, steals his dessert with an impish smile, and laughs at him when he falls on his arse, while Nishi clumps along impassively, but their ease with each other speaks louder than words.
As with other Kitano films, subsidiary characters contribute their vignettes to the picture Kitano paints: indeed, Kitano did paint the pictures in this film, oddly touching naïve art mixing flowers and animals, hopeful children and starbursts. There’s actually very little that Kitano doesn’t do, and most of it he does exceedingly well.
I can only recommend this film highly, and hope that you will find it as moving, and complex, and thought-provoking, as I did. It’s a film well worth a dozen viewings, and it improves each time.