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Known domestically as Fireworks, 1997's Hana-Bi stars writer/director Takashi Kitano as Yoshitaka Nishi, a former police officer who is plagued with guilt for what has happened to those around him. His one-time partner, Horibe (Ren Osugi) has been left crippled after a stakeout that they were involved with went wrong, while another officer, Tanaka (Makoto Ashikawa), was shot dead in that same altercation. This incident has led to Nishi's retirement from the force. If that weren't enough, his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) is terminally ill, suffering from a form of cancer that doesn't leave her with very much time left. This news comes shortly after the death of their child. Nishi's life is a mess.
When the Yakuza he borrowed money from to help with Miyuki's medical bills decides that it's time to collect, Nishi decides that he really doesn't have much choice other than to rob a bank. This, he hopes, will allow him to come up with enough money to pay off the Yakuza. Additionally he wants to help Horibe, now separated from his wife and hoping to start painting, and Tanaka's widow (Yûko Daike). More importantly, Nishi also hopes to use the money to take his wife on a trip across the country to ensure that their last days together are spent not in sadness but in joy. Determined, Nishi comes up with a plan for the robbery and he pulls it off. With that out of the way, he follows his plan and does what he wanted to do with the money. Soon enough, the police, led by Nakamura(Susumu Terajima), and the Yakuza, hoping to get more cash out of Nishi, figure out who pulled this off and start closing in on him.
Kitano is clearly working through personal something with this picture, the film that finally got him the type of serious recognition in his native Japan as he'd been receiving internationally for some years at this point. Incorporating a lot of the paintings that he himself had created in the two or three years prior after getting into a motorcycle accident and suffering partial paralysis in his face, the film was not short on critical acclaim, winning the Golden Lion award at the 1997 Venice Film Festival. Here is a picture that boldly defies genre expectations, that sees the director stick within the Yakuza film genre he's made a name for himself with on earlier projects while at the same time treading new ground. As both police and gangsters alike start to circle around Nishi, you expect one thing, but get another (won't want to spoil this for anyone who hasn't seen it). But that other thing? The one you don't expect? It suits what's come before so perfectly that in hindsight it seems obvious. This is a smart, personal and emotionally involving picture, one that deals not in vengeance but in redemption.
The pacing of the film is deliberate, if not downright slow at times, but that doesn't mean it's dull. Kitano uses these slower moments to build mood and to build atmosphere and to expand on character development. Scenes that show Nishi pushing his wife around in a wheelchair might not be what action or Yakuza movie fans expect, but they're important to what Kitano is doing with this picture. As is typical of a lot of his work, the cinematography is often times very painterly. By employing this technique, which mirrors some of the paintings featured in the picture, we get a lot of static shots, often times shot very wide so that we can take in the environment that the characters inhabit. It results in some very striking and memorable compositions. Joe Hisaishi's score, his forth collaboration with Kitano, is also excellent.
As to the director's use of violence, a trademark of many of his efforts particularly when dealing with cops and Yakuza, is once again very blunt. Kitano uses violence in his film as a sort of visual punctuation, a method to put a finish on a statement. When it happens in his movies it usually happens very quickly and often times when viewers least expect it. This gives his work an unpredictability that serves is well and Hana-Bi sees this trend continue. The performances are excellent across the board. Not just Kitano himself, bringing his trademark world weariness and impish sense of humor to Nishi, but the entire cast. They all do excellent work, creating believable and very human characters.
Hana-Bi arrives on a 50GB Blu-ray from Film Movement framed at 1.85.1 widescreen in an AVC encoded transfer. The transfer here is very good. There aren't any issues with compression artifacts thanks to the solid bit rate and the image appears to be free of any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement. Any print damage that shows up is minor, and color reproduction is pretty good and black levels really well handed too. Skin tones look nice and natural and there's quite a bit of depth to the image. Detail is strong, a big improvement over DVD editions, as it texture. No complaints here, this is a really nice transfer.
The only audio option provided is a Japanese language LPCM 2.0 with removable subtitles available in English only. The lossless track on this disc sounds fine. Levels are nicely balanced throughout and the score has good depth to it in spots, as do the occasional sound effects used throughout. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion and dialogue stays clean and clear from start to finish.
The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary with Rolling Stone film critic David Fear. He basically walks us through the film offering up a mix of critical analysis and trivia, talking up Kitano's acting and directing style as well as how this film compares to some of the director's other films that deal with Yakuza. Additionally, the disc includes a half hour long vintage making-of featurette that is primarily made up of behind the scenes footage showing Kitano and his cast and crew at work on the picture. This gives us a glimpse into his directing style and what it might have been like on set during the production. Menus and chapter selection are also included.
Film Movement has also provided a color insert booklet that features an essay on the film written by Jasper Sharp that provides some analysis and insight into the film and what makes it work as well as it does.
Hana-Bi is an excellent film, one of Takeshi Kitano's finest cinematic achievements and an excellent mix of very human drama with some startling scenes of underworld tension. Film Movement's Blu-ray release looks and sounds excellent and contains a few nice supplements as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.