I’ve seen a few odd Kitano movies here and there but this one feels like the real deal. There’s a cut early on, from the flame of a lighter to the explosion of a gunshot, that really made me sit up and take notice. The mode of direction here is spartan, expressionistic and blunt. It’s one of those films where everything feels deliberate, the work of a director in command of his technique. I haven’t seen every film Kitano directed leading up to it, but Hana-bi certainly feels like a first masterpiece.
Like most of Kitano’s signature movies, Hana-bi is about a violent man in search of a soul. Nishi (Kitano) used to be a police detective, now he borrows money from the yakuza to pay for his wife’s medical bills. We get this information in drips and drabs. It is structured around memories, almost Roeg-ian in it’s fragmentation but more zen. The frame is rarely in motion but the visuals are striking enough to pierce you. Kitano frequently cuts to shots abstract artwork to convey a psychology making the film far more experimental than it may first appear. It’s seductive and mildly transcendent. The film can burst into sudden violence but it can also rest on a landscape of a peaceful sea view. Kitano’s hand is always steady and he never lets story run away with him. There are a flurry of supporting roles, but it never ceases to be about Kitano.
Reading about Kitano’s own personal troubles before he made Hana-bi (he had a motorcycle accident rendering half of his face paralysed) the film makes more sense. It is clearly made by a man who has seen his own demise in one way or another and accepts that he is not immortal. There’s a peace to this film, a knowingand acceptance of something that is present even in the most violent moments. Everything that happens feels inevitable. When a character is suddenly attacked, the cutting doesn’t become frenetic, the camera remains in position and we see the moments of silence after the violence that somehow feels more true to life than a barrage of bloody cuts. It’s a beautiful film to take in, orchestrated primarily through minor keys but it’s final impact is nothing short of major. Near enough a perfect film.