I didn't realize how much I'd missed Japanese movies until I saw Takeshi Kitano's Hana-Bi at the Toronto Film Festival this fall, just a few days after it had won the Golden Lion in Venice. Here was a film, in the unlikely form of a violent crime thriller crossed with a domestic melodrama, that captured a sense of sublime transcendency not much felt since the golden age of Mizoguchi, Ozu and Naruse. Yet Kitano's sensibility remains resolutely modern; his is a world of jagged discontinuity, of harsh contrasts in tone and style, that is deeply indebted to post-war ironists like Oshima and Imamura.

In a sense, Kitano is the one-man embodiment of the great contemporary period the Japanese cinema never had, having been cheated of its economic base by Japan's early and enthusiastic embrace of American pop culture. Through there are certainly significant exceptions, such as Imamura's Cannes-winning The Eel and Tetsuo Shinohara's superb miniature Work on the Grass, most of the creativity in current Japanese filmmaking seems to be channelled into the world of the anime - the epic-length (barely) animated cartoons that center on the adventures of robot girls and cyber in a near, dystopic future. Ironically, a Japanese film - Masayuki Suo's Shall we Dance - has apparently become the highest-grossing Asian movie of all time in America, just at the moment when Japanese movies have all but disappeared from American theatres.

Hana-Bi certain has its American influences, though they have been so deeply absorbed, and for such a long time, that, in the case of the gangster/yakuza archetypes, they now seem as profoundly a part of Japanese culture as the tea ceremony. When Kitano's character, the renegade police detective Yoshitaka Nishi, appears in his de rigueur dark glasses, the references run from Lee Marvin to Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman.

Nishi himself is a highly evolved, cross-generic figure. Issuing monosyllabic statements from his frozen, masklike face (the result of a motorcycle accident suffered by Kitano three years ago, though surely exaggerated for the effect), he seems as stylised as a character in a Noh drama, and Kitano seems to be consciously playing on the sense that Nishi is contained by his body, that his stony physical aspect is a suit of armor he has strapped on to protect his soul. What begins as a Bronson-like impassivity in his regard becomes something more disturbing and yet more touching. Nishi's contained, hands-in-pockets stance suggests a man both coiled against the world and pulling away from it. An image at once of great violence and great vulnerability, a gunslinger and a child.

Hana-bi is structured around exactly that contradiction, beginning with the title: as Kitano told Michael Ciment in an interview in the November 1997 Posifit, hanabi, the Japanese word for "fireworks" contains the worlds flower (hana) and fire (bi); by separating the two components with a hyphen, Kitano means to emphasize the contrast of growth and consumption, of creation and destruction. As angry as Nishi is toward the criminals who killed one of his partners and crippled another, he is tender towards his wife, Miyuki (Kayoto Kishimoto), who, having lost her infant daughter to leukaemia (a repressed tragedy Kitano evokes simply by having Nishi pause to move a tricycle out of his way) is now herself dying of the same disease.

As extreme as the situations of Hana-Bi are - and there are moments here that would strain the eredulity of a daytime drama - its surface is placid and still. Dialogue is curt and perfunctory: Nishi speaks only in a subterranean rumble and his wife hardly at all. Takeshi seldom moves his camera: what movement there is within the frame is so sudden and violent (the astonishing moment when Nishi pokes a chopstick into the eye of a threatening yakuza) that it is often over before we can fully grasp what has happened. Instead of closing in on the violence, Takeshi retreats to a remote position - the camera remains outside and above the car in which Nishi executes a group of yakuza loan sharks. Or he represses violence entirely, as in the quiet, calmly observed bank robbery that gives Nishi the means to leave Tokyo for a final (and probably first) vacation trip with is dying wife. Similarly, the intimacy of Nishi's relationship to his wife is played out, not in the terms of physical affection (the couple seems almost eerily sexless) but in the childish games they share - a wooden puzzle, a card trick, a kite borrowed for a girl on the beach.

Hana-bi is above all a study in balance, as graceful and defiant as a Calder mobile. Nishi's story is told in counterpoint to that of Horibe (Ren Osugi), Nishi's ex-partner, who is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a shooting suffered while Nishi was stealing time to visit his wife. Abandoned by his wife and children, Horibe moved to a small house by the seashore, where, struck by the beauty of a flower shop display, he begins turning out a series of pointillist paintings made with a felt-tip pen. These images (actually created by Kitano) place heads fashioned out of flowers on the bodies of animals, yielding another level of thematic balance (animal and vegetal, active and passive - a dynamic that reflects the pair formed by Nishi and Horibe) while giving the director a base of vibrant color to play against the dominant blue-greys of his visuals.

Kitano moves back and forth in time with an exhilarating associative freedom. He circles back repeatedly to describe the fatal shooting that tool the life of Nishi's junior partner, Tanaka (Makoto Ashikawa), each time adding a bit more detail until, in the final flashback, our sense of what took place is suddenly (and almost literally) reversed. He moves forward, using Horibe's paintings to foreshadow not only his own fate, but also things that will happen to Nishi. The film's fulcrum point finds Nishi trying to put on a fireworks display for his wife (though his roman candle turns out, comically, to be a sputtering dud); Kitano then cuts to a painting by Horibe showing a small family (Nishi, his wife and their deceased daughter?) enjoying a spectacular display of hana-bi hung in the sky.

"For me," Kitano told Ciment, "the relationship between tenderness and violence is like the movement of a pendulum. The more gentle the man, the more he can become extremely cruel and brutal." The proposition may be psychologically debatable, but it does make for a rich formal principle, as Hana-Bi swings back and forth between savagery and soaring lyricism (a lyricism beautifully accented and extended by Joe Hisaishi's memorable string score, with its hints of Georges Delerue's work for Truffaut). The movie is at its most profound and provocative when it superimposes those moments, finding anger in love and a beauty in horror. When a passerby at the beach makes fun of Nishi's wife for watering dead flowers (a lovely image in itself of what Nishi is doing to his wife), Nishi turns on the skinny, bespectacled man and beats him unmercifully, holding his head under water until a cloud of blood forms around him. In the horror of the moment we read the depth of Nishi's feeling for his wife; each blow is also a caress. (Not to forget, either, Kitano's deft use of humor: a comic actor before he became a filmmaker, he places exquisitely timed physical gags, or broad strokes of character comedy, within his most dramatic contexts.)

This is hardly a scene one would expect to find in an Ozu film, yet the final passages of Hana-Bi, as the couple continues their travel-folder tour of Japan, moving from snow-capped Mount Fuji to sun-baked seashore, suggests nothing so much as the last reel of Ozu's Tokyo Story. Once again, two people who suddenly find themselves on the outside of life turn toward each other and discover, not without pleasure and relief, that their universe has grown very small. When Nishi and Miyuki arrive at the beach - a location fraught with meaning for Kitano, who has used beaches before in Sonatine and Scene by the Sea - they look out over the ocean; they see an infinity before them but realize they have no place to go. Ozu and the other great Japanese classicists concerned themselves with the sad acceptance of the world full of pain and disappointment; in the Sixties, Oshima and Imamura arrived at an angry rejection of a world now ruled by violence and horror. Kitano, the great equilibrist, balances these two traditions; in Hana-Bi, his characters achieve a furious peace.

By Dave Kehr and Gavin Smith (Film Comment March/April 1998). All rights are reserved by Dave Kehr, Gavin Smith and Film Comment. The article is reproduced by Kitanotakeshi.com with the kind permission by Dave Kehr and Gavin Smith.