In "Hana-Bi", Kitano "Beat" Takeshi?s rich images show a violent,
bad-mannered Japan. Tony Rayns views the gun-play.
15 April 1997 The Azalea Mall is indistinguishable from thousands of
other underground shopping precincts in Japan - which must be the main reason
Kitano Takeshi chose it as a location. That, and the fact that it?s "suburban"
enough to be fairly quiet by the time the shops close at 9pm. The mall is
actually a commercial exploitation of one of the exits from Kawasaki Station.
This month it?s experiencing the "Azalea Receipt Campaign": the commuters who
flock through it twice a day can win the chance to attend a hotel dinner and
jazz concert if they spend Y30,000 (around ?150) in its shops and fast-food
restaurants in a month.
It?s a 75-minute drive to Kawasaki from Tokyo in producer Mori Masayuki?s
Mercedes van. We arrive around 7pm to find the crew hard at work preparing for
the shoot. The site needs very little modification other than a few extra
lights; the main work is to build a fake newspaper/confectionery stand and dress
it with the appropriate stock. By the time Kitano himself arrives, around 7.30,
it?s almost finished.
The title printed on the script is simply "Kitano Volume 7". Many of the crew
are wearing "Kitano Volume 6" jackets; most are obviously Kitano regulars. The
only key person missing is cinematographer Yanagijima Katsumi, on a year
sabbatical in London; his place is taken by his former assistant Yamamoto Hideo,
here debuting as a DoP.
The scene, I discover, marks a turning point in the story. Detective Nishi
(played by Kitano himself) is brought to the mall by his colleague Nakamura
(Terajima Susumu, a fixture in the Kitano "stock" company). They join Detective
Tanaka (Ashikawa Makoto, the corruptible rookie in Violent Cop), who has
followed an armed criminal (ex-champion boxer Yakushiji Yasuei) to the mall.
Their target has earlier shot an seriously wounded Nishi?s closest friend on the
force, Horibe (Osugi Ren). The criminal is now hanging loose in the Caf? de
Azal?e. While Nakamura and Tanaka watch him from one side, Nishi conceals
himself in the news kiosk at the other end of the mall. The criminal leaves the
caf? and by chance approaches the kiosk. Nishi throws himself across the counter
and brings the criminal down, but the man punches him in the face and knocks him
aside. Nakamura and Tanaka rush forward and throw themselves on the criminal; he
pulls a gun and shoots them both as they try to subdue him on the ground.
Nakamura is grievously wounded and Tanaka is killed. Nishi pulls out his own gun
and shoots the criminal in the head. He picks himself up and rolls the man?s
head underfoot to reassure himself that he?s dead. An then he fires all his
remaining bullets into the courpse.
Filming begins as soon as the shops close; the Caf? de Azal?e and its
neighbours on either side remains open for the production, to preserve the
appearance of a functioning shopping mall, and extras begin parading up and down
in front of them. Although commuters leaving the station go on passing through
the mall until its gates close at midnight, the shooting goes smoothly. Kitano
checks all the shots through the camera viewfinder himself and uses a stand-in
to line up the shots in which he will appear as an actor. He almost always gets
what he wants on the first or second take. The only hiccup comes when lighting
director Takaya Hitoshi loudly upbraids the assistant director for his wrangling
of the extras; Takaya thinks they?re all walking at the same pace and need to be
instructed to behave more like the real passers-by.
By midnight, eight shots are in the can and the crew is ready to start
shooting the climatic fight. Because this will involve gunshot effects, all are
anxious to get the shots on the first take; cleaning up and recostuming the
actors would be a hassle no one needs. And, of course, safety considerations
dictate that time be taken over wiring up the actors with the "blood" and
explosives which will simulate the effect of bullets. As a result, the last part
of the sequence takes longer to shoot than the rest put together; it will e 5am
before the very weary crew totters out into the morning light.
Now Kitano does without his stand-in. He does one rehearsal for the shot in
which Nishi throws himself from the news-stand to tackle and floor the bad guy;
he wears concealed knee-pads, but manages to gash his shin. There?s only a short
pause for first aid before he goes into the take proper. This time it goes well;
both actors crash to the concrete floor without injury. Kitano checks the shot
on the video playback and declares himself satisfied. The next few shots are
comparatively straightforward. There?s a close-up of the woman who runs the
news-stand reacting to Nishi?s leap across her counter: one of these fleeting
vignettes which give Kitano?s films so much of their flavour and resonance.
There?s a shot of the criminal punching Nishi aside as they lie tangled on the
floor. And there?s the slow-motion shot (from Nishi?s POV) of Nakamura and
Tanaka running in to hurl themselves on the criminal before he can get up. No
stunt men or doubles are involved.
Everything slows down as soon as the characters draw guns. First Terajima and
Ashikawa have to be wired up for the shots in which close-range bullets go right
through their bodies. Then Yakushiji is readied for the more complicated shot in
which Nishi?s first bullet hits the middle of his forehead and splatter hits the
wall behind him as he drops. It takes the make-up crew nearly an hour to conceal
the small explosive charge on his forehead; evidently his darkish complexion,
set off by his hair colour (like 50 per cent of other young males in Tokyo,
Yakushiji has dyed his hair auburn), is hard to match. But the long and careful
preparation pays off: the first take is fine. Now the only shots left to get are
those in which Nishi picks himself up, checks the corpse and uploads his gun
into it. As dawn breaks above ground, the crew begins the clean-up operation.
The hardest part is washing the fake blood of the mall floor. The actors retreat
to a room normally reserved for mall staff, to get out of their torn and
gore-soaked clothes and wash themselves down. There are no Hollywood-style
frills or luxuries on a Kitano set.
17 April Two days later, Kitano invites me to meet him at Aoi Studios
in Roppongi, where the film is being edited. His work routine is determined y
his commitments to television (he currently hosts or appears on seven shows a
week); he records a fortnight?s-worth of programmes one week and then works on
the film the next. This pattern of alternating weeks will be maintained until
the film is finished. He has edited all his own films since A Scene at the
Sea (Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi, 1991), and this one is no
exception. He spends time in the cutting-room whenever the shooting schedule
permits, editing the rushes as they come back from the lab.
Even knowing this, it was a surprise to find myself in the Aoi screening room
watching a fine-cut of what I?d seen being shot only 40 hours ago. It brought
the shoot?s well-oiled efficiency into perspective: Kitano obviously had the
entire sequence planned out before he started, and shot precisely what he
needed. The sequence was not so much edited as assembled: the editing took place
mentally or on paper before he shot a frame.
He shows me around 30 minutes of edited material, all of it very promising.
It?s already clear that this film, whatever it?s eventually called, will mark a
return to the cool expressionism of Sonatine after the detours into
comedy in Getting Any? And stylised social realism in Kids
25 July Back in Tokyo to finalise programme selections for the Vancouver and
London Film Festivals. "Kitano Volume 7" is now known as Hana-Bi and it?s
top of my list of must-see films. Hanabi is Japanese for "fireworks"; by
printing it in the Roman alphabet and dividing it with a hyphen, Kitano
separates it into its constituent parts hana (flower) and bi (fire). This
implies a dichotomy which turns out to run through the film. Flowers are a
prominent visual motif, not only connoting the natural world but also
representing mysterious keys to hidden reaches of the mind. Fire is less present
visually, but obviously connotes the current of suppressed rage and hatred which
occasionally erupts in spasms of intense violence. Fireworks as such put in one
brief appearance in the story, echoed in one of the paintings which appear
throughout; they are seen as poignant reminders of the transient joys of family
togetherness, already lost in the past.
The story-structure is a-chronological. We discover only gradually how the
shooting incident in Azalea Mall changes Detective Nishi?s life, obliging him to
resign from the police and to rethink his own life and all of his social and
moral commitments. In fact the entire film is a process of discovery. There are
no orthodox establishing scenes, and Kitano penchant for marginal but revealing
episodes and narrative ellipses forces us to work to put pieces together for
ourselves. This is true both for the storyline itself (it?s some way into the
film, for instance, that we know for sure that Nishi?s wife Miyuki has a
terminal illness, and that they have recently lost a young daughter) and for the
non-narrative elements (such as the oblique, symbiotic relationship between the
crippled Horibe?s paintings and Nishi?s life, constructed entirely through
At heart, Hana-Bi is the story of a deeply troubled man making one
last mock-heroic effort to sort out the mess he has made of his life. In this
respect it?s rather like a male, noir variant on Imamura?s The Ballad of
Narayama (Narayama Bushi-ko). Nishi tries to make his dying wife
happy by giving her a second honeymoon, tries to do right by his best friend
after he?s confined to a wheelchair and contemplating suicide, tries to console
and support Tanaka?s young widow (because he blames himself for Tanaka?s death)
and settles some old scores with enemies in the yakuza underworld. By the end of
the film he?s ready to make his own exit as a more-or-less justified man -
although the film dispassionately shows how some of his aims are misguided and
others are little better than copouts. It?s the overriding sense that Nishi?s
best efforts are not always good enough that makes the film so moving.
All of Nishi?s would-be good deeds, from the purchase of a beret and painting
materials for Horibe to the offering of assorted criminal riff-raff, are
financed by robbing a bank, the act which turns Nishi himself into a criminal on
the run. This, typically, is presented in a series of oblique-angled scenes
which only gradually add up to a narrative. First we see what appears to be a
road-rage vignette: a burly, thuggish man intimidates and humiliates a nerd
whose car he has dented. The thug turns out to be the proprietor of a scrapyard;
his only employee is a glue-sniffing tomboy who does no work. The relevance of
all this becomes apparent when Nishi turns up in the scrapyard, wanting to buy
some flashing roof lights salvaged from a wrecked police card; he charms the
proprietor by telling him that he plans to rob a bank, and later talks him into
selling him a stolen taxi at a knock-down price. Later still, Nishi is seen
respraying the taxi to turn it into a phoney police car; he uses it (off-screen)
for his getaway from the bank after carrying out the robbery, an episode shown
largely on one of the bank?s security video monitors. The scrapyard proprietor
is last seen reading about the hold-up in a newspaper and reflecting that he
should have charged Nishi more for the "hot" taxi.
This sequence of events, interwoven with several other strands of plot,
exemplifies Kitano?s method in the film: a mixture of apparent digression, wry
character sketches and strategically withheld information which (while pushing
the storyline forward) transforms a generic plot mechanism into a gradual
revelation of Nishi?s way of thinking. Piecemeal, it provides everything
necessary for the viewer to construct a psychological profile of the
protagonist, including a clear sense of the milieu which shaped him and in which
he operates - a milieu, needless to add, marginal to the comforting orthodoxies
of Japan Inc.
The other key element in play in Hana-Bi is painting. Kitano took up
painting during the convalescence from his near-fatal accident in 1994, and his
pictures are ubiquitous in the film. He executed all the paintings supposedly
produced by Horibe (many of them surreal images of animals with flowers for
eyes), and his pictures also decorate many of the film?s main settings. The
yakuza gang?s HQ, for instance, is illuminated by the elegantly framed picture
of a bath-house line-up of naked, tattooed yakuza, each caricatured down to the
size and state of arousal of his penis. The placing of Kitano?s "private" images
in social contexts helps deflect any attempt to read Hana-Bi as a
social-realist drama. The film itself is a very broad canvas, stretching from
suburban Tokyo to rural Hokkaido and encompassing dozens of vividly drawn
supporting characters as it builds its picture of an "alternative", bad-mannered
Japan. But the film?s gaze is always directed inward, and it?s Kitano?s
paintings which provide the clues to things beneath the surface.
The prominence of the paintings and of visual signifiers in general meshes
with the extreme sparseness of the dialogue to make Hana-Bi as expressive
as a late silent movie. Nishi himself is Kitano?s most taciturn screen character
yet (he never says a word where a look will do), and his wife Miyuki, bearing
her physical pain like a true stoic, utters precisely one word: a climactic,
heartfelt "thank you" to her husband for his efforts to recreate not only the
itinerary but also the emotions of their honeymoon. In a sense, this aligns
Nishi and Miyuki with the central couple in A Scene at the Sea, who never
spoke to each other or anyone else because they were profoundly deaf; they
represented Kitano?s first attempt to engage with characters at a purely
Here, though, Nishi?s silence represents a willed retreat from the formalised
politeness of Japanese social intercourse; it suggests the character?s profound
conviction that nothing truly worth expressing can be reduced to words. One of
the film?s understated dramatic coups is how it shows Detective Nakamura
gradually becoming another Nishi as he tracks Nishi and Miyuki across Japan to
bring his former superior to book for the bank robbery and the murder of several
yakuza. Nakamura is accompanied by Itsumi Taro?s somewhat loudmouthed rookie,
much as Nakamura himself once accompanied Nishi, and the junior?s misjudged
jibes and questions provoke a silence from Nakamura which matches Nishi?s own.
Terajima Susuma handles this superbly, giving arguable the films finest
performance; his account of Nakamura eloquently suggests what made Nishi so
taciturn to begin with.
31 July To Office Kitano in Akasaka for a snatched meeting with
Kitano: a chance to ask him a few basic questions about the film as it?s readied
for competition in Venice (where it will go on to win the Golden Lion). He
arrives as "Beat" Takeshi, fresh from a hard day taping two shows in the
television studios, and maintains what his Japanese fans would recognise as the
"Takeshi edge" as we talk. The interview opposite is not the voice of Kitano the
increasingly thoughtful auteur but the voice of a very busy jobbing
[...continues in Silent
Japanese names throughout in the traditional form: surnames first.
Grateful thanks to Mori Masayuki and Hayashi Kanako - and to Usui Naoyuki for
translation. "Hana-Bi" will be released next year