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 Return.

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 montage).

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 non-verbal level.

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 actor-director-television star.

[...continues in Silent Running ]

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

By Tony Rayns (Sight and Sound, December 1997, page 26-29). All rights are reserved by Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound and The British Film Institute (BFI). The article is reproduced by with the kind permission by Tony Rayns.