Monday, June 25, 2012

Hana-bi (Takeshi Kitano, 1997)

It took some time for me to catch up with Takeshi Kitano. For the past five years now, I've been an avid fan of Japanese cinema. The first works which grasped me were the radical visions of the Japanese New Wave, the most inventive directors of which were Shuji Terayama, Susumu Hani, and Yoshishige Yoshida. It was these works which planted my feet in that country's cinema and culture. Like most Americans, I had been first exposed to Japan through their electronic exports, mostly in the form of Sony and Nintendo products. Then the early 2000's came, and a flood of new anime and manga titles came with it. Though I had been familiar with anime from some of the Saturday morning releases on the Sci-Fi Channel, which introduced me Akira.

So here come the 1990's. At first glance, there seems to be little from the 90's in Japan to be desired from, at least cinematically speaking. Even for a hunter like me, I cannot come up with a bevy of works to boast the strength of the 90's. While the work then was strong, it was not the steady torrent of mind-bogglingly good features from the 60's which seemed to end as the Art Theatre Guild caught on commercially and studio directors like Kaneto Shindo and Yasuzo Masumura were invited to produce features for it (Kokoro and Ongaku). Of the 90's pictures I have seen, the ones which immediately stand out are Hitoshi Yazaki's March Comes in Like a Lion, Ryu Murakami's Tokyo Decadence, Kohei Oguri's The Sting of Death, and of course, Hirokazu Koreeda's Maboroshi no hikari. These are all spaced about three or four years amongst each other, so it seems as if the early 90's had something of a force behind it. And while I do count Shunji Iwai as a favorite, his film Swallowtail Butterfly, the favorite of mine, did not leave as much of a strong impression upon me as the ones mentioned above.

And now comes Kitano. With this background in J-film (excepting the pre-war, 30's films, which I'm not well familiar with), I may have had something of a bias against Kitano, who I knew frequently delved into the world of yakuza, and held immense popularity in his country. The yakuza aspect must have inferred that he used violence as a cheap thrill, which had been a firm no-no in my book. And being American, and having to suffer under Hollywood, I was always suspicious of a filmmaker who seemed to get too much critical and popular praise.

Well, now here comes Hana-bi. It was a great film, of course, and shattered all my prejudices. Like Violent Cop, which Hana-bi is something of a reworking of, it is a meditation on the effects of violence. My biggest problem with some filmmakers, and this especially goes to Sam Peckinpah, is the lenient handling of violence, often to a titillating, near pornographic effect. This is the great flaw of Hollywood as well. No maturity in handling life-altering actions.

I recall something Alfred Hitchcock said in an interview, that if you filmed a man walking down the street, and ahead of him was an open manhole pit, that if you showed him fall into the sewer, and cut to the next scene, then it would be funny. But if you showed him fall, then cut to him inside the pit, screaming in pain with a broken leg, then it would not be funny. So the director's attitude can be surmised from what details he is willing to omit.

The whole course of Hana-bi follows the suffering of a few people after a random violent act. When a stakeout goes wrong, Horibe (Ren Osugi) is paralyzed from the waist down, and Nishi (Takeshi Kitano) quits the force. The two go their separate ways, Horibe taking up pointillist illustrations from his wheelchair (as Kitano did three years prior when he was in a motorcycle accident), while Nishi takes care of his sickly wife, Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto), and deals with his creditors, who happen to be yakuza. The two men try hard to rebuild their fractured state of their affairs, and only time will tell if these new lives of peace are salvageable.

The thing that elevates the picture above that of Kitano's previous six are a resolution, maybe a compromise, of two driving forces within his cinema. One, is clearly the legacy, the emotional baggage and societal engineering that growing up in poverty in Japan must have placed on him. This manifests itself as hyper-masculinity, violence, aloofness, and anti-social behavior (like the youths in Kids Return). This burden has been transformed by Kitano into the cold, stone-faced policemen and yakuza characters that we see in his oeuvre. And because he has been able to master it, to fictionalize it, it has become a tool of the artist.

The second current is the inner, Kitano's artistic sensibility and his sensitive nature, also an influence of the Japanese culture, but here being the calming effect of its arts heritage. This operates in his narrative work as a close attention to detail and an acute eye for composition. This impulse came fully realized in his first film, Violent Cop, as it was a strangely lyrical yakuza shoot-em-up piece.

Some critics have said that Japan constantly struggles between these two poles, the militaristic impulse, the masculine, and the love of nature and beauty, the arts, the feminine. The former drove it to war against the Allied Powers, and the latter is responsible for world-famous representations like The Tale of Genji and woodblock paintings. It was the first impulse, which unfortunately, drove Yukio Mishima to suicide, unable to cast away or master that burden.

Kitano, however, is under full control of it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have an artist who he admires, like Nobuyoshi Araki, who has completely thrown himself into the feminine artistic current and produced the beautiful, erotic, sometimes death-like photographs that he is known for. A man like Araki, to his credit, holds no guilt whatsoever, and this explains his rambunctious, charming, dirty-old man personality. Yet, unfortunately, this persona cannot operate within society the way Kitano has to. Araki does not hold the rational impulse that is expected of men, and especially of film directors, being stewards of millions of dollars of financiers' investments. And while I once strayed away from Takeshi because of his popularity, I now realize that part of it is dependent upon the burden which he has consciously chose to uphold, working in the commercial industry, something of a proper face that he must have to parrot around for the moneyed class.

Araki, I think, can more devote himself to his artistic pursuits, as he is usually just dependent upon models, lighting technicians, and costume/makeup girls, and not a studio infrastructure. In an interview about Araki in Travis Klose's Arakimentari, Kitano said something to the effect of this, "My art is painful, while he just seems to be having fun."


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