Friday March 20, 1998
"Fireworks" is bracing and original, an indefinable film made from familiar elements. "Hana-Bi," its title in Japanese, is a combination of the words for "flower" and "fire," and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano has, in the same way, adroitly fused genres, creating a film in which almost every moment pops out in unexpected ways.
Nominally a crime story, and the first Japanese work to win the Grand Prize at Venice since "Rashomon" in 1950, "Fireworks" is much more than a hard-boiled film with a sense of humor. Elements of violence, comedy and sentiment so disparate it doesn't seem possible they belong to the same film are unified and made irresistible by an eccentric and unconventional structure that is Kitano's creation alone.
Kitano is a major media celebrity in Japan, where, among other things, he has published more than 50 books and hosts several TV shows. Besides writing, directing and editing "Fireworks," he created a series of paintings that are a key plot element and, utilizing his acting name of Beat Takeshi, portrays the unusual character who carries the film.
With a classic been-around face--handsome yet sad and accented by the inevitable sunglasses and an involuntary twitch--Yoshitaka Nishi is a formidable police detective in the humanitarian hard guy mold. He dislikes conversation, won't so much as grunt when silence will do--but, just to make things interesting, he's got a weakness for sudden and brutal violence that is terrifying when it's unleashed.
Nishi is supposed to be part of a gangster stakeout with his partner, Horibe (Ren Osugi), and two younger detectives. But Horibe tells Nishi to visit his hospitalized leukemia-stricken wife, Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto), and dismisses the other two policemen as well. This, of course, turns out not to have been a smart thing to do.
When Horibe's colleagues return to the hunt, things get even more out of hand, and Nishi, as an honorable Japanese, naturally feels responsible for each tragic event. The bulk of "Fireworks" deals with his attempts to make amends for the things that have gone wrong, confront the violent yakuza who've lent him money and spend meaningful time with his dying wife.
Summarized this way, "Fireworks" sounds rather straightforward, but the film's narrative is intentionally obscured. Kitano favors a structure that is intricately fragmented. He tells his story in jigsaw puzzle-like bits and pieces, which we have to piece together ourselves and which only gradually form a coherent whole.
This technique is especially effective when it comes to the way "Fireworks" uses violence. Intense it may be, but it's never shown for more than a few surreal seconds, and it never comes when you expect it. As for the bloody police action that is "Fireworks' " centerpiece, we see it gradually, over the course of the film, in startling shards of flashback memory that are revealed to us as they randomly cross Nishi's mind.
Involving as all this is, it doesn't exhaust this film's attractions. Kitano began his acting career as a comic, and "Fireworks" has a strong and consistent element of deadpan, almost wacky humor. When you are ready for it least, Nishi will pop in something so slyly funny you half-think you've started watching another film by mistake.
Similarly unexpected is "Fireworks' " use of sentiment, which comes out in Nishi's heartfelt relationship with the survivors of the police action as well as with his dying wife. Given the man's proclivities, it seems like a joke when Miyuki's doctor tells him what his wife needs most now is conversation, but the couple do end up forging a memorable bond.
Though "Fireworks" is nothing if not its own film, its concern with the permanence of sadness and the intractability of regret bring to mind Jean-Pierre Melville's Alain Delon-starring noir perennial, "Le Samourai," which begins with a manufactured quote from a Japanese sage. Like Melville, Kitano knows the power of genre norms. By simultaneously honoring gangster conventions and making his own idiosyncratic use of them, he's made a personal film that speaks to everyone, but always in its own way.
Fireworks, 1998. Unrated. An Office Kitano production, released by Milestone Films. Director Takeshi Kitano. Producers Masayuki Mori, Yasushi Tsuge, Takio Yoshida. Screenplay Takeshi Kitano. Cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto. Editors Takeshi Kitano, Yoshinori Ota. Music Jo Hisaishi. Art director Norihiro Isoda. Set decorator Tatsuo Ozeki. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano) as Yoshitaka Nishi. Kayoko Kishimoto as Miyuki. Ren Osugi as Horibe. Susumu Terajima as Nakamura. Tetsu Watanabe as Tezuka.