It would probably be unthinkable for a cop’s wife in an American movie to have cancer, or for his sister to be a junkie—it would distract from the action. But not in a Japanese film. Kitano obliterates both of those unthinkables in Violent Cop and Fireworks, and Takashi Miike does the same in his 1999 collage of the policier and the yakuza thriller, Dead or Alive. (Miike may have appropriated the impassive hero’s home situation from Fireworks: It’s the daughter that’s sick in the Miike film, but his wife wears the same mask of quiet patience.) But even if you scoured the vaults of all the world’s film archives in order to draw up a list of a hundred cop movies in which the hero’s wife has an ailment that’s treated as a major narrative thread, it’s a safe bet that none of them will spend such an extraordinary time looking at paintings.
Kitano’s Fireworks—also commonly referred to by its Japanese title, Hana-bi—announces not only a new kind of “cop movie” but a template for a new kind of Kitano film. Violent Cop has its share of long pauses, flattened compositions, and gruesome (but rarely protracted) violence, but in Fireworks Kitano embraces naked sentimentality that may strike some as maudlin, but the way he handles it is neither strong-armed nor phony. The film is heavy on nostalgia and even what we might call treacle, but the conviction the filmmaker brings to the table forces one to entertain the notion that these scenes are, in fact, essential.
For a director whose use of violence is memorably characterized by suddenness and brutality, the key image of bloodletting in Fireworks (the shooting death of the main character’s partner) is slowed down almost to the point of abstraction and, in the first of a handful of its appearances in the fragmented narrative, it has been stripped of any context that would make it “cool” or readily accessible as an emotional event. Kitano doesn’t sentimentalize the scene-fragment but he draws out certain aspects of it in a way that resembles his “sentimentalizing” of the sequences with the hero’s wife, and there’s patience and distance that puts it in the same league as the shots of paintings, which also bring what narrative the film has to a halt.
The film exhibits a simple yet eloquent dialectic between two Kitano theses, sometimes within the same scene. Kitano positions the hero’s murder-suicide with his wife as his ultimate act of kindness and love toward her: throughout the film he shows nothing toward her but compassion, protectiveness, good cheer, humor, playfulness, and endearment, so it’s logical to assume that these things don’t change, even when he shoots her (off-camera, witnessed only in reaction shots) and then joins her in death.
As he usually acts in the films he directs (out of 11, all but three), it becomes necessary to consider Kitano’s use of his own face and body as an aesthetic element. His is an unremarkable body crowned with an unforgettable face, an impassive woodcut not unlike the “strong, silent type” best represented by Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Like them there’s a touch of playful malice for those who (shades of Hawks) exist outside his given terms of honor, bravery, honesty, and humility. Or those who simply piss him off. (Remember, his only lasting friend in Brother is Omar Epps’s young gangsta, but his first encounter with him ends with Epps getting a broken bottle jammed into his eye socket.) And the way some films featuring Eastwood and Marvin bank on their rough exterior to wring a different and unexpected form of pathos—consider the end of Eastwood’s 1990 film White Hunter, Black Heart or Marvin’s encounter with the boy in the Czech concentration camp in Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One—may prepare us for the manner in which Kitano makes such juxtapositions one of his main projects.
As Kitano plays him, the hero Nishi’s capacity for hurting and killing people isn’t far from our minds when he sits quietly with his wife, pondering the ocean, or playing cards. How could they be, since the movie cuts back and forth from one kind of scene to the other? His ability to be gentle, loving, and kind shapes the scenes in which he rams chopsticks through a young hood’s eyeball, or wastes a carload of yakuza flunkies, or trounces a beach patron who verbally abuses his wife. Kitano uses his own face as a blank slate with which to sketch a complicated human being—one that, typically, ends up rejecting the world as it rejects him, holding on to a little bit of honor and a little bit of compassion.
Whatever your feelings are about the paintings in Fireworks, they articulate an intense desire to create a few similar dialectic exchanges: narrative and non-narrative, movement and stillness, photographic realism and abstraction, and (within the works themselves) animals with flowers. The paintings are the director’s own work, and each Kitano film after Fireworks has been increasingly “painterly.” The key juxtaposition, one that finds its precedent in Sonatine (with its recurring, pastoral beachfront imagery) and its successor in Zatoichi (a genre picture about a wandering swordsman that is 50% musical!) is the move to “mix it up,” to intersperse various non-cinematic artistic media with his genre narrative.
As Zatoichi emphasizes, this manner of “mixing it up” indicates a move the director is making toward a messy, less-disciplined, but more utopian, more democratic kind of cinema, starting with the community feeling in Sonatine and maturing in Fireworks. In his remake of the classic series about a wandering, blind swordsman, Kitano amplifies his unique ideas about “good guys” and “bad guys,” this time with a new sexual-political edge: the former set includes a cross-dresser, the clumsy comic relief (who experiments with cross-dressing), a man-child, and anybody who’s too weak to stand up to the local tyrants. Like Fireworks’s paintings, the new film makes room—a lot of room—for music and dancing. It’s a weird experience that Kitano is offering to movie audiences: We thrill to the violent, heroic exploits that leave many a pierced eyeball, many a severed limb, many a bullet-riddled corpse, but we find uplift in his celebration of community, music, dance, light, color, and companionship.