Film Reviews

Japan's Tough Guy

Takeshi Kitano, the reigning Renaissance man of Japanese pop culture, is a scriptwriter, movie actor and director and the star of seven TV shows. He produces six different columns for national magazines and, it says here, has written 55 books. In his spare time, he makes outrageous public pronouncements. And paints. In 1994, voters in a national poll picked him as their top choice to be Japan's prime minister.

But not even these dazzling credentials will quite prepare American audiences for Kitano's seventh film, Fireworks ("Hana-Bi"). It's a kind of Zen-inflected tough guy picture, as contemplative as it is bloody, about a hard-bitten police detective who decides to put everything right in his life when his wife is stricken with leukemia and his partner is paralyzed by the bullets of a Yakuza loan shark.

Dirty Harry Callahan would do things one way. Detective Nishi does Harry one better in the renegade department.

The star of the show is one "Beat Takeshi," who is, of course, Kitano himself. He also wrote, directed and edited Fireworks, and he painted all the striking artworks -- animals with flower-faces, neo-pointillist landscapes, gorgeous views of cherry orchards -- attributed to the crippled, suicidal cop Horibe (Ren Osugi). If Kitano didn't also cater the sushi and drive the stunt cars, we should be surprised.

His Nishi, a silent avenger wearing a black suit and wire-frame shades, dispatches clumps of glowering thugs with a sudden force Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee would admire. And he doesn't mind emptying his revolver into the corpse of a fallen enemy. But Nishi has a sweet, monkish side, too, and this is what makes Hana-Bi (literally, "Flower-Fire") such a disarming, one-of-a-kind experience -- its crazy juxtaposition of splattery violence and silent beauty. When he's not kicking punks in the head or killing Yakuza, Nishi is tenderly seeing to the needs of his dying wife (Kayoko Kishimoto), inspiring the blossoming painting career of his wheelchair-bound partner and sending gift packages to the widow of a slain officer. Want pathos with your slo-mo skull-shots? You got it.

When some poor fool at the beach laughs at Nishi's wife for watering a bunch of dead flowers, Nishi bashes his face in for him. But that does nothing to reduce the metaphor about watering dead flowers. The film glows with such moments.

One of Nishi's motives is guilt, because he was taking a break when poor Horibe got ambushed. The others are honor and, we can't help suspecting, the effort of Japan's best-known cult celebrity to reinvent his heroic myth once again. This is a man who once physically attacked the entire staff of a magazine that wrote some trash about him, and he's clearly got an ego as large as his talent.

The redemption Detective Nishi ultimately seeks is perfection, and so is this fascinating, oddly affecting mixture of beauty and blood. For one, I'm counting the minutes until Takeshi Kitano is a full-scale rage on this side of Pacific, too.

Fireworks ("Hana-Bi").
Rated R.
Directed by Takeshi Kitano. With "Beat Takeshi," Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi and Susumi Terajima.