Hana-Bi (Kitano,1997) is a confusing, deliberately ambiguous piece of filmmaking. Which is why, I think, I liked it.
Watching it reminded me of the opposing cinematic cultures of empathy versus embodiment. Hana-Bi definitely slides towards the empathetic end of the spectrum, and director Takeshi Kitano creates this opacity between the audience and his characters by layering ambiguous dialogue, detached wide shots, carefully placed moments of silence and a confusing narrative structure. By refusing to tell us how the characters feel in their dialogue or to show us how they feel in closeup, Kitano forces the audience to make up their own mind. We never really know why Nishi behaves the way that he does, we have to try and work it out for ourselves. Yet there’s a fine line between engaging the audience with ambiguity and confusing them so much that they no longer care, and I suspect that Hana-Bi falls right on it, which is why I think it divides audiences so neatly into those who find it deeply moving and those who find it hard to care at all.
The ambiguity in both the dialogue and the visual elements of the film means that we encounter characters whose narratives don’t follow the cinematic norms we expect. When Kitano introduces us to Tanaka’s widow (who’s forced to work as a fast food waitress after her husband’s murder), we are confused; by Western standards she is only a peripheral character in Hana-Bi’s story, yet she is given what appears to be a disproportionately large screen presence. I wonder if Kitano gave her this platform in order to make a point about the collateral damage of such violence. But I also see another point to her appearance, linked to Kitano’s reluctance to fully reveal any plot point before he’s made the audience question it. The first time we meet her, she’s sat talking with Nishi on her break at work. In the scene immediately preceding her introduction we watch the paralysed former detective Horibe wheel himself down to the very edge of the shore, we see the waves wash over his feet as the tide comes in, we are invited to consider that maybe he intends to stay there, to commit suicide by letting the ocean swallow him up. Then Kitano cuts to Nishi and the widow. We don’t know who she is, but she talks about her dead husband. Is she Horibe’s wife, did he die in the waves? Kitano gives us this possibility for just a moment, before cutting to the flashback at the mall revealing the Tanaka’s murder. This compulsion to briefly confuse the audience before uncovering each plot point seeps into the way Kitano presents other characters, like the scrapyard man, who we meet in a flurry of road rage, but his role isn’t contextualised until later in the film when Nishi visits his yard.
Kitano clues us in that explicit exposition is low on his list of priorities from the very first scene, when we see Nishi’s sudden, silent, unexplained burst of violence in the car park. Kitano presents his leading man as a cipher, writing and playing him as an almost silent man of unknown motivation. His wife, Miyuki speaks even less, uttering only one word throughout the whole film. And yet the finely drawn relationship between these two almost mute individuals is one of my favourite aspects of the film. Their interactions speak of a devoted, familiar relationship – the scene in which they share cakes, another in which they play cards in the car, and the final scene on the beach where they watch a girl fly a kite undoubtedly thinking of their own daughter are all brief moments that humanise and add a touch of gentle humour to an otherwise bleak film.
Initially Nishi seems a contradictory character, he’s loving husband but also a blank faced killer. Yet looking deeper, everything about Nishi’s actions is explained. His story is one of a man who has so much; a wife and child he loves, a job he excels at and a partner with whom he shares a deep brotherly bond. And then it’s all taken away from him. His child dies and his wife is dying, his partner is paralysed and he loses his job. Kitano’s film explores what happens when everything that we love is taken away from us. Seeing Nishi’s relationship with his wife is vital in this context, it tells us why he’s resorted to borrowing from the Yakuza, the implication being that in his desperate quest to heal his wife, he’s resorted to expensive private medical care. When this fails, the bank robbery to pay off his massive debts and fund a final trip becomes equally understandable, because Kitano has shown us how devoted a husband Nishi is and how little he has left to lose.
The insertion of Kitano’s own artwork into the film again seems at first glance to serve a limited purpose to the story. But it adds a surreal element to the film, adding another facet to the ‘how did this happen’ tone that Nishi surely feels about his own life. These paintings also seem to represent the surrealism of a mental break, which is maybe what has happened to Nishi after the shooting.
Kitano also displays his restraint in the depiction of the other critical relationship in Nishi’s life, with his former partner Horibe. The parallel paths of the two men paint a tragic image of lingering effects of violence, the same in many ways, but opposite in so many others.
Kitano supports his empathetic narrative with long, detached shots, which are very much reminiscent of the rigidity of Japanese society in general, and Nishi’s somewhat detached state in particular, mentally separated from almost everyone (except his wife and former partner). Kitano also uses a distinct visual editing style to add to the sense of separation created by his long, wide shots. He cuts a from fights just after they start, and cuts into conversations halfway through. All the time jumping backwards and forwards in time, leaving the audience struggling to understand what just happened.
But, I like to be confused some times, and I enjoyed this film because of the struggle, rather than in spite of it. It reminded me of how conditioned we can become to a certain type of storytelling without even realising it.
Kitano, T., (1997) Hana-Bi, Bandai Visual Company