Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Fireworks

By Devin. D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  Takeshi "Beat" Kitano is one of those Far Eastern conundrums, a personality that just doesn't translate into Western culture. In Japan, Kitano is well known as both a writer/director of deeply melancholy, hard-boiled crime films and a popular slapstick comedian. Though few in America have seen Kitano's comedy, his films (Sonantine, Violent Cop, Boiling Point) are winning appreciative cult audiences. Occidental actors like Jim Carrey and Jerry Lewis have tried (and, in certain instances, succeeded) in playing both comic and dramatic roles. But Takeshi's schizophrenic accomplishments are akin to, say, Carrot Top taking up directing and cranking out Mean Streets. The Japanese, apparently, see no conflict between Takeshi's two career paths: He is revered in both fields. Having seen several of the man's films, I can certainly say he is deserving of that respect.

Not content to merely write, direct and edit his films, Takeshi also stars in them. In his latest film, Fireworks (Hana-Bi), Takeshi is Yoshitaka Nishi, a sad sack police officer carrying an untenable psychic burden. To begin with, Nishi's wife is dying of leukemia--unfortunately, the detective is so overworked he barely has time to visit her in the hospital. One night, during a routine surveillance, Nishi's partner urges him to take the night off and visit his ailing wife. Reluctantly, Nishi agrees. While he's gone, Nishi's partner is unexpectedly shot by the suspect and finds himself paralyzed for life. While hunting down the shooter, another officer is killed. Unable to function at his job, Nishi resigns. Now incapable of covering his wife's medical bills, he turns to a local loanshark for help.

The narrative of Fireworks is a fractured one. Takeshi skips around in time and place, showing us both the events that led to our protagonist's current torture, and the stumbling path he takes to extricate himself. Burdened with a dying wife, saddled with the crippling of his partner and the death of a fellow officer and deeply in debt to a pack of viscous yakuza gangsters, Nishi is little more than a kamikaze flyer running on auto-pilot and fueled by the fumes of his own deep-burning anger.

As in all Takeshi films, the violence comes in staccato bursts. Neither romanticized nor lensed in the stylized slo-mo that has become an Asian action trademark, Takeshi's violence more closely resembles the sudden, surprising brutality of Martin Scorsese's films. The blood that Takeshi spills (and there is much of it to be spilled here) happens so fast and with such jarring bluntness, that you hardly register it until it's already wedged in your brain as a memory.

Though his plots may bear a certain resemblance to those of other Asian crime (film) lords, Takeshi is the polar opposite of someone like Hong Kong king John Woo. Woo's hyper-kinetic, melodramatic, almost fantasy-driven bullet operas belie their Chinese roots. Takeshi's films are unmistakably Japanese--slower, more reserved, less "mythic" and deeply obsessed with precise, mathematical composition. There is a quiescence to Takeshi's work that mirrors the likes of Yasujiro Ozu (A Story of Floating Weeds, Tokyo Spring) and some of Akira Kurosawa's more domestic work (Ikiru, Rhapsody in August). Despite their often harsh subject matter, Takeshi's films have such a beauty--both in structure and in image--that it's difficult to find a true comparison.

In Fireworks, Takeshi knows well enough to contrast his depressing storyline with some airy and colorful cinematography. His version of Tokyo is as a bright, neon-hued metropolis, neatly frozen in time. Takeshi slips in frequent shots of beautiful, child-like illustrations (cartoonish advertisements in a fast-food restaurant, colorful antique silks in a loanshark's den, surreal oil paintings that merge flowers and animals). The images hint at an optimism that Takeshi's characters just can't seem to muster themselves.

With its crisp sadness, haunting violence and masterful cinematography, Fireworks is an unshakable work of cinematic art. Takeshi proves himself (as he does again and again) a brilliant filmmaker. For those seeking a more mature take on the Asian action film, Takeshi has paved a road to the future. Get on it now.

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