Combustible Celluloid
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With: "Beat" Takeshi, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima, Tetsu Watanabe, Hakuryu, Yasuei Yakushiji, Taro Istumi, Kenichi Yajima, Makoto Ashikawa, Yuuko Daike
Written by: Takeshi Kitano
Directed by: Takeshi Kitano
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 103
Date: 09/03/1997

Fireworks (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fire and Flowers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For the first time in years, 3 films by Japanese legend Takeshi "Beat" Kitano are being released in theaters in the U.S. The first, Gonin, features the multi-talented star in an acting role. But in Fireworks, Kitano's newest film, he writes, directs, produces, and stars. Later this year, Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder will release his 1993 Sonatine as well.

If Tarantino is involved here, you can assume that Kitano's films are violent (one of his earlier titles is Violent Cop). But don't stop there. If you can't stomach films by Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, or Brian De Palma, or anything by gore filmmakers like George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper or Dario Argento, Fireworks is not for you. On the other hand, if you can shrug off explosive violent scenes with no warnings and no reprocussions, Fireworks has a lot to offer and is a fascinating film.

I have the violence disclaimer above because audiences should be warned about this movie. Fireworks plays very slowly, with very deliberate and singular shots. A whole scene will be played out in only one or two long shots. I can't call this mise-en-scene, because most of the time, there's not a lot of action within the frame. Mostly we see Kitano staring at something, thinking about something. When the violence happens, it's very shocking because we suddenly break out of this very slow, very still movie. Coming as suddenly as it does, it's very graphic and shocking. There is lots and lots of blood in this movie. The filmmaking reminded me of early Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise and Down By Law), except that these characters are not quirky -- they're sad, lost, and touching. The real title of Fireworks is Hana-Bi, which translates more directly into "Fire Flowers," which makes more sense as a title -- violence and beauty.

Kitano plays Yoshitaka Nishi, a former cop who had gone a little crazy after his partners got killed during a routine pickup. We see this event several times in flashback. For the first few times, it looks as if the two cops are piled on top of a third man and being shot. Later, we realize it's the third man on the bottom of the dogpile that's firing upwards and killing his two aggressors. Kitano responds by firing a single shot into the man's brain, then emptying his gun into the corpse.

Kitano's life is in ruins since his little girl died, and now his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) is sick, too. She has seemingly lost her will to live. Kitano plans a bank robbery, disguised as a cop, in order to pay his debts to the yakuza and to take his wife on a nice trip. The yakuza goons show up at every turn to try to collect money from him, and he kills them all, suddenly and violently, without smiling or even breathing hard. Eventually, Kitano and his wife go on the trip, and were treated to some lovely scenes, and some melancholy ones, but they all ring true. The ending, in which Kitano must face off with the yakuza, comes as no surprise, but there is also no other way to end this story. Kitano handles it poetically, involving a little girl flying a kite.

Kitano is the number one box-office star in Japan. He is a broad man with a leather face, whose eyes have been replaced by sunglasses (he doesn't look quite right without them on). His hair is neatly bushy and he's never without a suit (although never a tie). He's not exactly sexy, but he does have a Clint Eastwood quality to him.

It takes some skill to make an action story that does not depend on action. Most of the time, we're gazing at Kitano's face, and then with the shades on. What is he thinking? We know that he is a little mad, but his methods are very methodic. In order to put together the cop disguise, we go through the process of watching him pick out parts from a junkyard, painting the car, making adjustments, and so forth. It's one of the best sequences because it moves, and it stands out in our memories.

There is another character who has been crippled in a shootout, and he is left alone in a wheelchair by the seaside. He takes up painting, and he begins to paint odd and fascinating pictures of combinations of flowers and people -- either lonely people or views of other people with families -- painted from a lonely man's perspective. Some of the pictures are of animals with flower heads. Again, most of these shots are done very still, so that we can really savor the artwork. And it works.

There are some sequences between Kitano and his wife that are very sweet, and betray some emotions in the character. She steals his dessert and leaves him only the strawberry. They work on a puzzle together. He guesses which card she is holding up by looking in a mirror behind her. These scenes are funny, but tinged with regret and sadness.

It's difficult to infuse emotion into this kind of static filmmaking. Sometimes Kitano succeeds and sometimes he doesn't. The violence, while sometimes inspired, is very jarring and can distance you again just when you've worked your way inside. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by Fireworks, and never bored. I think it's a film that will grow with time.

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