‘Daughter dies, wife gets sick; he’s a damn fine cop.’

Hana-Bi, Takeshi’s film no 7, won him international acclaim and placed the writer/director/painter/editor/star firmly into the limelight. Nearly two decades later it has lost none of its power to engage with its scenes of genuine emotion, humour and extreme bloody violence.

Nishi (Kitano) is a highly competent cop but has a number of problems with his personal life. Life on the beat (pun intended) is tough: Two fellow policemen are killed whilst arresting some gangsters and his friend Horibe (Ren Ôsugi) is badly injured, which results in him having to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Nishi tries to help his pal by encouraging him to learn to paint pictures. Nishi himself has endured a gloomy personal life; his daughter died some years ago and now his wife is terminally ill. He seeks money for her treatment from yakuza but they want their cash back with unreasonable amounts of interest and hard cop Nishi’s best method to deal with this situation is to engage in brutal violence – of the sort the yakuza themselves dish out. As Miyuki’s (Kayoko Kishimoto) health deteriorates, Nishi just wants one last holiday with his loved one by the seaside.

Following a hugely successful career as a manzai (one half of a comedy double act) as ‘Beat’ Takeshi, Kitano became as one of the Japan’s best-known television stars, hosting game shows (he’s the figure seen at the close of Takeshi’s Castle) and talk shows which often combined controversial humour and madcap ideas. Other media beckoned, including a foray into the world of cinema, and he took on the role of director in his first film Violent Cop (1989) after the original director quit. He has never looked back. Takeshi Kitano is in many ways the auteur’s auteur; his work is instantly recognisable although he is best known for his film-making internationally, in his home country he was adored as a comic and a TV personality – not an art-house movie director, something he notes with characteristic humour in the documentary that accompanies the Blu-Ray edition of this film.

Hana-Bi is both sweet and violent, a film about loss, confrontation and dilemma, which reflects the poetic and artistic sensibilities of its creator. It translates as ‘fireworks’ which appear in the film as a visual motif. This is about law enforcers and law breakers but also how characters’ personal needs evolve and how these needs are addressed. Taking the structure of a laid back road movie (like so many of Takeshi’s films) with lots of gentle humour, interspersed with some slapstick and moments of extreme violence, Hana-Bi is a Japanese film for a Japanese audience but somehow it didn’t have such a positive impact with the local market. It turned out to be international art cinema for a local audience (Takeshi’s success at home came much later with his remake of Zatoichi) but it remains distinctly his – featuring all the elements of control that Office Kitano requires. Not only writing, directing and starring, Takeshi produced all the paintings in the film and edited it too. Indeed, the editing is wonderfully simple, yet clever and well designed. For example, early shots of a cigarette being lit may seem slightly out of context initially but are recalled later in a violent shooting scene. The emotional elements are emphasised with the score by Joe Hisaishi, regular composer for Takeshi and also known for his work with animator Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The score emphasises the pace, grace, pathos and gratuitous violence within the work, which all combine to make Hana-Bi essential viewing.

Extras on the Blu-Ray include an amusing and very welcome interview, a contemporary French production that looks at Kitano and his career. The retrospective takes his seventh film in context via trailers for the previous six.