Sunday, 18 May 2014

Takeshi Kitano: Flowers and Gunfire

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
Takeshi Kitano began his career as a comedian and television presenter in the 1970s as part of the popular Japanese comedy duo ‘The Two Beats’ with Kaneko Kiyoshi. Kitano went on to establish himself as one of Japan’s most important film directors starting with the 1989 police thriller Violent Cop, when the inexperienced Kitano assumed the film’s reins when the original director left the project. Kitano spent the ’90s alternating between quiet, reflective works such as the surfing drama A Scene At The Sea (1991), the coming-of-age story Kids Return (1996), the road comedy Kikujiro (1999), and melancholy crime films like Boiling Point (1990), Sonatine (1993), and Hana-Bi (or Fireworks, 1997). Kitano’s reputation in the West rests largely on these latter two films, with their mix of dedpan comedy, graphic violence, austere visuals and pensive drama.

The story of a good cop with an explosive violent streak, Hana-Bi was Takeshi Kitano’s seventh film and transcends the structure of a crime thriller to explore questions of life and death. Set in Kitano’s familiar world of hard-boiled cops and ruthless yakuza, the film is a moving story of friendship, marriage and sacrifice. Detective Nishi (played by Kitano) is torn between his commitment to his job and his duty to his terminally ill wife. When Horibe, his partner, is gunned down while Nishi is visiting his wife in the hospital, he leaves the police force and embarks on a violent and tragicomic quest for justice and redemption. Throughout the film, beautiful, eerie paintings and drawings (also the work of this multi- talented filmmaker) mirror and foreshadow its powerful story. 

The Japanese word ‘hanabi’ translates into ‘fireworks’ in English. But Fireworks’ Japanese title is spelled with a hyphen: Hana-Bi, symbolizing the film’s themes. Hana (flower) is the symbol of life while Bi (fire) represents gunfire, and so death.

The following excerpts are from an interview with Takeshi Kitano by Makoto Shinozaki
 on the release of Hana-Bi and appeared in Studio Voice Magazine in November 1997:

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
Shinozaki: Many critics are already calling ‘Fireworks (Hana-Bi)’ a culmination of your six earlier films, but ‘Fireworks’ is clearly different in certain ways from your older films and I think this is reflected in the way you shot the film too. What do you think?

Kitano: Making a film is a collaborative effort. It’s not just the story or the acting, but it’s also the performance of the crew around you. Like who is your assistant director, who does camera for you. Until now, my cameraman was Mr. Yanagijima, but this time he was studying in England, so I asked the assistant cameraman to shoot it. Of course, he was very excited and was all geared up. But when I thought about this cameraman, I realized it would be rude to ask him to shoot it exactly the way Yanagijima did. So I told him we were going to move the camera a lot this time. He was practicing in the back. In the scene where there’s all that shooting in the Mercedes in the snow, I told him to shoot it from above. He was on a crane shooting from all angles. Normally, I wouldn’t have the camera do such complicated movements. I was thinking that this way, by asking him to do something a little bit more challenging, he would really feel like he was being asked to do it his way and not his old boss’s. The film turned out great because of the dedication and the teamwork of the crew.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
In your previous films, it seems you shot the characters straight on and the mise-en-scene was also very bare with the least amount of distractions. In ‘Fireworks’, you use the vertical space very imaginatively, placing the actors in the back of the shot, moving the camera around a lot. For example, the scene when Nishi and Miyuki’s doctor are talking, they are set up in the back of the shot and in the front, you put the fuzzy head of the nurse.

I put the head of the nurse where it bothered the viewer the most. That shot was not going to hold your attention long enough for the conversation between Nishi and the doctor to end, even though the tree outside the window with the green leaves blowing in the wind was a nice touch. When I put the nurse in the front of the shot, she was really in the way. But when I shot her out of focus, it had a different effect. My staff had a fit. According to the rules of filmmaking, it’s the last thing you’re supposed to do. But when I did it, it kind of worked. Film theory is always evolving and the audience is evolving with it. I think we can afford to turn things around a little, and the audience will follow. That shot is weird, but I figured I could get away with it. That's something I realized while shooting Sonatine. There was a shot in the film where the camera was supposed to pan and follow a passing car. The cameraman panicked during the pan and lost the car from the shot, having to move the camera around to find it again. He was mortified, but I okayed the shot. He protested that when shots like that are used, it gives him a bad reputation, but I wanted to use it. When Sonatine was shown in England, they commented on that very shot, claiming that the shaking of the camera foreshadows what is to come in the film. They asked if I had instructed the camera to do that, so I lied and said I did. It made me laugh. I thought to myself, ‘Hey a mistake can be a good thing too.’ When things are too perfect, it’s no fun. There are parts that need to be shot precisely, but a certain looseness is nice too. I thought about those things while shooting Fireworks.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
You go back and forth in time a lot too in this film.

I re-edited the film 14 times, I think. I called in the editor so many times. I’d tell him ‘We’re going to change the whole thing.’ And he’d say ‘Again?’ So we’d do it all over and I would proclaim it done, only to have him tell me that this was exactly the same as the first cut. So we’d recut again. I really didn’t want to use a flashback, but if you don’t some people won't understand the story. So I did it in a way that was most informative without becoming tedious.

I felt that in ‘Fireworks’, you were actively inserting certain elements into each shot. So I think it’s unfair just to call this film a survey of all your other films. Those who say that are not watching the film carefully enough. I think the filmmaking style has a different air. Like in the shot where Nishi is visiting his wife at the hospital, you give the shot an edge by using the nurse's movement through the vertical space of the shot. Also when Nishi is walking away from the lakeside toward the camera, it cranes down slowly to reveal the backs of the two yakuzas in the foreground. These shots actively utilize the vertical space, which was not the case in your other films.

That sort of vertical movement started in A Scene at the Sea ... In this film I really thought about being creative in the way I shot things, especially in the action sequences. I experimented with a lot of styles. Sometimes it worked and other times I had to settle for shooting it in a conventional way. I thought of doing a whole shoot out with just the sound of the bullets. But seeing this Mercedes in the distance and hearing the gun shots is a boring way to end the film. And I’ve done that in Sonatine. The shot where I use a knife worked well, I think, using the shadow.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
In that shot with the knife, I felt the audience catch their breath. Hollywood films these days are so sloppy. You see the explosions coming a mile away. They’re so predictable. What I miss most in movies today are those moments that they catch you by surprise and shock you.

Hollywood films used to be able to shock you with the explosions themselves. Those were the times. The audience loved it back then. But then it became bigger and bigger, and we got used to the most amazing explosions. None of it shocks us anymore. It’s like a fireworks show. It gets old fast to be told that they’re going up and then seeing them explode. If you don’t expect it, a little firecracker can scare you. I think that’s the way to do it.

I think another thing that is different in this film is the way you capture landscapes. Until now, when you shot the beach, it was any old beach and your shots of the city were often run-down factories or places of exposed concrete – drab, dreary settings. But this time, you’ve got Mount Fuji, a cherry blossom in full bloom ... you seem to be seeking to capture a traditionally Japanese landscape.

How shall I put this ... If it were two men standing in front of Mount Fuji, there would be nothing more absurd. But in this film it’s a couple. I figured it was all right if it was a woman standing next to you. If it’s a couple going to a typical tourist spot, it works all right, especially if the characters are loaded with dark pasts. Like a terminal illness. That makes the scene suddenly very tragic. If I had a very happy healthy couple go to Mount Fuji it would be kind of lame, but since the guy is volatile and dangerous, I figure I could have him stand anywhere. So I might as well choose a picturesque place that I haven’t used before. I had not shot Mount Fuji before.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
The shot where Horibe, Nishi’s ex-partner, played by Ren Osugi, is sitting in his wheelchair underneath the cherry blossoms made a real impression on me.

People see that shot and ask me if I’m a fan of Seijun Suzuki. I figured I could get away with having Mr. Osugi under the cherry tree even if it’s a little cheesy because the character is a painter. Also, it’s not that he just went out to see the blossoms because he didn’t have anything else to do – he just attempted suicide, and finally decided to start painting. To have him under the cherry blossoms with all that history makes the scene much more significant.

I really liked the fact that we don’t get this very emotional close up of Mr. Osugi’s face looking up at the tree. Instead we have a long shot of this lone figure of a man in a wheelchair underneath this blossoming tree. Not to say that there is any influence or connection, but this scene for some odd reason reminded me of Nagisa Oshima’s ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’. That film is set entirely in the jungle with no landscapes resembling Japan and you certainly don’t see any cherry blossoms. There is one moment in the film, however, where the character played by Ryuichi Sakamoto tells Mr. Lawrence that if he could, he would like to invite every single prisoner to see a cherry tree in full bloom. Mr. Lawrence replies that what he remembers of Japan is the frozen tree in the midst of a landscape covered in snow. As a film, the two have nothing in common, but somehow after I saw the movie, I thought of Mr. Oshima.

Yes, it’s not an influence in the style of shooting or anything like that, but we share a certain mind set. There are other moments in the film where I feel we share a certain state of mind. So I guess I was influenced by him, or something of my experience with him stayed with me.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
I believe that a director is the greatest critic of his own films. I get the feeling that you are constantly rejecting your previous films with your new film ...

I think that’s right. For example, others consider their bad films failures. I pick up on the faults of the film and I criticize myself, but I would not call the film a failure. If there are three things about the film that are good, those are the three souvenirs the film left me and I don’t need anything else. Then in the next film I collect a couple more and they add up. I made Fireworks with all the good things that I’ve collected over the years from different films, and in that sense, it is a survey of the past. It’s a film born of all the good parts of all my past films. If they want to call it a survey of my past works, I guess it’s a survey ...

But even if it is a survey, it’s not that you just abbreviate and combine your past films, nor is it that you just refine your past films. The other thing that’s different about this film that I wanted to ask you about is the color. You seem to be actively involving all sorts of bright colors. One thing is, you have included your own paintings in this film which must have something to do with it. If ‘Sonatine’ was based on the color blue and it was your blue period, ‘Fireworks’ is ...

The critics at Venice still thought the film was ‘Kitano blue.’ I didn't get it, but they told me that the blue I use in my films is called Kitano blue. I thought that was nice. I do use blue as my base color, but I try to use it adventurously. I really can’t shoot the city, though. I hate shooting Chinatown at night or something. Too many colors. But I figure now is the time to practice so that one day I can shoot those kind of colors too. As part of the practice, I included all those bright paintings. A painting is not a landscape, so I thought I could deal with it. I could be bold with the paintings, but the city is still shot in very subdued colors because I don’t think I have the technique or the confidence to use bright color for that. So the landscapes are still blue. I made my splash of color with the paintings and the blossom tree, but my base is still blue.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
Even in the shot at the hospital, there is a bunch of brightly colored flowers by the door. Was that something you put there for the shoot?

No, it happened to be there. I told them, if you see flowers during the shoot, film them. When we went to the beach, these fish happened to be jumping so we shot it. There is no significance to those shots. You could have a man and a woman on a beach, and a third person and that person would mean nothing to the couple. Even if you share the same shot and space, there is no relationship. It’s like that in real life – things that are completely unrelated exist side by side. It’s the same with the flowers. You see flowers there and you don’t know why they’re there, but they just are. I’m not shooting the flowers with some heavy significance but I’m introducing them as bits of color. The red of a flower in the blue. It paves the way to all the primary colors in the paintings. The reason why I had the film start with my paintings is to familiarize the audience with my paintings. You have to introduce them slowly because otherwise, if they’re hit over the head with it, the film could potentially end before they get over it and understand the film.

Regarding color, when I interviewed you a while back, you told me that after the accident, you began to experience color much more vividly. Thinking about that, my very favorite scene in this film, the scene that moves me greatly and at the same time upsets me, is the scene where Horibe first encounters color at the florist. I imagine that this cop had lived completely indifferent to colors until that very moment and right then he realizes for the first time that he was surrounded by all this color. Did you have a moment after the accident when you experienced this?

It was flowers for me too. Until then, I was stepping on flowers, and I scoffed and mocked the idea of sending flowers to women. Then I had the bike accident and my head hit the pavement and I was destroyed ... I was walking around with my bandaged eye, because I had nothing better to do, and I came to a florist where I began staring at the flowers. Then I realized that they were each so different from the other and I was really struck by it. I thought maybe I should paint them. I bought the paint and the supplies. I looked at some stuff van Gogh did, and realized I could never paint like that. But I couldn’t shake the notion of painting the flowers. I wondered how I could do it, when the idea of arranging them into something else came to mind. Looking at a sunflower I thought it looked like a lion. This idea made me so happy. So I painted the lion with the sunflower head. I had that painting way before I started shooting the film. And then one looked like a deer, another leaf looked like a penguin. They would keep coming to me. It was really instantaneous. In this film, I wanted to show that this guy Horibe doesn’t know where he’s heading but is somehow drawn to the florist and ends up there. He suddenly wants to paint so badly and he is so happy to have discovered this new thing, he buys a bunch of flowers and the images keep coming to him ...

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
I got the feeling that it wasn’t that he was trying to create images from the flowers, rather that the images kept seeping out of him.

Yeah, like there is this voice inside of him saying ‘Do it, do it.’ It’s as if the flowers are telling him who he is and what he should do while he himself is just sitting in front of the store consumed.

I like Mr. Osugi’s expression there because it’s very natural.

I told him to continue staring at the flowers. He couldn’t take it anymore and tears started running down his face. I continued rolling, and the minute I said cut, he apologized for crying. Before the next shot, he asked me if I wanted tears, and I told him it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t want him to be staring all teary eyed.

But when the woman comes out and asks him she can help him and we cut back to Horibe, he’s no longer crying. 

The make up person was bothered by that. They said I was just being lazy. It doesn’t take much to do this, just a few eye drops. But I just didn’t want it.

I thought that you probably didn’t want that scene to be sappy. Even the actual moment that Horibe begins to cry looking at the flowers is cut out. One of the paintings is inserted in that spot and when you come back his cheeks are already wet. Normally, that’s the part you want to keep in as a tearjerker. Instead the colors tell it all and that made it very moving.

I like that scene very much myself. I was really geared up to shoot that scene. The opening scene in the parking lot and this scene were the two that I knew I was going to have in the film while I was shooting.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
That opening is very cinematic even just reading the script. When I read it, the image just came to me. The way the parking lot would be shot, the shot where the blue sky is reflected on the hood of the car ...

Like the apartment by the sea where Horibe lives. The reason why I chose that place is because the roof of the crappy house behind it is blue. All blue. I set my heart on that house. ‘Well if we shoot here, where exactly does Horibe live?’ asked a crew member. I told him I didn’t know. I figure if we shoot him coming home this way, the audience will just assume he lives somewhere over there. The crew complained that they had to build a door. I told them it’s not the morning soap opera, I’m not going to have shots of him going in and out of his apartment. All I needed was the inside of the apartment. I liked the blue of the roof, I wanted to shoot there. If the roof was of a different color it wouldn’t be half as interesting. And it was by the sea ... I really was fanatically picky about the blue. That also meant that whenever any other color was introduced, I was doubly cautious as well.

That’s why the colors that you introduce in your paintings, like the yellow of the gingko leaf, are that much more vivid.

When you have a dark blue next to a light blue, it doesn’t stand out in any way. To make a color pop out you have to bring a completely opposite color next to it. That’s why I wanted the base color to be blue and then use other colors to punctuate the look of the film – give the film an edge.

The placement of color was important to you.

I really thought about Kayoko Kishimoto’s costume too. Not just in terms of color, but I didn’t want her to look too domestic. I wanted this couple to have many dynamics – like sometimes the wife could be the mother and the husband is the son or vice versa. I didn’t want them to have a very man/woman relationship. The reason why I didn’t have them talk too much to each other is because in my mind, a conversation between a man and a woman often leads to sex. I wanted to get rid of any sexual tension by doing away with the talking, and I thought I could show their relationship better by just portraying the moments they shared together. Just because his wife is ill, I was not going to have the guy ask her if she’s all right every place they went. I hate that.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
You don’t need that because you really get the feeling that he cares for her deeply without all those words. Now I’ve spent a lot of time talking to you about the technical aspects of filmmaking, but I really find the charm of your film to be more in the way your own life experiences are reflected in your films ... Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean the character is the director. Filmmaking isn’t that simple ... But after watching this film, the thought crossed my mind was that perhaps in ‘Fireworks’, you consider the various possibilities of what might have happened to you after the accident and project them onto the two characters, Nishi and Horibe.

Well, I feel like I’m found out. It puts me in a slightly defensive position. Horibe is obviously definitely an image of myself after the accident. You know, I was the king of prime time. Then the motorbike accident happened and some people left me. It made me realize that some people obviously didn’t really care about me. So I thought ‘Maybe I’ll take up painting.’ On the other hand, there was also that incident where we raided the publishing company. I thought that was the end of me. But I did it for a woman, you know. I really thought I was done for in society. I was lucky to have been able to come back to television after that. I felt I did what I had to do to prove my love for her. I felt I had to go. That was reflected in Nishi. The friendship and strong bond between Nishi and Horibe is a reflection of my relationship with my troupe. I single-handedly pulled my whole crew into that raid and we could have all become convicts. One of my guys still recounts with tears in his eyes how I told them I would take care of them, even if that meant I had to be a construction worker. I asked them to forgive me. I guess little bits of my essence end up in the films and in the characters. So I don’t want to say it too loud, but I think it’s inevitable. That’s why I hate people who are only interested in film. I think people should be many things. It’s all right if you get into a fight. There will be a moment when that experience will come in handy. A director has to study the techniques of filmmaking, but more importantly, it’s about what you have of your own to put into the film. I think good things and bad things can be 50/50 in life. So I dislike it when something good happens. I mean this film was a good thing, right? The reason why I can keep going, is because I never let myself be as happy as others expect me to. I feel like I’m going to die if I’m too happy because they’ll just say, ‘Hey, you’ve had enough fun, you’re done’. I think that’s why I’ve succeeded in so many areas. It’s not to be pompous. It’s just that I feel if I let myself be completely satisfied, I couldn’t move onto the next thing.

Sonatine (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
We talked about your crew, and though they’re not major characters in this movie, a number of them have smaller roles supporting you from afar. Like the doctor who gives Nishi a new shirt at the hospital, and the junkyard owner ...

How they support Nishi is important. Like the junkyard owner played by Tetsu Watanabe. When he first appears he is beating somebody up violently. How do you make a guy like that warm to you? Nishi goes to buy a scrapped police light from the junkyard and when he asks the owner about it, he takes off his sunglasses. It’s courtesy. If some punk came to him with his shades and said ‘Sell this to me,’ he would tell him to get lost. It’s a small thing, but it’s the way it works in certain neighborhoods. There is a feeling that what you give is what you get – whether it’s respect or it’s attitude. It’s the way some men bring each other’s guard down. I wanted him to play the character that way.

There is an instant bond between the two characters.

The chemistry between two guys is often decided instantaneously. It’s the same with communication between men and women too. But I feel it’s not all the things that are said between them, rather it’s all in the small things you do for each other.

It’s not that you decide whether you like the other person or not depending on what he does or says before, but rather that it’s decided instantaneously the moment you meet.

I really have a habit of doing that. Even if it’s a guy I’ve never met, I pretty much know the moment I see him. When friends introduce me to their friends I know instantly if it works or not.

Sonatine (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
Now that you’ve made seven films, does the fact that you’ve succeeded in film give you more freedom?

Sonatine was a turning point for me. I could have gone towards making a sonata from there or gone pop. With Fireworks, I feel I went closer to a sonata. I don’t want to use any guns in my next film. If you make the same sort of film again, even if you make it more intense, it doesn’t really make an impression. If you make a film from a completely different perspective it will be more shocking. Everyone around me says since Fireworks was such a success, do another one, but that’s the same as Tora-san series. I don’t like that. Though with Getting Any? I failed by doing something different. That’s why this time, I want to do something different and succeed. I want my next film to be the kind of film where the audience starts dancing as the end credits start rolling. I think this comes from my background in live stand up comedy. The audience used to get into it so much they were still laughing at us through the next act. In the same token, if I could make a movie where the audience was dancing at the end, that would be a great service. I think films should be capable of doing that. Even at film festivals, the audience gives standing ovations while the director stands outside the theater. It’s the audience’s way of thanking the director and congratulating him. I think the director should get them going even more – not just clapping. We can make a film where people are hugging and crying throughout it. We should move the audience more.

Last question. I asked you this after you wrapped ‘Sonatine’ also, but now that you’ve completed seven films: what is film to you?

I thought at first that film was the pus created when Japan became infected by the disease called Westernization. But now I feel that pus has transformed itself into a good tissue. Inside of me that is. From a young age, I’ve experienced and absorbed many things. When I wondered which culture it came from, I realized it was the one that sneaked in – the American culture. I’m just an old timer infected by this culture creating a paper theater, but I’d like to keep creating better paper theater.

– Excerpts from an interview with Takeshi Kitano by Makoto Shinozaki
. ‘Studio Voice Magazine’, November 1997.


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