Watering Dead Flowers

Fireworks (Hana-Bi)

Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks is remarkable for many reasons, but its greatest achievement is taking a character capable of extreme violence and sweet tenderness and absolutely nothing in between and making him believable and rich. The feat looks all the more impressive considering the character’s perpetual mask of blank impassivity.

Kitano wrote, directed, edited, and starred in the movie, and — for good measure — also created some fascinating paintings for it. He plays Nishi, a man who endures the killing of two fellow cops, the crippling of his partner, the death of his daughter, and the terminal illness of his wife with an eerily expressionless face. He also sticks a chopstick in the eye of one of his tormentors, a member of the yakuza, to which he owes much money.

The first hour of the movie is dominated by Nishi’s emotionless visage and his sudden bursts of destruction. He pummels people with seemingly little provocation, and when he visits his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) in the hospital, she sits on the bed looking wordlessly at the floor, and he mutely smokes a cigarette. The doctor tells him to take his wife home — or on a trip — because there’s no medical miracle for her leukemia.

At first, Nishi’s decision to take the doctor’s advice comes as a shock. But, gradually exposed to Nishi with his wife, we realize that we’ve misjudged him. These vacation scenes have a beautifully observant air to them, finding comfort, devotion, and affection in the smallest domestic gestures and games — a dessert, a card trick, the lighting of fireworks.

Any description of Nishi’s behavior suggests the character is torn between violence and love, or swinging on an emotional pendulum powered by guilt. But there’s nothing churning inside him. No matter what he does, from killing people to giving his wife her dream vacation to executing his ingenious fundraising scheme, Nishi’s pulse rate never seems to waver from 60. The movie suggests that violence and love can not only coexist but live peacefully together. What the audience eventually understands is that, given his circumstances, Nishi’s physical outbursts are merely means to the most important end: survival, so he can take care of his wife.

The movie’s structure and pacing are a natural outgrowth of Nishi. Quiet scenes are interrupted by brief flurries of action and blood. Kitano also gives Nishi’s extremes a dramatic counterpoint in the character of the paralyzed partner (Ren Osugi), who paints his life away after his wife and daughter leave him following his injury. The paintings start as animals with flower heads, but as the movie progresses, they become a form of foreshadowing and commentary.

Kitano’s performance is surprisingly potent, considering his constant blank face and few words. Kishimoto, as the wife, has even less dialogue (exactly six words, in translation), but she gives her character fascinating shades as the dying mate unsheltered from and unfazed by her husband’s worst behavior. She wants peace and love in her final days, just as the wheelchair-bound painter looks for meaning and understanding.

Nishi, on the other hand, has found all of the above. “It’s no use watering dead flowers,” one man observes, watching the wife do exactly that. A few moments later, he gets a beating from Nishi, who clearly disagrees, though you wouldn’t know it from his face.

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