The superb films by master filmmaker Takeshi Kitano are something of an acquired taste, largely ignored even back in Japan until his 1997 film Hana-bi brought him worldwide acclaim.Told, at least for the first half, in an unconventionally disjointed non-linear fashion, the narrative follows ex-cop Nishi, weighed down by emotional and financial burdens, who takes a fateful road-trip with his dying wife, and is hunted by both his old colleagues and the angry Yakuza he is indebted to. The story, however, is arguably far less important that the design of Kitano’s mood piece, which exhibits the director’s trademark features. Static-camera shots, perfectly framed, with almost no dialogue and seemingly nothing going on (at least not in-frame), riding the wave of composer Joe Hisaishi’s melancholic score (whose style you should recognise from just about any Studio Ghibli film you’ve ever seen), and often – and suddenly – punctuated with equal part fragments of wonderfully natural deadpan humour and bouts of abrupt, shocking violence.After a near-fatal motorbike accident a few years earlier, the comedian-turned-serious-filmmaker Kitano finally gained universal recognition with a celebrated masterwork that is both an accomplished, richly-layered piece, and also a highly personal one, steeped in the trappings of the aftermath of this tragic event which left his face partially paralysed. Indeed the fate of one of the other key characters in the film appears to draw directly from his own personal experiences, not least in the recovery process, which involves adopting a painting hobby that actually utilises the artwork that the director created when he himself was recuperating. There’s so much depth to the piece, it practically warrants a second watch almost as soon as you’ve finished the first one, and marks a great introduction to one of the most impressive modern directors in Japan.
Picture QualityHana-Bi hits UK Region B-locked Blu-ray complete with a largely excellent 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video presentation, which marks a considerable upgrade over previous DVD incarnations. Detail is oftentimes excellent, providing rich textures and depth, whilst retaining clarity at most levels, from the more nuanced close-ups to the more elaborate broader shots.
Kitano shoots his films much like he paints his unusual paintings, retaining a sense of framing, loose symmetry, and atypical wonder.
Whilst the film is almost twenty years old, and the palette is oftentimes limited by the weather and locations used, colours are healthy and natural, and black levels remain reasonably strong, only infrequently letting in some digital defects, and generally retaining good contrast. Although not the prettiest picture, and far from the cleanest – with the opening few minutes in particular showing some scratches and marks on the print that, thankfully, don’t appear for the rest of the duration – this is still a solid rendition of this great little movie, and arguably the best that it has ever looked.
Sound QualityThe DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track may not exactly compete with the current Atmos rage but at least it stays faithful to the material, retaining the natural design of the original track, whilst providing a warm, rich lossless sound upgrade. Dialogue – although that’s far from an important part of this piece – remains well prioritised across the array, complete with strong English subtitles accurately reflecting the original Japanese spoken words. Effects frequently punctuate the runtime, cracking out across the channels, and jolting you back to reality particularly during the more day-dream-like sequences.
Again, although it’s never going to amount to reference status, the distinctive soundtrack receives a noticeable upgrade.
The score – another fabulous offering from regular Kitano collaborator Joe Hisaishi (who also did considerable work for Studio Ghibli) – plays a vital part, arguably the most important element. Sombre and melancholic, emotional and resonant, it drives the tone of the piece and interacts perfectly with the on-screen development, as aforementioned cleverly punctuated by the more striking effects. This may not be demo material, but this little Kitano gem has never sounded better.
ExtrasHeadlined by an Audio Commentary by Kitano expert and film reviewer Mark Shilling, where we gain a substantial amount of insight into the more technical and stylistic choices in the project; the symbolism, the tone of the piece and the superior framing of the shots, there’s also a quarter-hour Interview with Kitano himself, who talks about his TV background, his adopted acting persona, ‘Beat’ Takeshi; his restrained use of dialogue and his visual flair.
This indie release boasts a surprisingly thoughtful selection of extra features.
A near half-hour Director Takeshi Kitano Retrospective provides a broader overview towards the filmmaker’s larger canon of work, with original trailers for many of his classics, as well as background into this project, complete with some behind-the-scenes footage. Both this and the Interview are provided in original Japanese with English subtitles. The disc is rounded off by the main feature’s original Trailer.
Blu-ray VerdictThe first of hopefully many classic-era Kitano titles to finally by released on Blu-ray.
With strong video and audio, both appreciably not without flaws but also representing, respectively, the best that Hana-bi has arguably ever looked or sounded like, and a solid selection of supplemental features, fans of the director should celebrate the chance to finally pick this up, and those intrigued should definitely watch this unconventionally beautiful work.
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