Japanese director Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks is a funny, strange, elliptical, sentimental, intensely moving story about the absurd and violent poetry of everyday life, that begins, somehow fittingly, in a parking garage. The lead character, an ex-cop named Nishi played by the director himself, encounters a pair of workmen who've eaten their lunch on the hood of his car. There's a shot of Nishi looking straight at the camera, then a cut to the two men next to the soiled car, followed by a closeup of Nishi's hand coming out of his pocket, then a shot of one of the sullen pair soaping the automobile. It's a comic scene, but it's also unsettling, both because the characters don't exchange a single word and because it's never explained how Nishi convinces the men to clean the mess.
The director isn't keeping anything from us in this scene; he's building tension the old-fashioned way. The ex-cop Nishi is terrifying, a point Kitano gets across right away: Because we don't see Nishi coerce the men, it's left for us to imagine just how scary he can be. It's a time-honored strategy, like producer Val Lewton getting around his low budgets by filling the screen with creeping shadows instead of extras in cat suits. Later in Fireworks, when Nishi finally does explode during a bloody shootout at a suburban mall, we're prepared for the worst but nonetheless shocked by his ferocity. By the time the scene is over, one cop is dead, another lies wounded and, in a gesture suggestive of Peckinpah's ignored masterpiece Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Nishi has sealed his fate by unloading his gun into a man already dead.
The shootout that spins Nishi's life off orbit comes fairly late in Fireworks, but glimpses of the carnage intrude on his present, like one of those nightmare loops that veils your eyes after a tragedy. In Nishi's case, the images aren't just bad souvenirs but auguries: When the film begins, the detective has already left the force and is on his way toward committing a bank robbery. After that initial scene at the garage - which ends with a shot of Nishi staring at the words "drop dead," a red scrawl now defacing his empty parking place - the film flips to the past and back again to the present, continuing the pattern with disconcerting abruptness. An early scene with Nishi and his wife, sitting silently in a hospital room, is brutally interrupted with the image of Nishi's partner getting a hole blown in him by a murderous punk.
The film's editing style is at times so fragmented that it can, at least initially, be hard to figure out what's happening, or when. The sense of dislocation, however, is to the point of Nishi's life, which has been shattered not only by the shootout but by personal catastrophe. Not long after the film opens, we discover that Nishi's wife, Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto), has spent the last few years in the hospital, and that his former partner, Horibe (Ren Osugi), has been paralyzed in a gun battle after taking Nishi's shift. In the wake of the shooting, Nishi tends to his wife and crippled friend, sending Horibe art supplies and taking Miyuki off on a road trip (he gives the widow of a dead cop some of his bank loot as well).
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Nishi may be guided by guilt, but it's more likely that he feels he has no choice; in any event, Kitano never really lets on what's going through the character's head, because the reasons Nishi takes care of his wife and friend are finally less important than the fact that he does. (Like the film, the character is deeply nonpsychological.) There's something wonderful about his flailings - in the rainbow of paints and the new minivan - and something sad and crushing. Nishi wants to make everything better, but he can't; still, he keeps trying (he'd rather die trying). When Nishi visits Horibe after he has returned home, they talk on the beach as they look out at the sea, one man in a wheelchair, the other equally immobile. Horibe tells Nishi that his wife and child have abandoned him. "I've got nothing to do," he says. "I've been thinking about painting. Maybe I'll buy a beret." Rarely has the human gift for grasping at hope seemed quite as funny, heartbreaking or ridiculous.
Kitano plays Nishi without a trace of actorly fuss or muss, and, with a few boisterously comic exceptions, directs his actors to similar effect. The stripped-down performance style is mirrored by a deceptively simple, even austere mise en scene. In Fireworks, though, less invariably leads to more. For every one of the film's emptied-out rooms and modest gestures - the sine qua non of classical Japanese cinema - there's an image of one of Horibe's paintings, a closeup of a lurid orchid, a spasm of violence. There's a pulp force to these moments of excess and to Kitano's shock edits, and in that respect he can seem a close cousin to both Sam Fuller and Japan's own Suzuki Seijun; some critics think of Kitano as simply a yakuza director, a Japanese John Woo. But neither Fuller nor Suzuki (much less Woo) could ever sustain the extraordinary emotional lyricism that distinguishes Fireworks, lifting it out of pulp indulgence and into the poetic. For a man who looks good holding a gun, Kitano knows that sometimes the way we live can be far more painful than the way we die.
In some corners of the world, the 51-year-old Kitano - who also goes by the name "Beat" Takeshi - is a sensation. It's easy to understand why from this film alone. Kitano not only wrote, directed and coedited Fireworks, he also painted the brightly colored canvases that figure so prominently in its story. It's the director's seventh feature in nine years, and last year it won him the Golden Lion at Venice. He's one of Japan's favorite personalities (at last count, he was starring in an astonishing seven different weekly television shows and had written more than 50 books). In England, three of his features are among the most popular foreign-language video rentals. In the United States, however, he's been afforded the status of a minor cult figure, if for no other reason than that his films have subtitles.
Fireworks is an exemplary work of art, which probably won't help its ticket sales. Once upon a time in this country, art movies meant Antonioni or Truffaut, but these days they generally mean Gwyneth Paltrow and a budget under $20 million. A few years ago, under Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder banner, Miramax bought Kitano's powerful yakuza film Sonatine, only to sit on it while the company busied itself with cardboard masterpieces like Good Will Hunting. Now Miramax has decided to open Sonatine just weeks after upstart distributor Milestone, a tiny New York outfit with all of four employees, releases Fireworks, thereby allowing the Disney company to capitalize on publicity generated by the smaller firm. Although there's a risk that Miramax could siphon off some of Milestone's business, perhaps it's better to be thankful for small favors, especially when it comes to foreign-film distribution. After all, Fireworks and Sonatine are both terrific, even if only one of the distributors gives a damn.