The Film (5/5)
If you were to ask me in 2007 just as Blu-ray was beginning to hit the market for 10 films I would immediately want to see on the format. I could all but guarantee Takeshi Kitano's 1997 masterpiece Hana-Bi would have been on that list. When U.K. label Third Window Films announced the film for a 2016 Blu-ray release I knew it would be a prime contender for my end of the year list even though it would release at the beginning of the year (seriously come back in December, this will be on my list, 100% guaranteed). It is not only one of my personal favorite films of the 90's, I would easily list as one of the greatest films of that decade, and yet in many corners of the world the film is still considered an overall obscurity.
The film stars Kitano himself as Nishi a police detective who was known for his hard edged methods (think Dirty Harry) during his time on the force. However, during his last stake out, he left to spend time with his terminally ill wife at the hospital. This stakeout went terribly wrong for his team, 2 of them died, and his best friend Noribe becomes paralyzed, and confined to a wheelchair, which caused his family to look at him as a lesser person, and leave him. At the same time the Doctor who is taking care of Nishi's wife suggest taking her on a long vacation as she does not have long to live. Due to the overwhelming guilt from his recent screwup, he has left the force, and is without money. He does the only thing he can think of doing and robs a bank. He uses the money to pay for the trip, and also to help Noribe get by, some of the money also reaches the loan sharks he had been utilizing to pay for his wife's treatments, and when they realize he robbed a bank, they come searching for more of his cash.
Takashi Kitano began his career as a comedic TV personality in his native Japan before going into directing and acting with his first film Violent Cop in 1989 (as a personal aside, he is also responsible for one of the most bizarre NES games ever created, Takeshi's Challenge which has to be played to be believed). It would be his third film Sonatine which would see the director come upon the style that would make his name combining yakuza violence with touching human drama and beautiful imagery. It could be said that he perfected that style with Hana-Bi.
The film shows Kitano as a character that is drawn to excessive, extreme violence, and yet in care of his wife of friends he is a deeply tender and caring individual. Kitano's portrayal of Nishi is absolutely stunning, as he manages to carefully balance both extremes of the role sometimes within the same moment. The action scenes that are peppered through the film are excellent, and due to the depth that Kitano injects into the material actually feel like they matter. In another show of contrast he also manages to catch sweeping and gorgeous panoramic shots that are just peaceful and gorgeous, and really offer a strong counterpoint to the films more violent moments. The film also has a beautiful and endearing score by Joe Hisaishi most known for his work for animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli.
I have waited since the inception of the Blu-ray format to get Hana-Bi in HD and the wait was certainly worth it. Third Window Films presents Hana-Bi in a splendid 1:85:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer preserving the films original OAR. The film looks truly stunning, yet quite natural. Fine detail especially in close-ups is excellent, and there is excellent color reproductions throughout. There is a nice healthy organic grain structure present throughout the film. There are some minor compression artifacts, but they are not frequent, and again very minor.
The audio is presented with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track in Japanese. The track is excellent with dialogue and Joe Hisaishi's score coming through nicely. I did not detect any issues.
Third Window could have just put the film on to a Blu-ray and I would have been happy, fortunately, they have granted fans a few interesting extra feature sure to please fans of Kitano and the film. We get a feature length commentary with Mark Schilling a Japanese film historian. There is also a 28 minute retrospective on the career of Takeshi Kitano, a 15 minute interview with the director, and a trailer.
2016 is already ripe with excellent releases, and Third Window's Hana-Bi looks to be making a case to be an early contender for one of the year's finest. The Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic, and they've included a nice slate of extras. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.