Brother

 
Laura Clifford 
Robin Clifford 
Yakuza tough guy Yamamoto (Beat Takeshi) is forced to leave Tokyo and heads
to  LA  to find his younger half-brother Ken (Claude Maki.) Soon, the older
gangster realizes he is thrust back into the old violence he left behind in
Japan  and,  before  long,  he commands a sizable gang of his own. When his
Yakuza  brethren refuse to bow down to Mafia pressures, it's all-out war in
director/writer Takeshi Kitano's "Brother."

Robin:
Steeped in the long tradition of the Yakuza - a gangster society that is an
integral  part  of  the  overall  Japanese  culture - "Brother" begins with
Yamamoto  (Beat Takeshi, the director's on-screen moniker) arriving, alone,
in  Los  Angeles. He's looking for his relocated half-brother and, finally,
finds  out  where  he  lives.  Flash  back  to  Tokyo and we see the end of
Yamamoto's  Yakuza  clan as a rival gang absorbs it. The deal requires that
Yamamoto be eliminated to save the clan, but, the crime boss is secreted to
the US.

Once  in  the  good  old USA, Yamamoto picks up where he left off in Japan,
taking charge of Ken's homeboys. He joins forces with a rival Japanese gang
led  by  Shirase (Masaya Kato) and they being to take on the Chicano street
gangs,  eliminate  them, then move into their territory. Soon, the usurpers
come  to  the  attention  of the local Mafia and war breaks out between the
enemy factions on the streets of LA.

There  is  one thing you can say about Takeshi Kitano's films. They are the
vision  of  the filmmaker and, whether light comedy or gangland drama, have
his  firm  imprint  on every one. His use of over-bearing, schmarmy, cheesy
60's   orchestral   movie  music,  often  utilized  inappropriately,  is  a
trademark.  He frequently has the actors look directly into the camera, not
at  the  audience  but  at  the  actors  they  are  playing off of. He also
maintains  the  image  of  the  strong,  silent  type (or, as in the comedy
"Kikujiro",  the  weak,  silent type) who uses violence instead of words to
make his point.

Kitano's  films  are  interesting  -  maybe  not  always  good,  but always
interesting.  In  "Brother,"  there  are  a number of bits that don't quite
work.  Kitano  uses  frequent  non  sequitur  scenes  of  gangsters playing
basketball  or  throwing  a football that have nothing to do with the story
and  actually  take  attention  from the gangland drama. He also, at times,
injects  humor  into violent scenes, taking the edge off of such sequences.
I'll also mention the saccharine score, again, as an annoyance.

On  the  plus  side,  Kitano  gives  full  shrift  to  examining the Yakuza
sub-culture  with its codes of chivalry, obligation, loyalty, obedience and
brotherhood. Members of a Yakuza clan maintain a fanatical loyalty to their
anikis  (brothers)  within the gang with a willingness to put one's life on
the  line.  This loyalty, obedience and obligation are depicted vividly and
violently  throughout  the  story  and  lend  the  viewer  a look into this
culture, little known to American audiences.

Emotion,  or lack thereof, takes the lead over the acting in "Brother." The
Japanese characters, led by Yamamoto, are symbolic in the dedication to the
Yakuza  clan.  The  gang  leader's  right hand man, Kato (Susumu Terajima),
shows his complete commitment to Yamamoto as he declares to "stake my life"
on  protecting  his  boss  and brother. For Kato, the stakes are high. Omar
Epps,  as  one  of Ken's homies, Denny, has a violent initial confrontation
with  Yamamoto,  but  overcomes  his  suspicion and dislike for the man and
embraces  the  Yakuza  philosophy and loyalty to his boss.  The rest of the
cast,  with  some  exceptions,  is there to be the fodder that the gang war
uses up in copious quantities.

During  a  summer  season  that  suffers  from  a dearth of good mainstream
flicks,  the  independent  film  market  is  called  upon  to  provide  the
intelligence  in this season's film-going experience. Considering the utter
mediocrity  of  blockbuster  fare,  the  discerning  movie  maven  has some
alternatives.  There  hasn't  been,  over  the  years, a plethora of Yakuza
gangster  flicks  - Sidney Pollack's "The Yakuza" (1975) and Ridley Scott's
"Black  Rain" (1989) are two - and none from Japanese makers in our market,
with  the  exception  of  "Brother" and some vintage Akira Kurosawa flicks.
Kitano's  is a flawed work, but a breath of fresh air despite the problems.
I give it a B-.

Laura:
In the world of the Japanese Yakuza, 'brother' signifies both a bond stronger than blood and the immediate underlings of a clan Yakuza's oyabun, or father.  Writer/director/star Beat Takeshi is Yamamoto, saved from execution by the rival gang who've killed their boss by Harada (Ren Ohsugi, Hana-bi"), who's switched loyalties to save his skin.  Instead, Yamamoto is banished and travels to L.A. in search of his younger, half brother Ken (Claude Maki), a small time drug dealer.  Yamamoto quickly recreates the Yakuza lifestyle in L.A., slaughtering Ken's suppliers and building his own empire in "Brother."

Known as Aniki (brother), Yamamoto forms a particular attachment to Ken's friend Denny (Omar Epps, "Love and Basketball"), ironic seeing as when he first ran into him anonymously on the street, he shoved a broken bottle into Denny's eye.  Aniki's ability to outfox Denny in the bets Denny constantly proffers builds a humorous rivalry between the two.

Not much else is too funny in the violent world Yamamoto forms around himself. Once the Latino drug connection's been wiped out, they form an alliance with young Japanese hotshot Shirase (Masaya Kato), respectful of Yamamoto after the loyal Kato (Susumu Terajima, "Afterlife") stakes his life to prove Yamamoto's worth.  Shirase proves too headstrong, though, eventually embroiling Yamamoto's clan in a war with the Mafia which Yamamoto realizes will prove their undoing.

Fans of Takeshi's stylish violence will delight in the gunplay, Yubitsumes (the removal of a finger joint as apology), hari kiri and death-by-chopstick scenes peppered throughout his film, although newcomers may be left scratching their heads.  Takeshi's characters are always men of few words, but his Aniki is too inscrutable, his motivation mystifying.  His script is like a mosaic - it gives an impression, but leaves us to fill in the connective tissue. Yet Takeshi's exploration of the meaning of family has a resonance which helps us overlook his film's flaws.

Takeshi's Tokyo backstory is confusing to follow, only gradually making sense as the film progresses.  The violence ingrained in Aniki's being could explain why he allows his clan into an unwinnable war, yet it doesn't explain Denny's loyalty, which costs him everything.  (It doesn't help that Epps, after facing a shattering revelation, plays a revenge scene too lightly.)  Kitano introduces a flighty mistress (Joy Nakagawa) for Aniki out of nowhere, then dispatches her just as abruptly.  Still Kitano's Aniki is a striking figure with his elaborate Yakuza back tattoo, black suits and dark sunglasses and his final, prophetic gesture is that of a larger than life iconic figure.

While Director of Photography Katsumi Yanagijima's ("Sonatine") Tokyo scenes look like claustrophobic stage sets, he captures an outsider's look at L.A. emphasizing horizontal lines in the architecture and landscapes. Joe Hisaishi provides the typical, retro-orchestral Kitano score.

"Brother" is not likely to win new fans for Takeshi Kitano, but it's an intriguing, if not wholly satisfying, addition to his oeuvre.

B-

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