Actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano has built an international reputation over the past decade, primarily through a series of ultra-hard-boiled crime films in which he plays either a cop or a felon. With the exception of Gonin (1995; released in the United States in 1998), which was directed by Takeshi Ishii, all of these films were written and directed by Kitano himself. So it’s not surprising that in Brother, his first American foray as a filmmaker, he should return once again to the genre with which he is most strongly associated. As a result, while Brother may be the perfect introduction for Kitano newcomers, longtime fans may find it superfluous and even a step down from the likes of Hana-Bi (1997) and Sonatine (1993).
Still, one has to give Kitano points for managing to maintain most of his trademark style — both as an actor and as a filmmaker — while directing an English-language movie with a largely American cast in an American setting. He is as deadpan, melancholy, and fatalistic as ever.
Brother opens with a dejected Aniki Yamamoto (Kitano) arriving at LAX and checking into a hotel, overtipping at every opportunity. As we soon discover in a confusing flashback, back in Japan Aniki has been targeted for death by his former yakuza family; one of his comrades has taken the huge risk of sneaking him out of the country instead of killing him.
Banished from the only culture he knows, Aniki has come to Los Angeles to find his younger half-brother, Ken (Claude Maki), who is a funky, low-level drug dealer in an Asian gang that includes one black guy, Denny (Omar Epps). Ken and his pals seem resigned and even content with their lowly status, but Aniki is accustomed to functioning at a higher power level.
Almost immediately, he takes charge. By long-ingrained custom, almost as an animal instinct, he begins to lead the gang on a campaign to expand its turf and its power. In no time flat, he eradicates the Latino gang that controls the area. He accomplishes this partly through cunning, partly through murderous ruthlessness, partly through being, quite frankly, stone crazy; but he also has the ironic advantage of his foreignness. That is, he operates in ways that take his adversaries by surprise; it never occurs to them that this nobody, who can barely communicate in English, would have the sheer chutzpah to take them on, backed up by a bunch of losers and street-level dealers. “Japs and niggers, big fucking deal!” sneers one of the rival bosses, moments before Aniki pumps a dozen bullets into him.
In short, Aniki has reversed the usual pattern of newly arrived immigrants: Rather than adapt to his new environment, he makes his hosts adapt to his way of thinking. He brings yakuza codes to the formerly disorganized, strategically inchoate street gang. As surely as this initially brings them great success, it also guarantees their eventual destruction.
The gang moves upscale and inevitably comes up against another Asian-American gang, who at least understand the ground rules of Aniki’s thinking. But the real threat comes from the Italian mob. At a certain point, it becomes clear that Aniki has put himself and his new buddies on a fast-moving train to nowheresville: We’re all gonna die, they suddenly realize. They have advanced to the point where there is no backing down and no way to win.
All of Kitano’s gangster films follow this pattern of pessimistic predetermination. The only difference is that in this case there is at least the hope that one character may survive.
Brother is probably the most visibly bloody of Kitano’s films. He has always been a master of sudden eruptions of violence in previously calm situations. At the same time, a more sentimental thread runs through this film, concentrated in Aniki’s relationship with Denny. For some reason, Aniki forms a stronger bond with the one black guy in the gang than with any of the Asian Americans. This is hinted at without either clarity or explanation, making it tough to buy. We don’t see what brings them together, nor do their individual characters demonstrate much believable sympathy or chemistry. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that it is simply a calculated demographic move on the part of Kitano the filmmaker, or the reflection of some sort of liberal idealization of the lone African American as being somehow “more real” than the other characters.
In all his films, Kitano does have some kind of sentimentality running beneath his austere, hard-edged visual, but only in Kikujiro (1999) did he let the sentimentality rise fully to the surface. It was a smart move: While Kitano’s face and acting style have a Bogart-like quality that make him a natural to play cops and criminals, as a filmmaker he seems to have exhausted what he has to say on the subject. Given the virtues of Kikujiro and Scene by the Sea (1992), his earlier foray away from crime films, it would be good for him to move along now. Brother may serve to introduce him to Americans who don’t like foreign films, and it may drum up business for his earlier crime movies. But he has directorial virtues that cry out for a change of subject matter.