Saturday, March 21, 2015

Brother (2000)

Around the turn of the 21st century, Kitano Takeshi decided to try to break into the Western film market, and since he’s known for violent gangster movies, it only makes sense that he’d lead with a Yakuza film. Brother was the result. It seems to have gotten generally mixed reviews at best, but it didn't seem to really open up the market for him. He's still pretty much relegated to the dark realm of art house desolation and cinema nerds. Despite all that, Brother is a pretty solid film, albeit with a few minor issues.

Most Yakuza films fall into one of about three categories – ridiculous action crime drama, dark and serious crime drama, or comedic hijinx. Kitano “Beat” Takeshi’s Yakuza film Brother takes a more fantasy route. Much like how the Grand Theft Auto game series imagines a city with a very organized crime structure based on racial stereotypes (The Chinese Triad runs this area, and over here we have the Italian Mafia, and just around that corner we have the black Gangbangers…), Brother takes Los Angeles, and basically does the same thing. Takeshi breaks up LA among various “legendary” crime groups, from gangbangers to cholos to the local Little Tokyo mafia to the actual Italian mafia, and then tosses an exiled Japanese Yakuza member into the mix to attempt a takeover. It seems like Brother treats LA the way that Yakuza groups are portrayed in more typical Yakuza films – gangs that hold certain territories with specific alliances, and by killing a specific member here, and by aligning yourself with another member there, you can effect a city wide takeover. Not sure if that’s even remotely viable in a crime ridden American city with a collection of disparate elements, but that’s what we’re working with here.

The Plot. 

The film starts with old school Yakuza member Yamamoto (Played, ,of course, by Kitano Takeshi) in a taxi in L.A., but quickly backtracks to Japan to explain his situation in a typical display of Yakuza film complexity: Yamamoto’s boss is killed in an assassination by another Yakuza group, the Jinseikai, which then absorbs his group into it. Yamamoto isn’t having that, so to get him out of the way, his former partner Harada (Osugi Ren from Party 7, Tokyo Mafia: Yakuza Wars, and Fireworks) is tasked with killing him by the new boss, played by Japanese film legend Watari Tetsuya (Tokyo Drifter, Yakuza Graveyard, and Graveyard of Honor). Yamamoto, in true badass fashion, offers Harada his own gun to kill him. Harada refuses; they’re sworn brothers, after all. So he sends Yamamoto to America and kills and mutilates a bum to pass off as Yamamoto’s corpse. Now Yamamoto is free and clear of the Japanese Yakuza and on his way to Los Angeles to find his younger half-brother, Ken (Claude Maki, A Scene at the Sea). Convoluted enough for you? Fortunately the rest of the plot is pretty straightforward.

Yamamoto finds Ken living with his drug-dealing hoodlum buddies Denny (Omar Epps), Jay (Royale Watkins), and Mo (Lombardo Boyar). It should be mentioned that Yamamoto is taciturn and expressionless (as nearly all of Kitano's roles tend to be), and one would imagine that now that his ties have been cut from the Yakuza he is world weary and finished with that life. Oh, but no. On the contrary, Yamamoto quickly inserts himself into his younger brother’s drug dealings, with decisiveness and swift violence. Apparently the expressionless Yakuza has no interest in retirement. Why the hell he wants to push in on territory that he knows nothing about, and with no real resources is a mystery, but I guess it’s just part of the fantasy.

The first act is Yamamoto effecting a takeover of the small time gangs in the area and consolidating power. The second act abruptly starts with the “family” now holding real power, having transitioned from a ghetto apartment to a high-end fancy loft complete with a basketball half court and an accountant, and some of the coolest suits ever put to film. The abruptness with which the movie shifts forward into the future is jarring, and it takes some time to figure out that probably a few months or more has passed – the actual amount of time is never made clear beyond the fact that so much has changed. It has to be a pretty good amount of time based on the visual cues. Anyway, after this indeterminate amount of time has passed, they are making real money, and looking to cut into the Italian mafia’s territory – which, if you've ever seen a gangster film, is never a good idea. However, when your strategy as a drug dealing Yakuza crime boss is really nothing more than to kill anyone that gets in the way of your plan, I guess expansion is the only option.

The main focus of the film, aside from the violence, is the friendship that develops between Denny and “Aniki” (Denny’s term for Yamamoto, Yakuza-speak for “brother”). They have a good enough chemistry on screen, and the ending hinges on the viewer buying into the friendship in the first place, but I don’t think quite enough development was put into the friendship to give the ending the impact that it really wants.

The Characters.

Aside from Yamamoto, there is a large collection of characters, although mostly bit players and background filler – only a few characters of note. Most notable is my personal favorite, Susumu Terajima (Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, Gonin 2, Ichi the Killer, Sonatine) as Kato, Yamamoto’s most loyal lieutenant, and Kato Masaya (Shinjuku Incident, Agitator) as the Little Tokyo mob boss Shirase. Also worthy of mention is Ishibashi Ryo (Another Lonely Hitman), as Shirase’s right hand man Ishihara.

The Violent Rundown. 

As in any good Kitano Takeshi film, there is a healthy helping of violence. We are treated to the brutal beating of a drunken bum, a broken bottle to the eye, two stabbings, a pair of broken chopsticks up the nose, a car bomb, around 13 shootings including a Russian Roulette style suicide, and probably another 10 more off-screen shootings. As this is a yakuza film, things wouldn't feel complete without the two hacked off fingers and a good old-fashioned disembowelment.

The Final Verdict.

Brother is a good introduction to Yakuza films for English speakers who aren't familiar with the genre. It hits on all the typical Yakuza themes, is probably 80% English, and dishes up a big serving
of gangland violence. As for the overall plot, well, the underlying point of the movie is never really made all that clear, and is pretty much left up to interpretation. Is the point the “friendship across cultures” between gangsta Denny and gangster Yamamoto? Is it the parable of the old Yakuza who can’t change his ways? Or, is it simply a “suicide by crime spree” on the part of Yamamoto, who has been banished from not only his country, but his entire Yakuza identity? I dunno. Brother isn't a bad film, and if you’re a fan of the genre, there is plenty here to like, and since it is sort of an experiment in crossing cultures plot-wise, and production wise, it turns out to be a generally entertaining experiment that was only a failure insofar as it failed to get Kitano the international exposure that he wanted. I guess it was panned because it feels like a B movie, and probably because of the terrible editing and jarring scene transitions that plagued it throughout, along with some weak acting here and there. But, see it anyway.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998)

It’s hard to find a crime drama that came out in the five-year span after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction that wasn’t directly or indirectly influenced by them, and this goes for Japanese crime dramas as well. Case in point, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, a wild rock n’ roll ride with a wordy title that is obviously influenced by Tarantino, although a comparison to a Guy Ritchie film might be more apt, as Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl moves at a frenetic pace, and sports a cast of wild, crazy, buffoonish, cartoonish, and violent characters. However, Snatch came out around the same time, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels was still a year away when Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl came out, so there’s no way of knowing if the influence is there. Regardless, the spirit is.

The Plot.

SSM&PHG is the surrealist story of Momojiri (“Peach Hip”, or "Peach ass" if you prefer) Toshiko (played by Shie Kohinata - an actress who doesn't seem to have done much before or after this role), a youngish girl held as an employed captive by her creepy uncle Sonezaki, played by Shimada Yohachi (Party 7) at the rundown hotel “Symphonia” in an undetermined mountainous area somewhere in rural Japan. Toshiko implements a plan to run away from her disturbed uncle and is finally on the road when she is distracted from her drive by a guy fleeing past her car naked but for his tighty whities.  This underwear clad guy is a good-natured bad guy by the name of Samehada ("Sharkskin"), played by Asano Tadanobu (Party 7, Ichi the Killer). Samehada stole some money from this yakuza group he worked for, and seems to be haphazardly fleeing without much in the way of an escape plan. Fortunately for him, and not so much for Toshiko, she rams into the pursuing vehicle filled with Yakuza, flipping their car and knocking her unconscious.  Samehada quickly commandeers Toshiko's damaged car (with her unconscious still inside), and the chase is on. When Samehada and Toshiko hit the road, bullets and knives fly, and we are introduced to director Katsuhito Ishii’s crazy cast of characters.

Chasing the young lovers is Samehada's former mentor and partner Sawada (Played by yakuza film perennial Susumu Terajima of Gonin 2, Ichi the Killer, Sonatine, and Brother), and Mr. Tanuki, played by Ittoku Kishibe (Another Battle, Violent Cop), and his crew of fashion show rejects, all with odd mannerisms and “Royale with cheese” dialogue fit for a Quentin Tarantino movie. Among the nutty collection of Yakuza crew members we have Mr. Tanuki's neurotic and apprehensive driver Sorimachi, played by Ko Takasugi, the boss's psychotic brat son Mitsuru, played by Tsurumi Shingo (Dead or Alive), strongman Taniguchi, played by Yamada Shingoro, and a baseball bat wielding guy who seems to be suffering from multiple sclerosis name Inuzuka, played by Horibe Keisuke (Party 7), and a whole host of others.

We already know pretty much up front that this band of yakuza misfits is no match for Samehada. That being said, it’s also obvious that Samehada’s lack of a plan to get away with the stolen cash all but guarantees that they’ll catch up with him eventually. Thrown into the chase is Yoshiko’s perverted uncle and his twisted little buddy turned hitman, Yamada, played with disturbing levity by Tatsuya Gasyuin (Party 7), who complicates things for both sides.

The Violent Rundown.

On top of all the other fun, there is a lot of violence in the movie, all of which I dutifully recorded for you. About 17 shootings (including two off screen), two knifings (thrown or otherwise), around four off screen beatings, and a couple on screen beatings, including one with a baseball bat, and a head bashed with a stereo. The violence is more of the black comedy variety, and has no actual impact considering all of the actors are essentially playing over-the-top live action cartoon characters, which keeps it all fun and games in the end.  Suffice it to say, director Ishii doesn't let realism get in the way of the fun.

The Final Verdict.

The move itself looks good (although with the dark and grainy late 1990’s Japanese cinema look aside), with great costumes and decidedly non-urban Japanese landscapes. The movie also includes one of the best opening credits sequences in a yakuza film, and really sets the tone for what’s to come.  In fact, I can't imagine a person seeing the opening sequence and NOT wanting to immediately go out and see this movie:

Although at its core, this is clearly a “lovers on the run” flick, Samehada clearly isn’t running scared. He’s running because it’s fun. Asano Tadanobu seems to be having so much fun in fact, he doesn’t seem to be
acting so much as just playing along with what, all in all, seems to be an excuse to dress up in designer clothes, run around playing with guns, and have Tarantino-esque conversations about nothing. It’s all mindless fun, but it looks good, sounds good, and keeps things entertaining the entire trip. IMDB gives it 7/10, audience scores on Rotten Tomato give it 81%, and critics give it 25%, so this is one of those cases where the critics are just plain wrong. SSM&PHG is probably one of my favorite black comedy/action yakuza films, and with a great rock and roll soundtrack, greatly stylized costumes, and ridiculous, cartoonish violence, I highly recommend it.