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.