In his native Japan, Takeshi Kitano has always been revered. As a comedian, TV personality, actor, director, even a game show host, he’s not a man in need of more exposure. Back in 2000, he featured in the cult horror Battle Royale, a film that helped put Japanese cinema on the radar of hip young geeks in the West. In the same year, Kitano also directed and starred in Brother, his first and only (to date) film shot outside Japan and an intriguing attempt at transporting his hard-boiled yakuza persona into an American setting.
Producers expecting Kitano to land in Los Angeles and make a slick gangster movie must have been very disappointed. It’s obvious from Brother that Kitano was never really bothered about breaking into Hollywood; he barely speaks any English in the film and rarely reaches for the tenderness of his previous masterpieces like Sonatine and Hana-Bi. Instead he comes off as nonchalant and uncompromising, trying to wrestle with an unfamiliar language that refuses to fit his style, and the result is sometimes stilted and disengaging. But Kitano’s recurring themes are still apparent and Brother has plenty to say about the fraternity of the gang world, and the hollowness at its centre.
Brother‘s strength is that it refuses to conform to the Hollywood portrayal of gangsters as glamorous icons who lead a life of danger and excitement. Kitano plays a yakuza, Yamamoto, forced to leave Japan and head to LA to see his half-brother Ken (Claude Maki), who is a low-level drug dealer with his buddy Denny (Omar Epps). Yamamoto is soon killing off the competition and taking Ken and his gang of posers and wannabes to the top of the food chain. A director like Scorsese would have had a field day but for Kitano, being a gangsta is a mundane job with little benefits and a short life expectancy - the view from the top isn’t much different as the view from the bottom, you’re just more likely to get killed.
Kitano’s main target is the empty morals of American society, with LA just a hunk of land to be fought over by those with enough greed, ambition and firepower to be the last man standing. Kitano is keen to highlight the mundanity of it all with the boys left to sit around in their absurdly grand office playing basketball while Yamamoto starts to feel an affinity with Denny as they play stupid betting games with each other. Their relationship is supposed to be at the heart of the story but rarely is there any depth, leaving the final scene largely redundant.
The film is violent, but not in a chic Tarantino way. Kitano’s style is matter-of-fact, long takes punctuated with something extreme - a finger being chopped off, chopsticks blasted up some poor guy’s nose - while shoot-outs are kept off-screen. This isn’t a film about how cool it is to be a gangster, it’s about going through the motions until, inevitably, someone bigger and better - in this case the Mafia - comes along to dump you in a shallow grave in the desert. Kitano’s done this sort of thing better of course; you’ll just have to put up with subtitles to get the full Kitano experience.