Brother (US-Japan, 2000) **
Directed, written, edited by Takeshi Kitano. Produced by Masayuki Mori, Jeremy Thomas. Photography, Katsumi Yanagijima. Music, Joe Hisaishi. Cast: Beat Takeshi, Omar Epps, Claude Maki, et al. A Sony Pictures Classic release.113 minutes. In English and Japanese (subtitled). Rated R (extreme violence)
There are two Takeshis : Takeshi Kitano and Beat Takeshi. They are one and the same person. Kitano is the name the man uses for everything, except as an actor, when he becomes Beat Takeshi. This is a name inherited from The Two Beats, an early Kitano "manzai," i.e. a stand-up comic duo which brought Takeshi great TV fame in his pre-movie-directing days.
Kitano started directing movies in 1989. "Brother" is his ninth and his first made outside Japan. He has acted in most of them, written and edited all but his first, played in six films by other directors, Japanese, American, and French. He also makes films for Japanese TV, has written dozens of books (fiction. poetry, essays, works about cinema, etc.) He manages a group of actors, paints, and so on. The man is a veritable factory of activities. Idolized in Japan, he has a strong following in Europe, especially after many nominations for prizes in major festivals, and wins for three of them: "Sonatine," "Hana-Bi" ("Fireworks") and "Kikujiro."
In "Brother" his screen name is Yamamoto. It is a reference to the film's costume designer Yohji Yamamoto who is also a celebrated fashion creator. Could the name Yamamoto also be a strange homage to Isokuru Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II? For what was Marshall Erwin Rommel to the German Army and General George Patton to the U.S. Army is applicable to the Japanese Admiral, in spades. He was a great military figure, and a wise one. He knew the USA, its people, its gigantic industrial possibilities. Not taken in by Japan's military warmongers and their misdirected optimism, Yamamoto was against his country's war on America. He actually liked and admired it. But the planners of Japan didn't listen, so that, orders being orders (the Japanese version of the Germans' notorious "befehl ist befehl,") when he entered the fray, Yamamoto gave it his all, starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor. The man was the best planner and strategist that Japan had. When, in April 1943, U.S. Intelligencce got wind of a Yamamoto flight over the Pacific, intercepting American planes attacked. Yamamoto was killed. The loss to the Land of the Rising Sun was enormous.
Kitano has always had a fascination for Japan's "yakuza," and dealt with it in several films. In "Brother" he plays a powerful yakuza who has to leave Japan. He goes to Los Angeles where his much younger, Americanized half-brother Ken (Claude Maki.) Before they meet an African-American holds up Yamamoto in the street, is subdued in seconds by the newcomer who almost gauges out his eye. When the brothers do get together it turns out that Ken's buddy -- and fellow drug dealer -- is none other than big brother's attacker, Denny (Omar Epps.) Small world. Oddly, friendship and brotherhood will rise between Yamamoto and Denny.
The trio now does well in pursuit of crime, so well that it expands and re-expands, in ways that are brutal and gory, and involve many ethnic groups, from Hispanic to amazingly large congregations of Japanese yakuza. The end result, after Yamamoto's gang reaches a summit, comes when the American Mafia steps in. I will not reveal this march of time. Or the odd and bloody finale-that's-not-a-closure.
The movie is too long, too diffuse, too vague. Viewers might be helped if they are familiar with the ways, ethos, tactics and nature of the Yakuza --so very different from those of the U.S. mob. That's not the case, especially since the film does not delve in explanations and expositions. We are in the dark. We are not helped by either the action or the dialogue. The former is non-stop, the latter is minimal. (Minimalism in everything characterizes much of Kitano's output.)
So one (at least myself) loses interest quickly. watches a parade of blood baths --cheaper by the dozen?-- with gore in plain sight and with gore not shown. It gets boring. It makes no sense. There are loose ends as well as loose starts and loose middles.
The multi-talented Japanese Takeshi Kitano has a characteristic pockmarked face, but in this respect he comes well behind Manuel Ortega's (Panama's former dictator, now languishing in U.S. prison) or even the under-utilized Robert Davi's ("License to Kill.) This somehow adds a kind of "seriousness" to his looks and to his also characteristic impassivity.
In this movie, Kitano-Yamamoto reigns silently, sits there like a statue that comes to life regularly only to pull a gun and kill someone within one-hundredth of a second. His aim is perfect. All this without departing from his stone face.
Whether as Kitano or as Beat, the man's impassivity is a trade mark. A widely-quoted joke about this is that Kitano had an almost fatal motorcycle accident which after plastic surgery, left one side of his face paralyzed. But, goes the gag, no one noticed that.
I must stress that the parade of killings becomes dull, as well as confusing. In a sequence where another Godfather meets his people, one yakuza casts aspersions on another. The latter, to prove (what? the falsity of the accusation?) quickly shows his fealty by disemboweling himself most graphically. The "accuser" not feels that he broke, somehow, the yakuza code. So he cuts off one of his own fingers. Yeeech!