Signalling Kitano's first English-language film, Brother is full of the director's visual imprimaturs that have elevated him to cult status both in his native Japan and across the world-wide arthouse circuit. By and large, the film is a successful transposition of his trademark melancholic violence, playful humour and brutal editing, and in this respect Kitano maintains an artistic and thematic continuity with his earlier films. From his rough and ready efforts (Boiling Point, Violent Cop) to more layered, sophisticated, mature films like Hana-Bi and Kikujiro, Kitano has proved a master of evoking a simple storyline with images that linger long in the mind.
In Brother, Kitano plays Yamamoto, a disgraced Tokyo yakuza who seeks out his drug-dealer brother in Los Angeles, strikes up a tentative friendship with one of his friends (Omar Epps) and proceeds to mastermind his brother's gang to the top of the LA gangland fraternity. As his own leading man, the best way to describe Kitano's acting is a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Christopher Walken; half-deadpan, half-psychotic. His face is like a road-map of scars, lines and crows-feet, while his nervous tics and twitches lend a further layer to his persona. The viewer is never entirely sure what to expect next - scenes of auto-disembowelment and death by chopsticks-up-the-nose are juxtaposed to beautifully static Noh-like tableaux of sea-shore vistas and LA night skies.
Kitano is also, famously, a stand-up comedian in Japan, and it is his wry humour and wicked eye for satire that inflects all his films. Having gangsters talk about the merits of Big Macs and Madonna songs à la Tarantino's pop-cultural trips down memory lane is all well and good if it serves a narrative purpose, but in Brother, Kitano has been successful at marrying the bizarre comic habits and lifestyles of his yakuzas with images of violent poise and beauty. This is precisely because he recognises the link between the two: comedy and violence are bedfellows insofar as they are both unexpected; coming out of nowhere to shake us from our complacency.
The film also ends up as a rather scathing attack on LA's indigenous communities. Brother is full of themes of displacement (right down to gangsters attending Denny's mother's birthday party) and this is evident in Kitano's rendering of gangland culture. Blacks, Italians, Japanese and Hispanics all vie for territory, but none of these groups are presented in any wider cultural or ritualistic framework. We learn little of their customs or their religions; instead Los Angeles is a blank space waiting to be appropriated by the strongest clan. As a place, LA is the ultimate 21st century city, full of pop-cultural references, open urban spaces and no binding social code.
There are criticisms - apart from his dying wife in Hana-Bi, Kitano cannot direct women; in Brother, they are either pneumatic cocktail-waitresses or mock-punk good-time girls. Like Tarantino attempted in Jackie Brown, a future woman-oriented narrative would be an interesting career development for Kitano. Aficionados might also baulk at his uncharacteristic 'happy end', in which Denny escapes from the Mafia with a bag full of money. It is an excruciating scene, full of profanities that threatens to turn an elegiac conclusion into some kind of X-rated 'gangsta-rap' song. Perhaps Kitano is mellowing as he enters his fifties, or, more likely, the US studio executives demanded a redemptive, feel-good conclusion that seriously unbalances Kitano's generic leitmotifs of pain, loss and a decidedly unredemptive future.
Reviewed by Ben McCann
Reader comments about Brother
Irrelevant (Email address withheld) writes:
This film is a masterpiece. You may not know me, but it takes a very special film for me to call it a masterpiece and I only have four in total, which says something about this one. It is clear to realise that this is an unconventional and stylish film.
Brother produces a fantastic performance from Kitano and has a lot of beauty about it with an underlying meaning, which can bearly be acknowledged by the average person.
I think it's best that you people continue giving oscars to films like final destination, which clearly is oscar material.
Staszek Moray (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes:
A very good film. Again, Kitano continuing his style focusing on people and the way the people are 'positioned' on camera. Fantastic film direction. The Japanese cast was superb; they were all so stylish, especially Masaya Kato as Shirase. Will we ever see more of him? In future I would like to see Kitano making a movie not relating to the Yakuza, but still keeping his style.
paul blair (email@example.com) writes:
Brother, for me was the best Kitano movie so far. It is perhaps the best cross cultural movie as well. Action trash like Rush Hour only demean Asian actors such as Jackie Chan, but Kitano would never let the Hollywood system affect his work. Brother is very violent, but has a moral message to all nations and not just Japan.
Henz (Email address withheld) writes:
Probably the best film that touch japaneese organized crime. Quite violent with a touch of charismatic Takeshi humour all rap up with some L.A style. Its just the best thing. Shiraze is now one of my favorite characters with Romeo must die's right hand KAI.
Steve (Email address withheld) writes:
This movie was off the chain! I've only seen another movie with Kitano in it and that was "battle royale", another good movie. But the thing that bugs me is on HBO they censor the finger cut-off scene so if you wanna see the real deal you should get the dvd
brother insaki (Email address withheld) writes:
this film is a master piece but if you like this movie look about hana-bi and violent cop which is as strong as Brother.kitano is a genius!!!!
JAMi3 (Email address withheld) writes:
I throughly enjoyed the film and would recommend it to anyone interested in crime or foreign films. The film is split about 60/40 between Japanese and English and the subtitles aren't a problem.
I particuly liked the way the film was shot, the slow easing and distant wide angle shots were very good. I think that the films characters are developed slowly, but realistically, if their personalities were too blatant then it would have spoiled the slow nature of the film.
I think the film has many Tarantino-esque parts. For example their is a shot similar to the one in Pulp Fiction with the hitmen at the door were the camera pans instead of tracking. Also the violence was very similar, for example instead of going for the John Woo style acrobatic action, the violence is cold and harsh, making it impact more on me as a viewer, I think that's why John Woo's films travel better in western cinema that Kitano's work.
I thought the acting was very good, but the black members of the gang were perhaps a little stereotypical. To many who are not used to Kitano's style of film making the film may be very confusing, as it jumps forward in time and has scenes, that on first viewing seem pointless. But what they may not realise, is that Kitano is actually representing time passes, as the Yakuza develop and the events e.g. the party at Denny's mother's house are just things that happen along the way.
Harry (Email address withheld) writes:
I thought I was a fan of Kitano's work having seen him in Battle Royale and his masterpiece Zatoichi in which I found his acting and direction captivating and unique (I know watching his gameshow Takashi's castle on digital doesn't count towards an appreciation of his repetoire but i've seen that as well!).
But I watched 'Brother' with mounting boredom and dispiritment I realised i'd obviously only seen his more mainstream work and that one has to have more patience and analytical appreciation of film to enjoy a Takashi Kitano production. Having since seen other films of his such as Boiling Point and Fireworks i've realised that obviously he doesn't always approach films and their construction in the same way the western world does/is used to (forgive me the massive generalisation there!). I found his style in this film came across as incredibly amateurish even though I know he's anything but, and the film seemed like one incredibly long impro session based around a paper thin plot with some of the least loveable and well developed characters i've ever seen put to film. So remote is the style I found it impossible to relate on any level and it has to be one of the worst and most draining viewing experiences of my life.
Phew! There I said it. I clicked on Brother expecting to find at least some level of agreement but can see im pretty much alone here. But I guess film can be pretty subjective, and I probably haven't seen enough Japanese movies to properly appreciate the style of film craft employed here.
For me however it definitely remains one to avoid if at all possible and if im being generous the film's problem might be that it's lost in translation!
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