owe you one.” Early in Brother, the veteran yakuza Yamamoto (Takeshi “Beat” Kitano) declares his obligation to a friend who spares his life, voicing the film’s central theme. The yakuza’s brutal life and death are shaped by debt, honor, and commitment, a code from which you cannot dissent. Except, of course, when you spare your friend’s life in spite of orders from your boss, whereupon you’re sort of improvising. And then, ironically, loyalty and obligation become even more important. Your identity, your sense of place, legacy, and connection, become a function of who and what you owe. You define yourself by your alliances and yet, you are always alone.
With Brother, his first English language film, Kitano again examines the violent intimacy of the yakuza “brotherhood.” Not quite a gangster, not quite a samurai, the yakuza is fabled for his scary mix of precision and passion, ruthlessness and ritual. Kitano’s previous movies dealing with this subject—for instance, San tai Yon x Jugatsu [Boiling Point, 1990], Sonatine , Hana-bi [Fireworks, 1997], Kikujiru —have long been available in the States (most widely because of Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder video distribution contract). Back home in Japan, Kitano is ubiquitous. Popular in the 1970s as one half of the satirical manzai comedy team, the Two Beats, he has since developed the kind of multi-threat career that Will Smith would envy: not only does Kitano write, direct, edit, and star in his own movies and appear in other people’s movies, he also writes newspaper columns, books, and poetry, and appears regularly on several tv shows per week.
The arrival of this one-man entertainment industry in LA has resulted in a yakuza film with an appropriately “fish out of water” variation. When Yamamoto’s friend Kato (Susumu Terajima) saves his life, both are in danger of losing face. And so, Kato arranges for Yamamoto’s escape to Los Angeles, where Yamamoto has a younger half-brother, Ken (Claude Maki). Almost as soon as he arrives in the States, Yamamoto—whom Ken calls Aniki, or “brother”—discovers that one aggressive masculinist world is much the same as another. So, while he appears to adjust to the “new world” of the relatively wide-open LA (compared to the close urban space of Tokyo), he also brings that new world into his own sphere of references. That is he remakes the world to suit his own sense of old-school rules. While he doesn’t speak the language, he understands the value of calculated ferocity. This is what he does, better than most anyone else. So, while Aniki’s initial displacement is surely acute, it is also almost immediately irrelevant. When he sees his little brother Ken being pushed around, Aniki takes matters into his own hands, killing off Ken’s erstwhile employers, commandeering their business, and boosting profits by the usual yakuza methods—intimidation and top-down organization.
Aniki’s new multi-culti gang is composed primarily of Ken’s rather hapless street-punk companions—Denny (Omar Epps), Jay (Royale Watkins), and Mo (Lombardo Boyar)—and a few of Aniki’s Tokyo associates, including Kato, who comes over to help out. Though he immediately refashions his crew, outfitting them with designer suits, fancy weapons, cell phones, and limos (including swank jewelry for Denny’s mother and sister [Tatyana Ali, in the film for about two minutes]), Aniki is not really interested in conventional signs of power, like money or turf. His goals are both grander and more mundane, as he goes about remaking his new environment so it accommodates his particular sense of order—that is, his men abide by a code, and they are loyal to him unto death. His adherence to rituals makes him exotic and “inscrutable” to most of his LA adversaries, for instance, the Mexicans and the Italians, who are limited by their “crude” material concerns, but really their differences are not ideological so much as they are spiritual. Aniki runs into more serious opposition in Little Tokyo, where gangsters are expected to cut off fingers and commit suicide in the name of honor. The fact that the boss of the Japanese gang, Shirase (Masaya Kato), is apparently psychotic, exacerbates Aniki’s troubles, but only in degree, not in kind.
And this is what the film is about, the continuum between the codes of masculine honor and the chaos of insanity. Kitano here focuses on the virulence and tragedy of the yakuza, as this figure represents an extreme version of more mundane notions of masculinity and social order. Seen in this context, Aniki is yet another version of the character Kitano always plays, the dolorous, efficient professional killer. Aniki is the best at what he does, the most ruthless and principled devotee to the yakuza code, but this doesn’t make him happy. His is a sorrowful, ugly business, and that is Kitano’s perpetual subject, the perversely poetic ugliness and inevitable noxiousness of violence. Though it appears that Kitano’s sad, sometimes twitchy statement is a function of his facial paralysis (the result of a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1994), even before then, Kitano made pain his particular art form.
Much like Kitano’s earlier movies, Brother makes this pain simultaneously mesmerizing and terrible to see, embodied specifically in the evolving relationship between Denny and Aniki. The first time they meet, by a weirdly fated coincidence, Denny comes at Aniki (who has just arrived in the States) with all kinds of attitude and street slang. Unable to understand exactly what the kid is saying but understanding his aggression as an immediate threat, Aniki accepts the challenge and stabs Denny in the eye. It hardly seems a propitious beginning for a friendship, but in fact, it sets up a connection across generations and locations: when Denny appears next at Ken’s crib sporting an eye patch, he recalls Kitano’s comeback role in Takashi Ishii’s Gonin (1995), as hitman wearing just such a patch, at the time a real-life memento mori.
Denny and Aniki become “brothers,” based on their mutual affection and respect for one another. Theirs is an appealing, offbeat pairing. Even more than Ken, Denny is Aniki’s disciple and companion: they’re constantly playing games and making bets with one another (about dice throws, about how many men or women walk past them on the sidewalk), which makes them seem more like kids than ruthless killers. And each character brings a different kind of challenge to the stereotype that he so clearly evokes: Aniki is as ferocious as any yakuza, but also charming and refreshingly vulnerable; Denny is a street banger who learns the proper moral lesson (the nice suits come at too high a price), but also displays an openness to his new friend that’s oddly sweet.
Kitano’s whacked-out haiku aesthetic is stark and strangely comic, but also deeply disturbing. The effects of violence (shooting, stabbing, beating) are rendered quickly and assertively: the writer-director-editor doesn’t spend his time or money on the customary super-acrobatic mobile frames, but instead assaults you with short, still-camera close-ups of wounds and reactions. It’s deft, nasty, and precise work. The filmmaker’s signature style and humor surely don’t appeal to everyone, and don’t always jive with his almost operatic themes (the depth of Denny and Aniki’s brotherhood turns very dramatic by film’s end). But Brother also offers a welcome deconstruction of the standard action picture’s cathartic celebrations of violence by making you feel some cost.