A yakuza in the City of Fallen Angels
Reviewed by Mark Vallen, February 2001
is an unusual
action film from Japanese super star and director, Beat Takeshi
Kitano. I was privileged to see the movie's Los Angeles premier
when it was screened on February 12, 2001 before a largely African
American audience during the Pan African Film & Arts Festival.
later the film opened in selected theatres across the United States
on July 20, 2001. The 54 year old Kitano wrote and directed the
film and also played the starring role of Aniki, a grizzled yakuza
(gangster), who must flee Tokyo for his life when his clan is
decimated in a ferocious gangland war.
exile leads him to the city of Los Angeles, where he hopes to
find his half-brother Ken (played by Claude Maki). Instead he
finds an unfamiliar culture that is completely disorienting and
than paint a romanticized portrait of Los Angeles, Kitano prefers
instead to show us something else. Palm tree lined beaches and
avenues that mask a howling nihilism, a megalopolis of despair
and chaos, a multi-cultural caldron on the verge of blowing up.
When Aniki arrives at the sprawling Los Angeles International
Airport, he's insulted by a white racist cab driver who calls
him a "Jap." Unable to shake off the affront, the disgruntled
yakuza decides to begin his search for Ken. An old address his
only lead, Aniki investigates a poor warehouse district when he
literally bumps into trouble.
watching where he's going, he accidentally runs into a tough young
African American man, causing the fellow to drop his bottle of
cheap wine onto the sidewalk. The burly young man is angered at
having lost his drink and he unleashes a torrent of insult and
ghetto slang at the stone faced yakuza.
premiere ticket for BROTHER
Demanding $200 for his loss, the threatening young man yells;
"What 'cha gonna do?!" Aniki bends over and picks up
the shattered bottle, then with lightning speed... shoves it into
the man's face, punches the wind out of him with a blow to the
stomach... and then calmly walks off. That scene sets the stage
for the relentless mayhem that is to follow, but it's also the
first glimpse at the essence of the Aniki character... he's a
coiled cobra that's always ready to strike. Moments later Aniki
finds Ken's run down apartment but no one is home... so the dissapointed
yakuza stands on the doorstep of the squalid dwelling, daydreaming
about the turn of events that have brought him to such a desolate,
alien place. The
film jumps to a flashback, and one sees Aniki's life as a yakuza
lieutenant in Tokyo's underworld.
a life steeped in tradition, clan loyalty, unflinching self-sacrifice,
and extreme violence.
The flashback reveals the details of the life Aniki left behind...
he was an experienced, disciplined, and utterly ruthless gangster
whose force of will helped to make his clan powerful and feared.
When an opposing clan succeeds in assassinating the head of his
"family" and it's clear that Aniki is next on the list,
the remnants of his once powerful clan send him to America where
it's hoped he'll be safe. This extended flashback scene ends when
Aniki snaps out of his daydream to find that three street thugs
(two latinos and an asian), are approaching him.
it turns out, one of the thugs is Aniki's half-brother Ken. The
two recognize each other and Aniki is welcomed into the gang's
hangout. The sight of a stern, well dressed Japanese gangster
in the company of three American petty hoodlums dressed in baggy
pants and knit caps is funny enough... but things are just getting
interesting. A forth gang member arrives. The hulking young black
man has a large bandage covering his right eye, and as he sits
down he snarls about the "Chink or Jap" that attacked
him on the street earlier that day. Not knowing the details of
that confrontation, Ken offers the wounded gang member an introduction;
"Denny, I'd like you to meet my half-brother, Aniki."
Denny (played by Omar Epps) glares across the table at the expressionless
yakuza... faint recognition glints in Denny's eyes but Aniki remains
unreadable and completely silent.
When Denny loudly protests that he thinks the "Jap"
at the table is the very man who assaulted him... Ken dismisses
the accusation by saying; "All Japanese look the same to
you!" That moment of sublime ironic humor is indicative of
the playful yet deadly serious way in which Kitano constantly
flirts with the subject of race... and this attitude is woven
thoughout the movie. One of the film's great ironies is that Denny,
the African American petty thug... and Aniki, the disciplined
yakuza... develop a profound friendship that becomes the film's
core narrative. Ken
and his gang buddies then excuse themselves before leaving, saying
that "there's something we have to do." They leave Denny
alone with Aniki, which makes for some humorous moments in the
film when the yakuza cheats Denny at a game of dice. However,
it's not too long before Aniki also leaves the hideaway, suspecting
that something is not quite right with his half-brother. Sure
enough, he discovers Ken and his fellow thugs in a back alley
being bullied by their "boss", a latino gangster who
provides Ken with drugs to be sold in the hood. When Aniki sees
the gangster punch Ken, he leaps from out of the shadows to beat
the gangster to a pulp.
discovered that Ken is running an inept drug dealing operation
with fellow gang members, and worse, that his half-brother is
being dominated by a third rate gangster... Aniki steps in and
does what comes naturally to him. The veteran yakuza takes the
young gang members under his wing and shows the inexperienced
thugs exactly how to build a criminal empire. His first step is
to arm his little group of fledglings... march them down to the
headquarters of their bullying "boss", and simply "eliminate
the opposition" with blazing guns. Now lead by Aniki, the
gang literally fights its way to the top... declaring war on anyone
who stands in their way. They assassinate their competitors and
seize large amounts of inner city territory until they control
a sizable portion of L.A.'s drug and prostitution rings.
their thirst for even more control, Aniki's gang decides to approach
the unpredictable and homicidal Shirase (played by Masaya Kato),
a young yakuza leader who lords over the Little Tokyo district
of Los Angeles. The resulting alliance makes Aniki's criminal
empire even more powerful and seemingly unstoppable. Ken
and his fellow thugs have grown so successful under the tutelage
of Aniki, that the gang now wears expensive suits, drives in a
chauffeured limousine, and routinely pays off crooked cops in
L.A. Police Department. All
of that ill gotten power and it's substantial wealth gets the
attention of the mafia, who is soon demanding a 50% cut of the
this unacceptable, Aniki's gang declars war on the mafia in the
mistaken belief that they can force them out. They murder a mafia
kingpin, which of course brings about a full scale, bloody revenge
war. With the mafia determined to annihilate Aniki's gang to the
very last man, the yakuza again finds himself in the same position
he left behind in Japan.
is an unbelievably violent film, still, its brutality contains
a certain poetry, and despite the film's unending carnage, it
is actually a story about friendship and loyalty. All of the
deadening mayhem of gang war provides a framework for the final
moments of the film where Aniki and Denny... having gone to
hell and back together... stare into the maelstrom of violence
and chaos, and at last find their humanity.
One of the
truly remarkable things about Kitano's BROTHER is its
honest multi-culturalism, not only in the mix of blacks, asians,
and latinos on the streets of Los Angeles... but in the blending
of Japanese and American cultures. This is a film that could
only have been made in L.A. One moment you are seeing Japanese
eating sushi in Tokyo and the next moment you are seeing people
eating it in L.A. In many ways this is a quintessential film
about Los Angeles, and I find it a great testiment to Kitano's
intelligence and sensitivity that as a Japanese man, he could
paint such an accurate portrait of the denizens of Los Angeles.
Kitano's film is reflected in its title. "Aniki" is
one way of saying "older brother" in Japanese.
the title also refers to the way in which African Americans respectfully
call black males "Brother." Another spin to the title
is that it references the feelings of loyalty between those who
are partners in crime, the brotherhood of yakuza. What makes Kitano's
film so engrossing is that these definitions of 'brother' are
interwoven throughout the movie and examined in a multitude of
of the film's surprises is a marvelous soundtrack scored by Joe
Hisaishi. His melancholy Jazz based piano paints the perfect audio
backdrop for L.A's nightmare alleys. Hisaishi has created music
for many Japanese productions... including music for the films
of Japan's greatest animator, Hiyao Miyazaki. Hisaishi's music
for Miyazaki includes soundtracks for anime masterworks Nausica'a,
Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, My
Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, and Princess Mononoke.
is not only the perfect director for this genre of film, he's
also the perfect actor. Small in stature but with the build and
blunt face of a veteran boxer, he seems at times impenetrable
and dangerous. Yet somehow, despite his macho exterior, the man
conveys an air of sadness and vulnerability. Kitano has compared
his poker face with the masks of one of Japan's oldest artforms...
the ancient noh theater performed for the Royal Court of old.
"A noh mask is a completely expressionless mask, It's unnecessary
for the actor to act dramatically, what the audience can see and
interpret is limitless."
Takeshi Kitano is not very well known in the United States but
he deserves to be, certainly anyone serious about cinema should
familiarize themselves with him. Beat has been a dominant figure
in Japanese pop culture for twenty years. He's appeared as an
actor in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (with David Bowie),
Johnny Mnemonic, Taboo (Gohatto), Battle
Royale, and 29 other films. He's written screenplays for Zatôichi
the Blind Swordsman, Hana-bi (Fireworks), Violent
Cop, and ten other films. Beat, a cinematic force to be reckoned
with, should be known by film lovers the world round.