Brother Brother
Brother Brother

A yakuza in the City of Fallen Angels
Reviewed by Mark Vallen, February 2001

BROTHER 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.

Months 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.

Aniki's 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 hostile. Rather 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.
Not 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.
Japanese ticket for the premiere of BROTHER
Japanese 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.

It's 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.

Beat... the new definition of cool
Beat as Aniki
As 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.

Having 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.

In 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 the
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 action.

Thinking 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.
Aniki and company wipe out the opposition
Aniki takes aim

BROTHER 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. The complexity of Kitano's film is reflected in its title. "Aniki" is one way of saying "older brother" in Japanese.

Denny and Aniki
Denny and Aniki
But 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 circumstances.

Another 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.

Aniki held hostage in Gang Warfare
Welcome to L.A.

Kitano 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."

Beat 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.

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