Takeshi Kitano’s American debut as writer-director-star (Beat Takeshi is Kitano’s acting sobriquet) is a mixed bag and a mixed blessing. Best known for his yakuza (Japanese gangster) films — Violent Cop, Boiling Point, Sonatine — Kitano, not surprisingly, chose this form with which to make his impact in America. Since Kitano is also an accomplished comedian in Japan, though, it’s sobering to consider the implications here: does Kitano merely think that violence travels better than comedy, or does he just know that American audiences have a taste for violence? In this case, there’s a certain aptness, because for all its ritual and unique approach, Brother is ultimately a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster picture come home to roost. (If it comes to that, Kitano’s character’s ultimate fate is identical to the one suffered by Lew Ayres’ gangster in the 1930 Warner opus, Doorway to Hell.) In reality, Kitano’s choice is shrewd for other reasons. Casting himself as an outcast yakuza making his way into the gang world of L.A. is an ironic metaphor for his own efforts to break into U.S. film, and it works perfectly with his minimalist acting style, since neither the actor-director, nor the character he plays is anything like fluent in English. The largely impassive Kitano is well-suited to playing the character of Yamamoto — sitting quietly, taking everything in as best he can, and prone to sudden bursts of violence (much the same can be said of the movie itself). In Brother violence has become the international language. Indeed, Yamamoto meets the character he will ultimately become closest to, Denny (Omar Epps, Dracula 2000), by gouging him in the eye with a broken bottle! (I’m not sure if the world is ready for the concept of “meeting violent” as an alternative to the time-honored “meeting cute!”) Despite the fact that the expatriate Yamamoto comes to L.A. to look up his younger half-brother, the title more correctly refers to his gangland and spiritual brother, Denny. This is what sets both the tone and the approach of the entire film, which is an extreme variation on the American films that obviously inspired it. There is nothing even remotely appealing about the violence in Brother. Despite Kitano’s stylistic coup of staging one of the film’s largest wholesale blood-bath entirely by the illumination provided by the gunfire (an approach probably drawn from the kinky gunfire lovemaking scene in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth), he does nothing to soften the film’s violence in the manner of Hollywood. The violence here is utterly offhand and cold-blooded and ugly — and not something likely to appeal to mainstream audiences, since it is in no way romanticized. Kitano’s approach to the violence in the film is plainly brutal and actually serves as something of a slap in the face to audiences who thrive on its depiction in its more “acceptable” stylized Hollywood fashion. At the same time, it might be fairly said that Kitano does romanticize the brotherhood of the gangland mindset in a somewhat hoary manner. We are obviously supposed to end up with a grudging admiration for Yamamoto, and it’s almost impossible not to grant him that. This poses something of a moral dilemma for both the viewer and the film, but it’s a deliberate one that gives the film part of its tone as a comment on a world where violence and the acceptance of it has become the norm. The end result is that Brother is a powerful statement on a violent society — and a very uncomfortable one that is apt to alienate many viewers.
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