Takeshi Kitano is among the most hotly debated directors in contemporary world cinema. Each new film of his is hailed breathlessly as a breakthrough for the cinematic medium, a true work of art, a bold step in his career ... and also damned as overhyped and half-baked. For some, he can do no wrong; for others, it seems that nothing will ever shake the ungenerous tag of the emperor's new clothes.
It is time to attempt some rational perspective in the face of Brother. The news that Kitano was to shoot this film in America with a multi-lingual cast led to fearful expectations that he was about to cop-out with a feel-good, Rush Hour-style project. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Kitano's subject here is not assimilation or reconciliation, but the almost total incompatibility and incommensurability of different cultures. At a time of war, it makes for sobering viewing.
Yamamoto (Kitano) travels to Los Angeles in search of his wayward brother, Ken (Claude Maki). After an everyday, violent tangle on the street with Denny (Omar Epps), Yamamoto discovers that he must work with this stranger in the midst of an escalating gang war.
Yamamoto rarely talks and never smiles (more than ever, Kitano as an actor effortlessly outdoes Clint Eastwood in the hardboiled stakes). He makes no attempt whatsoever to integrate himself into the world or manners of LA. He simply watches for signs of danger or treachery and makes lightning moves to save the skin of himself and anyone lucky enough to benefit from his Eastern code of loyalty.
Brother is more about the mechanism of criminal society than the hearts and minds of individual characters. With cold, detached, ruthless logic, it shows how the gangster system auto-destructs through gestures of mutual misunderstanding, acts of foolishness or defiance, and unpredictable, chance events.
Almost every gangster movie reflects on the balance of power in an underworld which is the inverted mirror image of respectable society. Kitano foregrounds this theme and heightens its cool, blackly comic, apocalyptic aspect, as did Paul Morrissey in Mixed Blood (1985) and Abel Ferrara in King of New York (1990).
Like in those films, the convoluted, eye-for-eye plot moves involving various gangs, mediators and double agents are not always easy to follow, but their bloody outcomes are classically preordained.
Kitano, even when his material is less than brilliant, is a terrifically inventive filmmaker. His mastery of timing, rhythm, camera angles and sound effects is everywhere evident in Brother, although the music by his regular composer Joe Hishaishi for once sounds a little misplaced.
As in Boiling Point (1990) and Violent Cop (1989), the physical confrontations are swift, gruesome and upsetting. As in Kikujiro (1998) and Sonatine (1994), the mucking-about scenes stretching between action flashpoints have a splendidly infantile quality.
Brother is neither a deathless masterpiece nor – as one anti-Kitano campaigner virtually spat in my face – "garbage". The director aims for a more modest effect than in Hana-bi (1997) or Kikujiro, and the result is a tough, beguiling, well-crafted gangster story.
© Adrian Martin November 2001