Film Review: Brother
Director: Takeshi Kitano (2000)
Brother is a film by a true cinema icon………
Takeshi Kitano is the dude responsible for some of the best gangster/samurai films emanating from Japan in the last twenty years. Some he directed, (Outrage, Hana-bi/Fireworks, Zatōichi) some he acted in (Battle Royale, Blood and Bones) and some he inspired others to create. His influence has spread across the world, and he’s done so with class, style, talent (teacher in Battle Royale anyone?) and a DIY attitude. You could traverse the globe and be more likely to find a fan of George Lucas’s take on dialogue, Mel Gibson’s phone etiquette or Israel’s approach to neighbourly love than you would a detractor of his work. In independent circles the name Takeshi Kitano carries a long long way. He even created Takeshi’s castle (thereby keeping Craig Charles fed) for none existent Christ’s sake!
I was introduced to Kitano’s work by filmmaker Josh Fowler, (a man who will one day be recognised as both a genius and a mousy pheasant), and starting with Sonatine (which I’ll probably write an arbitrary classic film review about at some point) I’ve been blown away by Kitano’s body of work. The dude’s style, approach and attitude are a real inspiration to wannabe indie filmmakers like me and Tom. Fuck, no word of a lie, the guy could come to my house, spit in my face and pee on Tom’s car and I’d still insist we salute him and call him sir.
Which places me in a bit of a bind, because Brother, Kitano’s 2000 attempt to merge his Japanese Yakuza films with a Los Angeles gangland setting, just isn’t very good. I hope you understand how difficult a sentence that was to type (and structure), it’s like our Lord and Master Stephen Fry did something in support of the British National Party, or something funny happened on 8 out of 10 cats, there are certain things that just don’t happen. Kitano making a bad film is supposed to be one of them. I wish I could be more positive, but like the Lib Dems suicidally going into coalition (and thereby enabling the disenfranchisement and persecution of thousands of disabled people) it’s happened, and we’re all going to have to deal with the consequences (actually you could just stop reading now). I’ll try to get through the plot summary, but I’m feeling emotional, and don’t believe in nothing no more man……….
Yamamoto (Takeshi Kitano, that’s right directing and starring, because he can, or he could, maybe he can’t anymore, I’M SO CONFUSED), is a yakuza who sadly picked the losing side of a turf battle. His boss is killed, which is perhaps considered worse in Japan than over here, and he has to flee, or bend the knee to his bosses killer, which is something badass Yakuza’s just don’t do. So Yamamoto chooses America and sets off to live with his younger brother Ken (Claude Maki, who’s also a champion surfer apparently). On the way he has a confrontation with ‘brother’ with attitude Denny (Omar Epps), and prominently sticks a tooth pick in his eye, which is unfortunate because Denny and Ken are part of the same small time gang, although, painful as it is to admit, a toothpick in the eye may actually be preferable to watching Brother.
However, small time LA gang stuff does not a content Yakuza make, and soon Yamamoto leads the gang into taking over the territory. Then he brings some of his old Yakuza buddies over from the land of the rising sun, then they kill people in order to take over more turf, then that repeats with even more gang members and turf, eventually leading to an alliance with a dude named Shirase (Masaya Katô), aka the psychotic boss of little Tokyo, which in turn leads to some more killing and finally a war with the mafia, which blah blah blah blah blah, what’s the point, plot summary finishes.
Sounds cool right, yeah I thought the same thing, and look at me now!
Actually Brother started out ok, the battle between Yamamoto’s gang and their rivals in Japan was handled quickly with a nice dose of Kitano trademark brutality. There were some decent little scenes of Yamamoto pining for his dead boss, and they did a good job of making Yamamoto’s move to America credible. The early scenes in America weren’t too bad I guess, they went for the ‘he don’t speak no English so he must be a stupid one’ approach to character interaction which led to some schadenfreude moments. Then the gangland stuff started, and everything went bat shit crazy bad, I cried to make it stop, but it wouldn’t, it just kept going, getting worse and worse, then the film ended, and I felt a little better, but still sad dammit, still sad!
I have a lot of gripes, so skip a few paragraphs if me moaning like a bitch (meaning a person who moans a lot, not the whole female, denigration of women meaning, I don’t like that meaning) in my pretentious film reviews doesn’t cut it for you. Actually, probably just skip to the end, because it all ends, everything ends.
GRIPE 1: The Dialogue is for the most part atrocious; during what I’d call my Dostoevsky phase at the sixth form where I did my A-Levels (and learnt some people in life really do judge a person by their shoes), a lad I sort of knew had a Japanese student with incredibly good English skills staying at his house. I think it was some sort of exchange programme, but money may well have been involved in the exchange because the lad never went to Japan. Anyway, we (and this is pre-my dream of being a wannabe indie filmmaker became slightly more of a reality days) got into a discussion about Japanese films. I’ll always remember the exchange student telling me how some of the Japanese films I thought were awesome (Ju-On the Grudge trilogy was specifically mentioned), were actually regarded as poorly acted gimmick or B movies in Japan. I came to the realisation subtitles can actually cover up bad or over acting, which then creates the dilemma, that by actually being able to understand a film less, you’ll like it more.
Since then, I’ve sometimes gotten a little scared that some of the subtitled films I really like (Oldboy, Pan’s labyrinth, Revanche) may not actually be to the level of quality I perceive. Then I usually think ‘fuck-it’ and go back to sleep. Brother though, has robbed me of said sleep and my none-existent god could it have used more subtitles. Regardless of the nationality of the speaker, the lines become terrible with horrific delivery. I’ll give slight exception to Omar Epp’s character, because he actually acts quite well, (or just adequately and the people around him act so badly that it makes him look capable by comparison) but apart from him, every other actor (including the true virgin son of Mary Takeshi Kitano) reaches a point where every line is either under or over delivered. Any sense of realism is lost, which wouldn’t be so bad if Brother was a gimmicky violent film, but it’s not, Brother clearly tries as hard as it can to make me sympathetic and emotionally attached to the characters. That’s impossible when they all speak like arseholes, doing unrealistic things and after finally getting to sleep I’ve suddenly woken up in a world where Takeshi fucking Kitano can make a bad film.
GRIPE 2: There’s a real limit to the Locations; after ten minutes nothing in Brother feels real, or makes sense, like the settings. Excluding an out of the way diner (which only crops up at the end) there are only really three main locations; an office block, a street and the inside of a limousine, that’s it. That’s an incredibly limited amount of locations, maybe in Japan, where films have led me to believe the police are more easily corruptible (and less racist) big meetings between the heads of warring gangs do take place in neatly furnished office blocks during the middle of the day, but I’ll be fucked if that shit flies in L.A. I’m not even sure law abiding Americans know how to be cordial, let alone the drug dealers. I assume the money comes from drug dealing, actually we’re never shown any source of income so it could be by selling maps to unicorn lairs for all I know.
GRIPE 3: Piss poor characterisation; I’ll give an example using Yamamoto’s ‘love interest’. There’s this Asian lady (played excruciatingly over-the-top by Joy Nakagawa, seriously, you’re just waiting for her to say ‘and den’) who may or may not be an Asian prostitute.
She suddenly gets introduced sitting inside Yamamoto’s limo. I’m guessing because she was in there that he must have liked her, but then he spent half the time ignoring her, and the other half looking like he wished he could ignore her. Despite a lack of anything coming close to resembling intimacy, she gets built up as a massive love interest whose death, that’s right she dies, fuck spoilers, Brother doesn’t get spoilers, is one of a number that leads to Yamamoto becoming depressed. By depressed I mean boring, silent and what I’m assuming was meant to be stoic. There’s a whole bunch of characters like this, they get no introduction, don’t do anything of note (Yamamoto’s gang spend more time standing around together outside meeting room doors in office blocks or playing basketball then they do on interesting gang stuff), then get put in peril and I’m supposed to care. An exception goes to Masaya Katô’s Shirase, who overacts to the point he becomes the Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars Prequels of Brother, i.e. the only guy on screen with any clear motivation, personality or interesting bits.
GRIPE 4: Everyone in Brother turns into a stupid arsehole; one of Yamamoto’s former yakuza acquaintances in Japan has joined the gang that killed Yamamoto’s boss, but doesn’t feel accepted. One of the general’s questions the dude’s loyalty, not the boss mind you, he’s perfectly content, no just some smart mouth general. What does Yamamoto’s former acquaintance do? That’s right, he guts himself in order to show his insides are ‘clean of treachery’, brilliant. Then one of Yamamoto’s buddies who joined Yamamoto in America wants Shirase to team up with the gang so they can have ‘more turf’. He does so by shooting himself in the head, amazingly this works! I guess it takes a moron to negotiate with a moron, or maybe a quasi yakuza-meets-American gang with a member from every conceivable minority all acting for the greater good have a one in one out policy to maintain balance.
GRIPE 4: The other stuff; Throughout Brother a bunch of assassination attempts are made on Yamamoto’s life, who by? No idea, never gets talked about. Yamamoto seems to have issues and get depressed, why? No idea, no one discusses it. No gang member except Yamamoto gets any background given, and Yamamoto’s background is only someone killed his boss. Why anyone does anything in Brother never gets explained, or rather no time for an explanation is given, I guess there were too many importing meetings being had instead. I copuld of except that, except the ending is filled with angst and a depressed character reflecting on his crappy existence. That’s a problem, because if you don’t show me that crappy existence, then why in the world would I care about these arseholes coming to the end of it!?!.
So that’s Brother, first ten minutes are ok, then it’s piss poor, a badly acted, badly told, weak story, without any clear motives, structure or plotting. I’d probably have had a more constructive time watching a goldfish swim around in circles for just under two hours, and writing that about a Kitano film is very depressing.
Are there any positives beyond an acceptable first ten minutes? You know what, the more I think about it, the less redemptive things I can find about Brother. I think even saying the first ten minutes were ok may actually be giving leeway because it’s Kitano. Truthfully this is a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, film, don’t watch it, watch anything else by Kitano, but not this.
I’m off for a valium induced coma, when I awake, I’ll see if I can carry on………..
Written By Sam ‘the worst thing is Kitano let himself down’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
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