Kitano & Co. Coming to America, Spreading Mayhem

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“Aniki,”(Brother, 2000) the movie written by, directed by, and starring Kitano Takeshi begins in Japan and invades America. Although Yamamoto is a common Japanese name, I suspect that the yakusa  protagonist is named Yamamoto, to evokethe name of the admiral who planned and executed the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Yamamoto does not go to America planning to ravage it or take it over, After he foils one murder of his boss and his boss then ignores his advice and is gunned down, he needs to leave Japan for a while. After a few days of boredom in a Los Angeles hotel, he goes in search of his half-brother Ken (Kuroudo Maki), who is in one of LA’s myriad rough neighborhoods. Denny, a homeboy played superbly by Omar Epps (“Love and Basketball”), makes the mistake of trying to shake down the apparent tourist who has wandered where he does not belong.

It turns out that Ken is a low-level drug dealer and that Denny hangs out with him. Denny is not sure this “aniki” (brother) is the same man who nearly killed him. The development of their relationship beyond the point where Denny is calling Yamamoto “brother,” too, is the most interesting and original part of this exceedingly violent movie.

Yamamoto quickly dispatches to hell the cholos who are giving Ken and his friends trouble. The ad hoc gang with the very experienced gangster calling the shots — and doing much of the shooting — then massacres the cholos‘ bosses, the next higher echelons. With greater difficulty, they merge with the existing LA Japanese-American gangsters, and finally have to deal with the Italian-American Mafia. As in many recent gangster movies, the mafiosi are aging and tired, but they still command a lot of firepower. Like Admiral Yamamoto, yakuza Yamamoto’s initial successes are great, but fearless warriors eventually are overwhelmed by opponents with greater numbers and more armaments.

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Early on, at least some of the violence is cartoonish and funny, but as the body count rises, the incessant killings are grim, and the only humor that remains is in Denny’s awed by admiring fealty to the mostly silent and very alien gangster who is not a “brother” in the sense of being black, but is an older brother in many ways. (It’s hard for me to believe that Kitano wrote Denny’s dialogue and suspect that Epps improvised it around the plotting Kitano supplied. Wherever the words came from, Epps sells them convincingly.) Similarly, the basketball scenes in the gang headquarters seem likely to have been suggested and developed by the actors (Royale Watkins and Kuroudo Maki),

Although fewer than half of the slayings occur on-screen, the violence in “Brother” is very brutal, not done in the John Woo or Jerry Bruckheimer cartoon style. And some of it stays with one a long time . The movie is definitely not for the squeamish.

Moreover, those not accustomed to the long takes and limited camera movement that is common in Taiwanese and Japanese movies may find some scenes static. There are fairly many calm talky scenes but so many erupt with violence that the viewer must not let his or her guard down. I think that 20-30 minutes could have been pruned.

Kitano is the best-known stand-up comic in Japan, though one would never guess that from “Aniki” or “Gohatto.” In the English-speaking world, he is frequently considered a Japanese Clint Eastwood. Kitano says that all they have in common is that they are actors who also sometimes direct, but the way Kitano has himself filmed as an impassive mask is similar to how Sergio Leone filmed Eastwood in the 1960s, and speaking with his gun and minimal dialogue seems very Dirty Harry. The humor in “Aniki” is like that of Eastwood, too: deadpan or delayed slow, malicious smiles.

©2001, Stephen O. Murray

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