Vengeance Is Theirs 

Recently, the Weekly talked with two Japanese directors who are helping to make their native film industry one of the most exciting in world cinema. There’s a new Japanese new wave, and it’s beginning to break here, which is why, along with these interviews, we’ve also provided a brief guide to some of the coolest players in this hot scene. —Manohla Dargis

Kitano Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

Takeshi Kitano By Chuck Stephens

“Actually,” says director Takeshi Kitano, swatting at a swirl of smoke from the unbroken chain of Cabin cigarettes he’s been puffing all morning, “I’ve always hated yakuza movies.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Kitano — the former standup comic, reigning Japanese supercelebrity and internationally acclaimed filmmaker whose ninth and latest feature, Brother, began its U.S. run last week — must be joking. After all, this master of the cinematic sucker punch has at least two reputations to maintain: one as a notoriously mirthful conversationalist, the other as a filmmaker whose philosophical crime movies have typically centered around unhinged tough guys and wacko yakuza renegades, many of whom, with no small slathering of relish, have been played by the director himself. “Even the so-called ‘good’ yakuza movies,” continues the as-yet-unsmiling Kitano through a translator, “like those by Kinji Fukusaku, are always mouthing platitudes about honor and integrity, but they never deal with the inner turmoil, or the actual mentality, of the individual yakuza. They’re all about glamorizing these guys, and I hate that the most.”

Kitano may have essayed oafish, sadistic and occasionally adorable thugs before (in films like Boiling Point and Sonatine), but in the light of Brother — a film as filled with sacrificial finger severings and nihilist acts of seppuku as any of the classic yakuza epics made by Toho Studios in the 1960s or ’70s — those earlier misfits now seem less like genre-bound puzzle pieces than hapless henchmen cast adrift in the “normal,” if amply chaotic, world of children, angels and clowns. But while Brother may be the first (more or less) traditional genre flick Kitano’s made, it’s also something quite new. For one thing, it’s his first international co-production, an Office Kitano project made in cooperation with Recorded Picture Co., the London-based company run by Jeremy Thomas (whose formidable producing credits include Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which Kitano made his impressive screen-acting debut), and L.A.-based co-producer Ann Carli. Most of the film was shot on locations that Kitano might be gazing down upon from his West Hollywood hotel balcony as he speaks: a refurbished loft somewhere downtown, a lonely stretch of sidewalk along the Wilshire corridor, a sedate avenue nestled in the Pacific Palisades.

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“I knew that eventually I would make a traditional yakuza film,” Kitano admits, the beginnings of a grin at last dawning around his eyes, “but you might be surprised at the real reason I decided to make such a traditional genre film. It’s because, whenever I go to film festivals, I’m always overwhelmed by the number of foreign journalists who want to ask me questions about yakuza movies.” â

Brother’s not just a concession to his admirers, of course; for Kitano, who imported all the key members of his Japanese entourage (cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima, composer Joe Hisaishi, actors Susumu Terajima and Ryo Ishibashi) for the shoot, it was also an opportunity to try out new faces. One of Brother’s culture-buff pleasures is watching veteran character actor James Shigeta, familiar from his countless guest spots on Quinn Martin–produced TV cop shows in the ’70s, interacting with this modern master and his crew, but it’s the occasionally histrionic “brother” Omar Epps — as Denny, the street-corner drug hustler who becomes both partner and foil for Kitano’s implacably stone-faced character, an exiled yakuza underboss named Yamamoto — who lends the film its American frisson and enforces the film’s titular triple-entendre.

Kitano’s taken critical heat in the past for his use of black faces in his films; in Boiling Point, a color-coded sight gag involving the blue ocean, a pink baseball and a black actress struck some as cartoonish and demeaning. But the director’s ready for any similarly minded criticism Brother (which is also imbued with some cartoonish and demeaning comedy — toward every ethnicity) might inspire. “My older brother used to work as a translator at an American military base,” the director recalls. “Once in a while, he’d bring along his colleagues from work, and they’d often be black guys. Some people from my generation may have thought of those images of black people in Japanese movies as being inherently comical, but my personal experience was exactly the opposite. I’ve always felt more familiar with black guys than white guys, probably because they all seemed easier to get along with, and so much friendlier to me when I was a kid.”

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