dir. Takeshi Kitano
Opens Fri July 27 at the Varsity.

On the surface, Takeshi Kitano's new film, Brother, is composed of familiar elements. A gangster, played by Beat Takeshi (Kitano's acting name), is forced into exile when his Tokyo gang loses a long and costly gang war. After faking his death, he moves to L.A., where he has an Americanized younger brother (Kuroudo Maki). His brother turns out to be a small-time drug dealer, who operates with a loose outfit of mild-mannered minorities, one of whom is Omar Epps. Being a big-time gangster from a bigger city, Tokyo, Beat Takeshi teaches the disorganized youth to think and shake in big terms, to be more aggressive, more direct, more glamorous. The amateur dealers are transformed into professionals; they switch from street wear to Armani suits, from clocking blocks to rolling in stretch limos, and move their growing drug operation from a shack on the outskirts of the city into a posh loft in the middle of the sky.

Made up of recruited African Americans, Chicanos, and assimilated Japanese Americans from the local yakuza scene, Beat Takeshi's young crooks challenge other ethnic gangs, and, one by one, bring them down to their knees. Soon, they are on the verge of total success; there is just one gang left to conquer, the Italian Mafia, and then they can claim the whole city. But the Italian Mafia is way out of their league, and their imprudent challenge of its authority is met with the kind of absolute retaliation one finds in the gory sections of the Old Testament.

As I said, the surface of the film is not interesting or new. One has to look beneath the film's flat photography, predictably edgy editing, functional acting, and perfunctory plot to find the real jewels. The first gem to admire is the theme of codes in this film. According to Takeshi Kitano, America is a society without codes--particularly codes of honor and respect. It is a blank space--not the old blank space of the Manifest Destiny era, but a new blank space caused by overproduction, explosive economic growth, and its resulting sprawls and malls.

"All that is solid melts to air, all that is holy is profaned," wrote Marx in his famous manifesto. This is the condition of the richest capitalist state in the world, America; it is a society whose codes and customs have been melted into thin air by the heat of hyper-capitalism. But Japan, which is the second-richest capitalist state in the world, has, according to Takeshi, somehow managed to sustain and protect its old traditions from the unremitting heat of hyper-capitalism: Japan still reigns as the empire of codes.

Because he has nothing else to do, because he is a humanitarian at heart, Takeshi's character decides to teach these unaccustomed Americans (who are young, with expressions as blank as the cityscape they inhabit) the importance of codes. He shows them how to live by the code, die by the code, and to surrender the self for the benefit of the organization. In this respect, Brother is very close to Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog, which is about an urban African American, Forest Whitaker, who learns the codes of honor by reading Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai. But whereas Whitaker got his codes from secondary sources (an English translation of a Japanese text), the boys in Takeshi's hood get theirs firsthand.

The next gem worth noting is the matter of Kitano's Hegelianism. Hegel was a 19th-century German philosopher who believed that human history had basically three stages: primitive (African societies), despotic (Asian societies), and democratic (Europe). Brother presents this order of history, but now in the form of a gangster class order. At the bottom are black Americans (Africans) and Chicanos (Indians), who sell drugs on the street. Then there's the Japanese yakuza (Asians)-- highly organized but ruled by a despot. Finally, at the very top is the Italian Mafia (Europeans), which has achieved a level of organization and dominance so sophisticated it has seeped into every aspect of democratic life in America.

At the end of Brother, Beat Takeshi is gunned down by a rigid line of Mafia hit men, none of whom he manages to bring down with him. They just open fire, blast him into oblivion, return to their black Cadillacs, and depart into the shimmering desert. What is the meaning of this? Better yet, what is the total meaning of Takeshi's weakest effort yet? The final and terrible answer is this: The yakuza warrior had the culture and substance to conquer the weaker ethnic groups, but when he challenged the absolute Mafia--pulling a Pearl Harbor on the organization, as it were--he was obliterated by a Hiroshima of bullets.

This may be a bit of a stretch, but if you don't delve into and extract peculiar readings from the depths of this film, then I have no idea how you are going to enjoy it.