Many have been deceived by the straight forwardness of "Brother" and been lead to believe, hence expressed, that "Brother" is less complex than Kitano’s previous films. So despite "Brother" being amongst Kitano’s finest films, it still stands largely unappreciated.
Kitano originally wrote the story during the production of "Sonatine" and intended it to be some sort of sequel, but one thing lead to another and it never got realized. While in Cannes with "Kids Return", he ran into Jeremy Thomas, who had produced "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence", and over dinner Kitano began to talk about the idea for "Brother". Thomas became interested and when Kitano was in London to promote "Hana-Bi" the following year, Thomas proposed to Kitano: He wanted to produce "Brother". Since Kitano always had wanted to make a film outside Japan, he accepted. But it wasn’t until after "Kikujiro" was made, that Kitano began arranging his time in such a way, that it was possible for him to leave Japan for the seven weeks of shooting.
I have always been in fascinated by "Brother". It depicts yakuza code like no other film, there are similarities to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and where many accuse it for being flawed and weak, I have always seen it as quiet strong in structure. But what originally caught my attention was its sensitivity. On the surface "Brother" is Kitano’s most graphical violent film, but beneath it, there is an almost shy presentation of on one side loneliness and on the other of personal sacrifice and brotherly love. Kitano has always said, that emotions are as the motions of a pendulum. So if "Brother" is so extreme violent (death), it also must be extreme in the way people love each other (life).
This is a brief note upon the "life" aspect of the film, that suggest a different interpretation of "Brother", aside the one suggested by Kitano himself: Death.
Twenty-three minutes into "Brother", as Ken is introducing Aniki to his two friends, Mo and Jay, Kitano reverses the point of view with putting an empty chair in center of the frame, only showing the torsos of Ken, Mo and Jay. This mise-en-scene is very unusual. First, the mise-en-scene suggest hierarchy by position: Kitano is sitting, Ken, Mo and Jay are standing and by distance: the empty chair is in front of Ken, Mo and Jay. Second, Kitano breaks the vertical 180 degrees line, by making his point of view level with empty chair and not returning the perspective. The mise-en-scene clearly tells us, that the empty chair is what’s important.
The chair is empty, because someone is missing. Thru an subjective insert of a picture, that shows Ken, Mo, Jay and Denny, Kitano informs us, that the person missing is Denny. We also know why Denny is missing. Earlier in the film, while walking down the street, trying to locate Ken’s home, Aniki and Denny ran into each other, with the outcome, that Aniki punched Denny in the face with a broken bottle.
The empty chair is an index, telling us that something is missing, telling us that Denny is missing. More importantly, the mise-en-scene suggests equality by direct opposition, as the chair is directly opposite Aniki and Kitano willfully breaks the perspective of the 180 degrees line. Thus, the empty chair also becomes a reflection of the inner of Aniki: what’s missing is something inside of him, a part of him.
In an analeptic sequence, we learn why Aniki came to the USA. In Japan, he was a high ranking yakuza, Shatei-gashira, responsible for the safety of his oyabun. During a war, the oyabun was ambushed and as part of the truce, the families were ordered to disband and become part of the Hisamatsu family. Aniki, who had his own family, Yamamoto, refused. When Harada, his oldest kyodai (brother), joined the Hisamatsu family to protect the lives of his own family, they demanded, that he kills Aniki, as he, as an outsider, was unwanted. As brothers, Harada couldn’t kill Aniki. Instead he offered him to leave the country; gave him a new identity and personally collected a small fortune for Aniki to start over in the USA.
Within the yakuza, the notion of brotherhood is common. It is a closed male world, and elders become big brothers, even father figures: Thus the yakuza brother note upon a very strong relationship, as it is the one person always there for you. Where Kitano often works with the oyabun-kobun (mentor-apprentice) relationship as a motif, his motifs became more complex and mature after his accident, where he began looking at relationships as symbiosis. In "Brother", this idea touches upon the notion of Aristophanes, when Kitano notes, that man alone is empty: He needs a brother to be complete.
By showing us the empty chair and establishing it as an equivalent for Denny, Kitano tells us that Denny is predestined to become the "Brother" of Aniki: Denny is the first person Aniki talks to and in several shots, Denny is framed exactly the same way as Aniki or aligned when doing a 180. Likewise, Denny and Aniki become inseparable as buddies. They hang out together, playing games. To share a social activity bonds people, which Kitano notes upon by showing for instance how playing basketball makes Jay and Kato close friends (brothers).
This unique male bonding goes beyond ordinary friendship and is a completion of one self. Just as Aristophanes suggested, that love as the desire to regain wholeness, so is there an attraction between these brothers, without ever becoming homosexual. The strength of this brotherhood is underlined by proxy of the "the bag".
As noted above, instead of killing his brother, Harada offers Aniki exile and when leaving Tokyo, Aniki is given an old gym bag full of money. A similar situation arises towards the end, where Aniki and Denny, after having captured Gepetti, the mafia boss, walks over to another car. Here Aniki fires a shot, to make Gepetti believe Denny is dead, and says, while handing Denny the bag: "Here, take it, run away." Just as Harada faked Aniki’s death and sending him away, so is Aniki now sending Denny away by faking his death - with the bag. Within the bag, Denny finds the cup and a note saying: "Here are the $60 I owe you for cheating and interest", the interest being a fortune. The bag thus has two sign functions: the first representing personal sacrifice to ensure the safety of ones brother, the second representing absolution. That the bag also suggests both a cyclic and allegoric reading is irrelevant for this note.
: In "Symposium", Aristophanes suggests, that Man originally was one creature, but was divided into two half’s, now spending his entire life searching for his other half. In length of this, Aristophanes also notes upon the differences between love and sex: "Love is the desire to regain wholeness, the desire to merge with one's other half. Sexuality is a substitute for that, since regaining wholeness with one's other half cannot be attained."