In "Brother" a death-wish yakuza and a young black bond in LA. Tony Rayns asks Kitano Takeshi about US crews and kamikazes.

"The asshole doesn't even speak English!" From its opening scene, with a stranger in a strange land nervously over-tipping a cab driver and a bellboy, Brother never stops insisting that its protagonist is hopelessly foreign. Kitano plays Yamamoto, a middle-ranking yakuza from Tokyo who arrives in Los Angeles to look for his brother. Not his real brother (they were both adopted), but the kid whose American education he's been paying for. It turns out that brother Ken was fired from the sushi bat where he was part-timing. Instead, he's gone into business dealing drugs with some black friends. Yamamoto doesn't seem too concerned when he finds out. Is he inwardly angry? Resentful? About to explode in rage? Or is it just that he doesn't fully understand?

When Jackie Chan makes films in the US, the setting and period may vary, but the plot is always the same. Jackie always arrives from point east and it's about him "becoming American", with a little help and hindrance from a reluctant American sidekick. They keep using this plot because it offers an explanation for Jackie's problems with English. Brother is the polar opposite. Kitano goes to LA and becomes more Japanese. His character hardly even tries to speak English, and has no apparent interest in his new environment. But he arrives with two pieces of baggage: the urge to dominate, and a wish to die. Both infect everyone he meets, like a virus.

Brother has none of the "philosophical" dimensions of Kitano's Sonatine (1993) or Hana-Bi (1997). It's a straight-ahead action movie, planned and plotted like a military campaign. Yamamoto leads his brother and a growing crowd of others in a drive for territorial expansion, which succeeds until they run into a brick wall of the Mafia. That's it. Except, of course, that it's garnished with the usual Kitano tableau compositions, a seaside interlude, spasms of intense violence (there's a very ugly moment involving broken chopsticks), delayed cuts to action which has been going on off screen. In short, it's a Kitano film, right down to its strangely upbeat ending in which an old debt is repaid with unexpected interest.

We talked about Brother in Tokyo last summer, just after Kitano had finished the post-production.

Tony Rayns: Was there anything surprising for you in the experience of shooting in the US?

Kitano Takeshi: The first surprise was the American crew. I'd been told to expect laziness and job-demarcation disputes, but it was nothing like that at all. They were really professional and worked really hard on the film. Actually, for the first two or three days they were surprised at how fast we worked. They loved being able to go home early. After about a week, though, it struck them that they weren't going to get their usual overages, so they asked us to slow down.

But maybe the real surprise was that I found myself repressing some of my own ideas during the filming. Something would occur to me, but then I'd think, "No, they'll never get it" or "No, I won't be able to do that." Whenever I felt like trying something out or doing something ambitious, I repressed the impulse. For example, I had it in mind to have a scene with Yamamoto and Denny (Omar Epps) at a Little League baseball game. The referee calls Denny a "nigger" and so they beat him up and for him to play in a grudge match which parodies some bad calls he made in the game. But I never shot it because I thought I'd never manage to explain it to everyone and wasn't sure how Omar Epps would take it. If I'd known from the start how good the American crew would turn out to be, perhaps I'd have been more brave.

On the "Gohatto" shoot Oshima posted a set of rules for the crew: no excessive drinking, no talking about sport or religion... Did you have anything similar?

They're pretty strict in the States. We had a big meeting during the pre-production period and they gave us all a stern lecture: no sexual harassment, no drugs, no alcohol at all on set... Tougher than Japan.

Did you change much during the shoot?

No, the filming followed the script quiet closely. But I changed a lot in the editing. The first rough-cut was three and a half hours, and one clause in the contract with the producers specified a running time of no more than two hours. So I had to cut out a lot. There was one long scene in a Chinese restaurant: I had one very long take shot from the middle of a round tale with the camera revolving, more often catching people listening than people speaking. There whole sequence had to go.

I remember that the original outline made more of the "brotherly" friendship between Yamamoto and the black guy Denny. It's still there in the film, but less prominent than you first intended. Why is that?

Just before we started filming, it suddenly struck me that it would be out of character for Yamamoto to become overtly friendly with any foreigner. A yakuza wouldn't do that. So I made the friendship more implied than explicit. Now he never gives Denny any indication of how he feels towards him. Denny doesn't even find out until the end, when he's talking - screaming! - to himself. I made a more or less conscious decision to play it that way.

How did you cast the non-Japanese actors?

We did auditions, and I went for the ones who "acted" the least. As usual!

You brought back Claude Maki, the boy from "Scene at the Sea" to play Yamamoto's brother Ken.

In real life he's surfer. He spends a lot of time in Hawaii and speaks good English. That was obviously an important consideration.

Any trouble with the actors this time?

I was forced to make one compromise: I was pushed into casting a guy named Kato Masaya as Shirase, the leader of the Little Tokyo yakuza. His agent is one of the biggest in Japan and he can be a real nuisance. We had discussions with the Japanese actors in Tokyo before we left for the states, and at one of them Kato came to me and said: "Director, is it OK for me to use cigars as props in the film? I think it will help me express the character." Inwardly, I'm thinking, "What the fuck is this guy on about?" But I smile and say, "Sure, why not?" But in the film there's a scene where Yamamoto shouts at Shirase and tells him to put out his cigar. That was me talking, not Yamamoto.

There's a strong element of death wish about the story: Yamamoto goes to LA and puts himself in even more dangerous situations, which must ultimately lead to his death. And there are two fairly graphic suicides. Would it be too strong to say these characters have a kamikaze spirit?

Exactly! All the main Japanese characters in the Los Angeles scenes are named after prominent wartime militarists. Yamamoto is named after General Yamamoto Isoruku, and so on. Shirase, Kato Ishihara, they're all World War II names. So yes, it's a film about going to America to die.

So in a sense this is a film about Pearl Harbor?

Exactly! There are striking parallels. My character Yamamoto's hesitation about confronting the Mafia matches Yamamoto Isoruku's doubts about Pearl Harbor. But nobody in Japan has picked up on this yet. I thought the names made it obvious.

Why does Kato (Terajima Susumu) follow Yamamoto to Los Angeles - and die there when he's tricked into playing Russian roulette?

The hierarchy of the yakuza "brotherhood" has several different degrees. Yamamoto and Harada are equals: 50/50. In the case of Yamamoto and Kato, it's more like 70/30. The loyal junior has no real choice but to follow his superior to America. Or at least he's old fashioned enough to think so.

His death scene and the scene in Tokyo when Harada commits suicide are based on true stories told to me by a yakuza in Kyushu. There was a gang war between yakuza "families" in the region. One "family" won, and they head-hunted an officer from their defeated rivals. He was so good that he rose very rapidly in their ranks, making other guys jealous. And when they challenged him, he committed suicide on the spot. Many episodes in Brother were inspired by things I heard from this man in Kyushu.

There's been a change in your film-makng in the years since your near-fatal motorcycle crash. Has your attitude to your films altered?

If I look back, I think I used to have a clear intention to make film that were very much my own, in my own style. That continued up to Sonatine. After the accident, I think I became more open to outside ideas and influences - more mature. But maybe Brother marks the end of that phase. I'd like to go back to working with the kind of high tension I had at the start. Perhaps Brother marks the point where my rehab after the accident is finally complete.

Do you think you'll work abroad again?

One of my projects is what I call a "fractal" film: a dream within a dream. I'd like to do it overseas, maybe in France or Britain. But when I look back at Brother, I feel it's neither Japanese nor American. I didn't choose typical Los Angeles locations for it, and the story doesn't need to be set in LA. The only thing that's very LA about it is the ethnic mix. There's no point in saying it now, but the fact is that I could have build studio sets in Tokyo, flown in the foreign actors and done the whole thing here.

Any idea what's next?

Im working quiet hard on a script right now, based on a play by kabuki playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. But it won't be anything like Mizoguchi's Chikamatsu films.

Japanese names are in the traditional form: surname first. Grateful thanks to Mori Masayuki and to Usui Naoyuki for translation.

By Tony Rayns (Sight and Sound, April 2001, p26-27). All rights are reserved by Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound and The British Film Institute (BFI). The article is reproduced by with the kind permission by Tony Rayns.