K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces (VIZ Pictures, NR)

K-20 is fun, genre-aware, and a great way to spend a few leisurely summer hours—but if you expect more, you’ll probably be disappointed.

 

 

 If you’re disappointed with the new Robin Hood movie and long for a good old-fashioned swashbuckler, fear not because help is at hand. K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces, directed by Shimako Sato, has capes, masks, stunts, alternative history, a mysterious and deadly invention, a handsome leading man and a beautiful leading lady, and a story about class conflict which comes out right. Most importantly, K-20 is fun, genre-aware, and a great way to spend a few leisurely summer hours (or to take the bite out of an airplane flight—I watched it while flying from St. Louis to Orlando)—but if you expect more, you’ll probably be disappointed.

 
In the world of this film, it’s 1949, World War II never happened, Teito is the capital of Japan, and the country is ruled by an effete aristocracy who may remind you of Marie Antoinette and company as they sit on upholstered sofas sipping tea while outside the masses are starving in the gutter. From this ripe setting emerges the masked superhero K-20 (he’s a master of disguise who never gets caught because he can present 20 different faces to the world) whose specialty is stealing from the rich.
 
Meanwhile, a young (and very pure-hearted—it’s that kind of movie) circus acrobat (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is asked to photograph the engagement ceremony of the princess Yoko Hashiba (Takako Matsu) to police detective Togoro Akechi (Toru Nakamura). It might have been a great opportunity had it not proved to be a setup to frame the acrobat for K-20’s crimes. In this kind of movie what can the young man possibly do but take on the identity of K-20 for real in order to clear his good name? In between he takes care of an orphan who seems to be his apprentice and unofficial little brother, and the princess turns out to have a lot more going for her than just a pretty face. There’s also some nonsense about a machine created by Nikola Tesla, meant perhaps to be the realization of the “death ray” he claimed to have invented, but it’s not well-integrated into the plot although there is a mushroom cloud at one point which must particularly resonate with Japanese viewers.
 
One of the fun things about this film is the way it mixes up historical periods: the opening scenes seem to be set in Victorian London and you expect Sherlock Holmes to come popping out of a cab to set things right. Then it shifts to a more 1940s gangster movie feel, but the aristocrats are living so far removed from reality that they still seem to think it’s the 19th century. Since it deals with an imaginary time and place, who’s to say it wouldn’t have been just like that? And you have to take this film in the context of old-time adventure tales (like the Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn Robin Hood) where the point was to put on a good show, not to claim to have reconstructed some real historical time and place.
 
K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces is presented in Japanese with optional English subtitles and is available on DVD from VIZ Media here. Extras on DVD include the English-language trailer, 14 (!) Japanese-language trailers, and previews of four other films distributed by VIZ media. | Sarah Boslaugh
 

 

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