'Kubi' Review: Takeshi Kitano's Busy, Brutal Queer Samurai Epic

‘Kubi’ Review: Takeshi Kitano’s Busy, Brutal Queer Samurai Epic

A project that has reportedly been in the making for 30 years, so long that Akira Kurosawa once expressed huge hopes for its success before passing away. It’s bad it’s a labor of love.

Billed in its press materials as “Takeshi Kitano’s last film” but hopefully not the veteran director’s last, it marks Kitano’s return to the samurai genre for the first time since 2003 Zatoichi (that is to say The blind swordsman). The latter did modestly solid business in its day for an international film, and it will be interesting to see if Kitano, practically a national treasure in Japan, still has the same pull on Asian territories as it once did, not to mention the Pacific and beyond. there.

Related stories

It’s bad

The bottom line

Mainly for samurai movie fans.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Prime)
Launch: Takeshi Kitano, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Ryo Kase, Kaoru Kobayashi, Shido Nakamura, Tadanobu Asano, Nao Omori, Kenichi Endo, Ittoku Kishibe, Yuichi Kimura
Director/writer: Takeshi Kitano, based on the novel It’s bad by Takeshi Kitano

2 hours 11 minutes

But regardless of any box office performance, this challenging, extremely violent, Kitano’s fascinating looks and tangled plot adaptation of his novel is interesting for its fresh take on a musty genre. That said, it might seem like a slog to watch for viewers who aren’t fans of samurai sword-wielding, screaming movies.

Perhaps the most notable break with samurai film tradition here is the assumption that many of the male characters, based on historical figures, were lovers, ex-lovers, or just plain bi-curious. Let me confess in advance that I cannot judge the veracity of this portrayal as, until I saw this film, I knew nothing of the background to what is called the Honno-ji Incident – an attempt in 1582 to assassinate Lord Oda Nobunga (played here as a sadistic pansexual supervillain by Ryo Kase) attending a tea ceremony in Kyoto.

It is apparently a mystery why Nobunga was betrayed by one of his trusted men, Akechi Mitsuhide (Drive my carby Hidetoshi Nishijima). Kitano’s script proposes that Mitsuhide was secretly in love with Araki Murashige (Kenichi Endo), another general who had gone rogue and attacked Nobunga in a failed coup, depicted in a bloody battle scene that kicks off the film . Meanwhile, Nobunga himself likes to sleep with the male members of his entourage in a way that is not particularly loving, and it is implied that he and Mitsuhide may have had a sexual relationship in the past.

There is nothing homophobic in these choices, and indeed the relationship between Mitsuhide and Murashige is depicted with tenderness. That said, it’s not entirely clear what Kitano’s own position is on the characters given that he got into trouble in 2012 when asked about the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States for saying, “Obama supports gay marriage. Would you ultimately support a marriage with an animal, then. ick. (He has since vigorously echoed the statement.)

The generous take is that this film makes something of a mea culpa for that, even if making amends is only part of Kitano’s grand agenda here – other than staging a kind of reunion concert with some of his favorite actors (among including Endo, along with Tadanobu Asano, Nao Omori and Ittoku Kishibie among others) and artisan collaborators. (Editor Yoshinori Ota has worked with Kitano on almost every film he has directed since Get any? in 1994.)

Kitano’s sprawling story incorporates a wide range of characters, from the mercurial and cruel dictator Nobunaga to the foreigners who have stumbled upon Japan’s shores, to double prostitutes and humble peasants who get caught up in the gusts of history. Placed somewhere in the middle of these extremes is Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kitano himself), a cunning old warlord who himself came from peasant stock and who schemes with his advisers, including the cunning tactician Kuroda Kanbei ( Asano), on how to pit the various factions against each other and come out on top. Now considerably advanced in years but still a compelling and charismatic presence, Kitano presents Hideyoshi as a skilled manipulator who understands men’s flaws.

We’re talking men here, as there are precious few female characters aside from a brothel lady who is caught spying and a handful of camp-following prostitutes shuffling in the background. This is manly stuff through and through, and perhaps could perversely be read against the grain as a study in toxic masculinity. However, there is a primal childish pleasure to be had in watching armies of soldiers – each of them dressed in period-accurate costumes – shuffling across the battlefield, shooting thousands of arrows into the air and getting dirty in the mud of combat, depicted as gruesome and unforgiving, resulting in many dismembered corpses.

But that gruesome pageantry is as much a part of the allure of samurai films as majestic ceremonial interludes. Plus, there’s the thrill of watching the men strut their stuff in hand-embroidered vintage silks, indigo-dyed fabrics in cobalt hues, and leather armor, designed by Kazuko Kurosawa, daughter of Akira Kurosawa. Her work here, as in many other recent samurai films (Zaitoichi, The Twilight Samurai), alone is worth the price of the ticket.