a still from the film Kubi
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film “Kubi” Review: Kitano Takeshi’s Queer Samurai Conflicted Epic

“Kubi” Review: Kitano Takeshi’s Queer Samurai Conflicted Epic

a still from the film Kubi

“Kubi” has been on Kitano Takeshi’s (AKA Beat Takeshi) mind for so long that Kurosawa Akira was still alive to comment on it. In 1993, the legendary director predicted, “When Kitano directs this film, he will definitely rival my ‘Seven Samurai’.” Unfortunately, it’s one of the few times in his later life that Kurosawa has been completely wrong, though Kitano’s long work “Kubi” isn’t entirely without merit.

A retelling of true events in the late 16th century, the film’s jaw-dropping, blood-soaked vistas are a wonderful sight, as are a number of era-specific details and its handful of striking moments of queer samurai imagery. However, for the most part, Kitano’s tale of ambitions and beheadings – many, many beheadings – loses nearly all momentum in the second half, before settling into a rote, repetitive pace.

Oda Nobunaga was hailed as Japan’s first “great unifier,” and here he’s played with a case of chuckling villainy by a Dracula-cloaked Kase Ryo, who – despite his truncated role in what is essentially a piece of together – light up the screen. If there’s one thing Kitano knows how to do, it’s extract entertaining performances from his cast. The central plot concerns the disappearance of one of Oda’s vassals, Murashige Araki (Endo Kenichi), accused by his lordship of rebel sympathies, followed by Oda’s subsequent attempts both to capture him and to ferret out dissent within his empire, in a game of territorial chess. He enlists a number of other bosses to hunt down Murashige – including Nishijima Hidetoshi’s dutiful and outspoken Akechi Mitsuhide and Kitano’s more relaxed and world-weary Toyotomi Hideyoshi – with the promise of naming one of them as his successor, bringing to skirmishes of ambition. , and double (and triple) crossbreeding all the way down the social ladder.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Oda, Murashige and Akechi are involved in some kind of love triangle. The real Oda was long believed to be involved with same-sex assistants, an idea Kitano attempts to turn into an emotional and thematic focus, with Murashige in love with Oda, Akechi in love with Murashige, and all seduced by power. . This produces a thrilling moment in which, to prove his loyalty to Oda, Murashige bloodies his mouth with his ruler’s blade before they lock their lips. Murashige practically falls over himself to Oda’s approval, a cartoonish detail that Endo imbues with fiery humanity through looks alone – but it’s one of only two scenes in the film that seems remotely sexually charged (the other is one passionate gaze between two shirtless partners, but that’s by the way). “Kubi” isn’t so much about the samurai’s queering ambition as it is about likening it to a sex drive, though neither side of that equation is ever presented with enough verve to draw viewers into his epic tale.

On the other hand, something Kitano excels at is presenting the absurdity of wanton bloodshed, an idea he’s had his eye on from the start. As more and more characters are introduced (peasants, artists, gangsters, gunmen, each with their own blood-red text on screen), what ties their stories together is their ruthless desire to climb the feudal hierarchy through the act of decapitation.

The film’s title, meaning “neck”, refers to the for homework (or “neck bag”), a kind of basket used to carry severed heads as evidence – a procedure which sees several characters step on each other in an often ridiculous manner. From the opening scene, Kitano unabashedly revels in the carnage of this particular nature, which he often describes as cartoonish and frames as cyclical, even meaningless. However, the collateral damage that radiates outwards from these power struggles is dealt with with the most dexterous and respectful hand. If a character loses a loved one, he’s far more tragic than otherwise sensational battlefield dismemberments or cowardly backstabbing—a tonal contrast that Kitano establishes both easily and early on.

The pomp and circumstance of the era is often front and center, with colorful, heavy armor and heavy fabrics causing an irritating ruckus whenever the characters move. Kudos to the film’s costume designers and foley’s team, who help make the legendary samurai look uncomfortable in their skin, and downright uncool with every step they take (that discomfort isn’t mirrored by the film’s queer characters, mind you; their love is an open secret). However, despite close attention to these era-specific details, Kitano’s cinema ends up being as overeager as his intriguing characters. Whatever he has to say about power structures, queer-ness and zealous aspirations, he says it clearly and quickly in the film’s 131-minute runtime, then his story ends with a repetition of surprise attacks and a myriad of scenes devoid of pathos that seem practically indistinguishable.

This flattening of violent imagery is, in some ways, the whole point of “Kubi,” but it results in a paradoxical undercurrent to what is essentially a war film. The camera is constantly in love with Kitano’s large-scale dioramas of mischievous movements and sudden blood splatter. It’s often knee-slapping fun, but that’s a problem, since so much of it also sounds like a fatalistic rumination on men’s violence and how it seeks to destroy. Kitano works hard to separate these kinds of scenes, but the transition from one to another is often abrupt (the ending is equally so) and their interplay rarely has anything useful to say about violence or ambition, whether real or cinematic .

What little that remains memorable of “Kubi” strikes only in isolation, born of threads, ideas and slivers of images that seem to buzz in Kitano’s brain for over 30 years. Unfortunately, they have become stale; a larger, more noteworthy picture never emerges.

Grade: C+

“Kubi” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.

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