Do you love action movies but hate that you have to watch them one at a time? If so, then I may have just the movie for you. K-20, helmed by Shimako Sato, is a glossy mish-mash of far too many Hollywood productions for me to name (although I'll try). Oddly enough, it also represents an example of synthesis leading to creation. Sato has used borrowed parts to successfully assemble a summer blockbuster that just so happens to be straight out of Japan.
The events of the film are set in 1949 in an alternate vision of a world where the carnage of World War II never happened. As you can imagine, this means that things have turned out rather differently for Japan. The island nation is firmly in steampunk territory here as the stifling nobility system is largely intact while technology has continued to steadily advance. Teito, the imperial capital, has become a battleground where Detective Akechi (Toru Nakamura) is matching wits with the masked thief known only as K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces. So far, K-20 has been stealing from the rich like a Robin Hood character without any of that pesky 'giving to the poor' baggage. When he makes off with a small Tesla device (yup, that Tesla) which can deliver power sans wires, Akechi begins to suspect that bigger things are afoot.
Entering this situation entirely against his will is circus acrobat, Heikichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro). When Endo is offered a bit of cash in exchange for photographs of Akechi's engagement to Duchess Yoko Hashiba (Takako Matsu), he jumps at the chance to do something nice for his friends in the circus. Little does he know that the trap has been set and he is about to be framed as the fiend, K-20, himself. When he is arrested, his pleas of innocence fall on deaf ears. After a daring escape staged by his circus propmaster, Genji (Jun Kunimura), Endo realizes that he will have to clear his good name all by himself while remaining a fugitive on the run.
Before I discuss the modern influences apparent in Sato's handling of the material, it might be beneficial to first look to the past. While the character of K-20 looks like he must have sprung out of a manga fever dream, his roots are actually a bit more literary. He first appeared in the stories of Japanese mystery writer, Edogawa Rampo, as the arch nemesis of Detective Kogoro Akechi. Akechi was Rampo's riff on the character of Sherlock Holmes which makes sense since Rampo deeply admired the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Despite a vast collection of Akechi tales to draw upon, Sato's film is actually based on a novel by Soh Kitamura, "The Story of Nijyumenso". Kitamura's take on the character and Sato's further interpretation are sure to surprise Rampo's fans. They definitely haven't played it safe since they make some very bold changes to K-20's mythology. For starters, Akechi isn't even the real hero of this piece. His detective work often takes a back seat to Endo's heroics and Yoko's awakening while away from her gilded cage. As for K-20, he mostly stays in the shadows hiding behind a mask until he finally reveals his true identity and the details of his dastardly plan. Moriarty would be proud.
Sato must be a major fan of Hollywood action movies. I suspect she also has a special fondness for superhero tales because she almost structures K-20 as an origin story for Endo. He could be the hero that the people of Teito never knew they were missing. Endo's training scenes with a grappling hook are reminiscent of Peter Parker first discovering the joy of swinging across rooftops. K-20 himself looks like V (of the famous Vendetta) complete with cape and wide-brim hat. The climax even seems to have emerged from the Dark Knight playbook, although that may not be completely fair since both films came out in 2008. If nothing else, I believe K-20's soundtrack is largely responsible for my feelings of déjà vu. The theme music is an odd mix of the Batman and Superman themes while many other pieces during the action scenes suggest that John Williams may be owed a few royalty checks.
Despite the obvious nature of Sato's influences, I don't mean to deride her work here in any way at all. In fact, I think she has managed to stitch together a variety of elements in order to create pure escapist entertainment. Part of the fun is watching her present standard action movie tropes in unusual ways. We get training montages of Endo turning obstacle avoidance exercises into excuses for a bit of light parkour. His attempts at the 'art of disguise' are presented as a montage that is played for laughs. Sato even pushes Endo's heroic emergence to the limits by having him defeated at every possible turn for much of the film's running time. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Sato's direction is her treatment of Yoko's character. As a sheltered Duchess, it would be easy to slot her into the damsel in distress role but Yoko continually surprises Endo and us by showing off her plucky side. It's a fun performance by Matsu since she convincingly juggles demure elegance with feisty tenacity.
Although Yoko's character is a resounding success, the boys don't fare quite as well in the film. While Akechi is presented as a hero cop beloved by the people of Teito, he doesn't seem to have much of a personality beyond that. It doesn't help that Nakamura's portrayal of Akechi is flat and emotionless. This is in stark contrast to Kaneshiro's performance as Endo which requires almost too much emotion from him. Kaneshiro is a naturally charismatic actor but all subtlety goes out the window when he has to be the archetypal hero. He is kind to orphans, cares for animals and has an unflinching sense of justice. Frankly, that last virtue is a bit of a sticking point for me. After his jailbreak, he is horrified to find out that Genji's crew featured honest-to-goodness thieves. Rather than being thankful in the least, he insults them and questions their loyalty to each other. I guess moral superiority comes at the price of being a pompous ass.
My only other minor complaint involves the pacing and length of the film. K-20 falls into the trap of thinking that material with epic scope requires epic length. While a 137 minute running time isn't unheard of in this age of bloated action movies, here it is a sign of an overstuffed plot. Melodrama occasionally interrupts the mayhem, turning what should be snappy passages into sluggish ones. This doesn't irreversibly damage the film by any means but it does siphon away a bit of energy from the proceedings. Despite my picking of nits, I do consider the film a successful attempt at a modern superhero origin story with decidedly Japanese flair. Sato mines the middle ground between two great detectives, Sherlock Holmes and Batman and dare I say she has struck oil.