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Quint flips out for Japanese superhero flick K-20: LEGEND OF THE MASK (aka THE FIEND WITH 20 FACES) at SBIFF!!!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I had a really interesting day here at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, catching a very British drama that I really liked (called POPPY SHAKESPEARE) then listening to a Danny Boyle post-SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE Q&A followed by my own 10 minute interview with him before just barely catching the late screening of a movie called K-20: LEGEND OF THE MASK. Now, first off… fuck that title. The literal Japanese translation is The Fiend With Twenty Faces. Much better. This movie is a huge budget superhero movie. Imagine mixing liberal handfuls of Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN and Nolan’s BATMAN, then adding in a few pinches of DARKMAN and SKY CAPTAIN and you get an idea of what you’re in for.

The basic setting is late ‘40s Japan, but in an alternate world where War between the US was averted, which somehow has let Japan grow into a country with giant awesome zeppelins and weird helicopter/bi-plane hybrids. Unfortunately, society has also split itself in half. There are only two classes, rich and poor. By law, they are not allowed to marry outside of their own class and very rarely do they intermingle. There is a fly in the ointment, a masked vigilante named K-20, also known as the Fiend With Twenty Faces. The movie opens with a demonstration of a Tesla device that will pave the way to wireless energy. We see that it can be aimed anywhere in the world and using the right amount of electricity they can power single lightbulbs or entire towns. The assistant running the machine suddenly halts the demonstration. With a swoosh he pulls his face off and reveals himself as the masked K-20. He then uses the small Tesla device to focus energy within the room, causing little electrical explosions like he was Captain Marvel or something. K-20’s M.O. is that of a thief of priceless treasures. Paintings, jewels, money, etc. He constantly steals from the rich. He doesn’t give his spoils to the poor, but he seems to leave them alone. Hot on his heels is a star detective named Akechi (Toru Nakamura) who is celebrity within the upper class social circles. Akechi even has a public engagement with the wealthy heiress (Matsu Takako) to Japan’s most successful business. Then we meet our real star, Takeshi Kaneshiro (HERO), a crazy-awesome circus acrobat who delights the lower class nightly with his death defying acts of skill. He backflips his way through a barrage of arrows, but is also a natural theatrical talent, not merely just skilled physically. He does magic and plays to the audience, who loves him.

He’s approached after one of his shows by a mysterious strange with a large scar on his face. The stranger offers him a business card saying he writes for a tabloid and will offer Kaneshiro’s Endo a ton of cash if he’ll use his skills to somehow infiltrate the secure engagement ceremony between Nakamura and Takako and snap a few pictures for his publication. Of course it’s a set up and Endo is captured after an attack by K-20 on the ceremony, captured as being the masked maniac. He’s not in custody long. He’s sprung when somebody literally steals the bridge his convoy during transport is crossing. It was around this time that I was certain I knew where the movie was heading. K-20 must be fighting the good fight and is only involving Endo as a way to test him out to be his replacement or side-kick or something, right?

Well, I was totally wrong. K-20’s a bad guy. He really is trying to frame Endo as a means to allow him a real retirement. Endo’s rescue was enabled by a group of thieves lead by the grizzled old technician from Endo’s circus. What follows is Endo’s search for K-20 in order to clear his name and go back to the circus, doing what he loves. He has to train himself up and is aided by the circle of thieves as well as a little kid who worked at the circus with him. This kid was awesome. Imagine a Japanese version of the kid from LOVE, ACTUALLY. Cute, but kind of adult and a really fantastic actor, emoting so much complex emotion on his face. Endo trains in the ways of the thieves, which essentially involves learning how parkour around the retro-futuristic city. The idea is to blindly pick a point on a map and draw a straight line. He has to travel that line from beginning to end. He can’t move around obstacles in his path, either figuring a way over, under or through it. He is further aided by his friend from the circus, the old gruff bastard, who builds him a mechanical device which is essentially a combination between a webshooter, a whip and a grappling hook. And it is really damn awesome. What I loved about setting the film in this alternate universe period is that everything has a hand-made quality to it. The grappling device is clunky, mechanical and all the more badass for it. I honestly can’t believe this movie doesn’t have more buzz around it. Director Shimako Sato is certainly ripping off a ton of Western archetypes, but when you do it as well as he does it then it all mixes into a new type of flick. Kinda like what Tarantino does when he’s at his best. Kraken and I have been talking a lot about this film since we saw it and that discussion has turned to where the next batch of incredible visual filmmakers are going to come from. Sato’s claim to fame is as the cinematic director on video games like RESIDENT EVIL: CODE VERONICA and the ONIMUSHA series (which bases its lead character on Kaneshiro, star of this film). In the last two decades the visionaries have come out of music videos. The Edgar Wrights, David Finchers, Michel Gondrys, Spike Jonzes, etc. But we both concur that tomorrow’s visionaries are going to start coming out of video games. Look at the cut scenes for games like HALO, GOD OF WAR, NINJA GAIDEN, BIOSHOCK, ONIMUSHA, etc and there’s a visual richness, an attention to detail and camera movement that will translate perfectly to animated features or even live action, like the jump Sato makes with this film. Above all, this movie is just plain fun. It’s a little over 2 hours, but doesn’t drag at all. I also think this is the kind of film that can play for North American audiences. There’s enough visual pizzazz and action, but more importantly there’s a very western filmmaking style to it. Either the culture lines have blurred a bit over the last decade or Sato’s very talented at keeping the energy of Japanese cinema while keeping the structure something territory neutral. I have no idea where this is going from here, but it is my sincere hope that the film makes it to the US… more than likely in the form of DVD and Blu-Ray, but I’d hope for at least an art-house run. Check out the trailers below and get a glimpse of what has geeked me out:

Told you it was pretty cool. Looks even better on the big screen. Okay, enough writing. Time for me to sleep… be back soon with more SBIFF coverage! -Quint

Readers Talkback
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  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:47 a.m. CST

    Nice poster!

    by Motoko Kusanagi


  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:48 a.m. CST

    First AND second!

    by Motoko Kusanagi


  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:52 a.m. CST

    TOO SOON!!!

    by Motoko Kusanagi


  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:53 a.m. CST

    Takeshi Kaneshiro GOTTA EAT!!!!

    by Motoko Kusanagi


  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:53 a.m. CST

    K-20 is cooking the books!!!

    by Motoko Kusanagi


  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:54 a.m. CST

    Well, at least I'll die with my friends.

    by Motoko Kusanagi


  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:55 a.m. CST

    Yeah, but what about the squid?

    by Motoko Kusanagi

    It's ommittance changes everything!

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:56 a.m. CST

    Who cares when AVATAR is fucking our eyeballs in 2009?

    by Motoko Kusanagi


  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:57 a.m. CST

    Well, I'm no biologist but

    by Motoko Kusanagi

    I smell plant.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:58 a.m. CST

    Does this have Megan Fox in it?

    by Motoko Kusanagi

    Cuz dat would be kewl.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:59 a.m. CST

    Looks like a Nihon Zoro...


    ...meets The Shadow. Whatever, I'm a sucker for alternate reality films.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 5:02 a.m. CST


    by oaser

    is there always a girl in a wedding dress in these action movies. Are they bashing marriage as a trap? An emasculation of the phallogocentric society?

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 5:03 a.m. CST

    Awesome poster, but sounds like a crappy film

    by ricarleite

    But that poster, I would have it on a frame and tell people it's an obscure mid 60s japanese exploitation flick.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 5:15 a.m. CST

    Weird helicopter biplane hybrind?

    by Neojanus

    I believe it's proper name is an autogyro. Believe it or not they do exist.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 5:26 a.m. CST

    This is a sequel to K-19, Right?

    by Prometeo

    wait... I'm confused...

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 5:33 a.m. CST

    been waiting for this for a while

    by ironic_name

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 5:55 a.m. CST


    by caruso_stalker217

    I've been sitting on an idea a lot like this for a while now. Damn Japanese beat me to it again.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 8:16 a.m. CST

    I Could Do Without The Hat...

    by Media Messiah

    ...and the faux mouth...other than that, there are some nice shots here, that you just know that some American filmmakers will rip-off, and very soon, BTW.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 8:51 a.m. CST

    Umm, No...

    by GoodTimeBobby

    ...I doubt american fillmakers will be racing to "rip off" this film since it seems to have ripped off so any american films....i see elements of Batman 89, The Shadow, Spiderman, Darkman, etc....The Idea of the 20 faced-demon seems to be inspired by the Crimson Ghost movie serials of way back.....imho.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 8:53 a.m. CST


    by Phimseto

    <P> Logged in just to see how many posts it took before someone made a "K-19 the Widowmaker" reference. <P> I wasn't disappointed!

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 9:10 a.m. CST

    I laughed

    by maelstrom_ZERO

    <p>As intriguing and as compelling as this film looks, when the K-20 guy swished his cape in front of himself and changed/vanished, I was instantly reminded of Bruce Campbell parodying the same thing in Jack of All Trades.</p> <p>And then I realized how utterly ridiculous the film was, and spent the next minute laughing. Oh Bruce Campbell, you've ruined this movie for me.</p>

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 9:20 a.m. CST

    Saw this in Japan in Dec!!

    by TheManWithTheHat

    Awsome flick!! But why the name change for Kaneshiro's character? His name in the film is Heikichi.... and yeah, that English title is shite. Wow. The movie is based off of a series of mystery/adventure books - 26 all told, I think. I saw them all, but only bought the one the film is based off of. So QUINT, did they show this subbed, or dubbed? And I'm with ya on the hopes it'll get a release of SOME KIND here in the US.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 9:21 a.m. CST

    Finally, a sequel to 1998's "K-9", starring James Belushi...

    by Leafar the Lost

    ...Mel Harris, and Koton (the dog). I am not sure why this one is called K-20, and why it was filmed in Japan, but I don't care.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 9:30 a.m. CST

    This will be made as the third installment of The Mask

    by Seth_Brundle

    Jamie Kennedy is already in talks to reprise the role

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 10:13 a.m. CST

    Edgar Wright is a visionary?

    by kwisatzhaderach

    Um, no.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 10:37 a.m. CST


    by ironic_name

    me too, olegbrother!

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 11:42 a.m. CST

    Edgar Wright got his start in music videos?

    by Tin Snoman

    I thought he started out as a lab tech on an educational series...

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 1:18 p.m. CST

    that looks

    by SpawnofAchilles


  • Jan. 28, 2009, 1:48 p.m. CST

    Anybody Remember This?

    by Guyver1138

    There was an article about a movie on this site a month or two ago. It was a film from the UK I think; a romantic fantasy with a guy in a mask with black eyes that was sewn up the back. I forgot the name of the film and I want to get it whenever it is available.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 2:29 p.m. CST

    Twitch is my new AICN

    by DarthBakpao

    Twitch has now became my favorite movie website

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 2:39 p.m. CST

    Looks bad. The Shadow bad.

    by eggart

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 4:22 p.m. CST

    BIOSHOCK didn't have cutscenes...

    by oceanic86

    everything was portrayed through your character's eyes, except for the (shitty) ending.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 7:16 p.m. CST

    that shit looked horrible

    by SuperFinn

    ... like a cross between the phantom and m:i 3

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 7:25 p.m. CST

    hey, the shadow was cool.

    by theonecalledshoe

    The son of mask was not cool.

  • Jan. 28, 2009, 10:39 p.m. CST

    SPOILERS in review..

    by themanwhojaped

    QUINT - This post wasn't a review you just basically recounted the plot of the whole movie, including spoilers re K-20 that were presumably a twist. This is tantamount to you reviewing the Sixth Sense and saying SPOILER WARNING "Of course, Bruce Willis' character is actually a ghost".. Do I even need to see the film now you have ruined the whole plot? tl;dr Learn the difference between a review and a plot summation.

  • Jan. 29, 2009, 2:52 a.m. CST


    by logboy

    i don't the whole videogame tangent, not only become shimako sato comes from more of a TV / film background, but because i think it's an entirely different discipline. granted, lots of videogames people are increasingly trying to create interactive movies - ones that are z-grade at best, hackneyed, often oddly or conspicuously homoerotic / far too butch for my tastes. they're clearly dramatically more inclined to be bloated ones at that - failing spectacularly because they forget the player is intended to be in control of a learning curve, an individualised narrative from within a series of triggered events preset by the creators rather than at the mercy of what the producers want specifically to happen next, when exactly they want it to happen, and from which perspective it's to be seen; see 'gears of war 2' - shockingly inept as a game, but so built on scale and visual flare that it kind of looks ambitious and impressive because it's the latest step on a path towards something like the interactive film scenario, more than it's an evolution or progression of gameplay. game studios need a trick question, perhaps, for all potential new employees - experienced in the industry or otherwise - to weed out all fans of franchise horror and sci-fi. all wannabe filmmakers too, as already mentioned, need not apply either. sure, it's a growing industry of some influence, but it has much more room to grow, simply because it's decided to build itself upon a narrow audience and so often fails to go beyond trying to ply the masses with what's more applicable to a minority of uber-geeks. as for interest in this film... well, as with all japanese or other foreign films, there's interest in it. it's always slightly apprehensive or muted and speculative, born out of a habit of not quite knowing when or if a film will actually become available, and it's certainly based in a world less about the big and bloated (or too often easily connected to an american perspective on what makes a great film, or a film that works for an american audience) but it is there if you go looking for it. so are lots of other films too.