There’s a lot going on in K-20: The Legend Of The Black Mask. Part superhero film, part steampunk alternate history, part detective mystery, and part Indiana Jones And The Atomic MacGuffin, it’s certainly not a film that is shy about referencing its many influences, and referencing them often.
This is no Tarantino-esque game of film reference trainspotting, however. At its heart, K-20 is a surprisingly classical action adventure, and is one of the best examples of the genre to come along in many years.
Adapted from a popular series of detective novels by So Kitamura, the film is set in an alternate Tokyo where World War Two never happened, and Japanese society is stratified into strict class groups, with the rich enjoying immense wealth at the top and the poor living in squalor at the bottom, with no hope in sight.
K-20, or the Fiend with Twenty Faces, is a professional thief and master of disguise, who steals from the rich, and doesn’t give to the poor. His power and ability are such that he has set his sights on a newly developed energy beam generator that, were he able to harness its power, he would be able to take over Tokyo, and perhaps, the world.
However, much like V For Vendetta (a clear inspiration), the titular masked vigilante isn’t the main focus of K-20. It’s the story of a talented circus performer, Heikichi Endo, (played by national heartthrob and star of House Of Flying Daggers, Takeshi Kaneshiro) who is framed by K-20 and is forced to take on the guise of the Fiend with Twenty Faces himself, in order to track down the real one and prove his innocence.
Accompanying him on his quest for justice and the truth are the wealthy, yet plucky heiress, Yoko Hashiba (Takako Matsu), and her fiancée, Chief of Police Kogoro Akechi, played by the fantastic Tôru Nakamura.
One criticism of K-20 is how derivative it is of other film. There’s certainly a thin line between writing a cinematic ‘love letter’ to a genre and just openly ripping people off, but K-20 belongs firmly in the first category. There is clearly a real affection for American comic books and action cinema that shines through, from the excellent John Williams-inspired score to the grandstanding, explosive finale.
Crucially, K-20 lifts all of the good parts of its influences and none of the bad. There is a training montage that is similar enough to the same scene in Raimi’s original Spider-Man to draw the comparison, but while adding enough cool scenery and wild parkour moves to make it into something new.
Similarly, the look of the city is very reminiscent of Nolan’s Batman films, with their grimy steampunk by way of 1940s detective-noir aesthetic. K-20 forgoes the dark, sombre tone of those films, however, maintaining a light touch throughout and a genuinely funny sense of humour, the cheery little brother to Nolan’s moody teenagers.
K-20 is a fantastic looking film, conjuring up a fantastical, yet totally immersive world that looks sumptuous on Blu-ray. The special effects are easily some of the best I’ve ever seen in a non-American feature. Iit’s very refreshing to see a film that uses CGI sparingly, with the bulk of the spectacle being provided by impeccable set design, old-school practical effects, and some magnificent stunt work.
The set pieces are all great, with a particularly breathtaking rooftop fight scene being the highlight. Writer-director Shimako Sato (Tale Of A Vampire) does a fantastic job of bringing the K-20 series to life, and on the strength of this film, Kathryn Bigelow could finally have a rival for the title of greatest female action director. Hell, they’d both be in the running for best action director, full stop.
While there is a whole lot to love about K-20, it does have a few key flaws that stop it from being a potential classic. For one thing, it dips noticeably in the middle, with a lot of scenes heavy with social commentary that isn’t incisive enough to be involving, and instead just comes off as dull and portentous. Similarly, the film is way too long, and could have done with at least twenty minutes being chopped out of it to make it a more satisfying experience overall.
It’s a shame that K-20 hasn’t seemed to have been afforded a big marketing push in the UK, along the lines of Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle, as there is definitely potential for a crossover appeal that would extend beyond fans of Asian cinema.
As it is, though, there is something to be said for discovering K-20 as a pleasant surprise. It’s a lot of fun, and definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre. It’s quietly one of the best adventure films of recent years.
Extras on the disc include a behind-the-scenes featurette and cast and crew introductions.