It was bound to happen; in fact, it actually hails from a fairly respectable lineage. Films like Jet Li’s The Black Mask, a whole swag of masked kamen riders and power rangers too numerous to name, as well as legendary thieves like Lupin and A.J. Raffles are definitely where K-20: Legend of the Mask draws some of its narrative quirks. But there’s a strong Western feel to the film too; the way it looks and plays out are a lot less Japanese than one would expect and, dare I say it, slightly more engaging than some of the recent super hero fare that has come out of Hollywood.
Kaneshiro Takeshi is Heikichi Endo, a talented acrobat and illusionist performing in the ring at a small time circus. Heikichi’s world is simple but restricted. World War II never happened; Japan surrendered to the US and UK before war broke out, and 1940’s Japan now exists in a strict class system. Heikichi is poor and can never amount to anything more than what he is. He doesn’t really want to. However, when a news reporter comes to him and asks him to undertake a simple task – to photograph a couple of socialites at a closed function – he knows that the money will help Nanbu, his ailing circus ringleader. But of course, the deal is not what it seems, and soon Heikichi is embroiled in something far more dangerous than just dodging knives.
As with many super hero stories, this is a journey. Kaneshiro’s character is an innocent, unaware and unpossessing of any real revolutionary desires. He cares about his doves and his friends and making an honest if meager living. It makes him the perfect target for the master criminal K-20, who’s been stealing state secrets left and right and has some kind of equally villainous plan. Or, almost perfect, because as any avid comic fan knows, it’s the quiet ones you usually have to watch out for. Push hard enough and sooner or later even the mildest mannered Clark Kent will push back.
Kaneshiro does a great job as Heikichi, and considering how hard it usually is to pull off a serious role amidst the melodrama of a caped crusader movie – it’s too easy to go too far, and mainstream Japanese cinema isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle at the best of times – he brings a surprising amount of pathos and believability (not to mention humor) to what would otherwise be totally ridiculous. He’s also surrounded by a solid cast – Nakamura Touru playing Kogoro Akechi, the upper class cop chasing him, Kunimura Jun as his pal and mentor Genji the Gimmick, a kind of criminal Q to Kaneshiro’s Bond, and last but not least Takako Matsu as the refreshingly awesome heiress Hashiba Yoko.
Of course, clichés abound, and no one can ever accuse a Japanese film of trying not to tug on those good old heart strings either. In fact, normally one would be groaning with the convenient sentimentality that pulls Heikichi through to the decisions that forever change his life, but this film is way too much fun to really care about that. Under the instruction of a secret Book of Thieves Heikichi starts his training, and the moves are straight out of Assassin’s Creed. The fight stunts and special effects are good too, better than one would expect, and the plot is more than entertaining. Waiting for K-20 (with an awesome cameo by Kaga Takeshi) to show his face – or one of them – again in the grand finale is totally worth the fact that you probably guessed who the arch-villain was right from the start.
Never mind the plot holes or the brief exposition, or even the obligatory cute children or charming love interest. If you’re rolling your eyes at the presence of any of these things, you obviously picked this film with those eyes closed. K-20 doesn’t try to be anything other than it is, nor reach beyond the narrative boundaries of its genre. What it does try to be – and succeeds in being – is a decent addition to the super hero pantheon, predictable but ultimately light-hearted and enjoyable, and worthy of a place in any caped crusader league you care to name.