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‘Kubi’ Review: Takeshi Kitano’s Busy, Brutal Queer Samurai Epic

A project that’s reportedly been in gestation for 30 years, so long that Akira Kurosawa once expressed huge hopes for its success before he died, Kubi is a labor of love.

Billed in its press materials as “the latest film by Takeshi Kitano” but hopefully not the veteran director’s last, it marks Kitano’s return to the samurai genre for the first time since 2003’s Zatoichi (a.k.a. The Blind Swordsman). The latter did modestly solid business in its day for an international film, and it will be interesting to see if Kitano, practically a national treasure in Japan, still has the same pull across Asian territories as he used to, let alone across the Pacific and beyond.

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But regardless of any box-office performance, this challenging, extremely violent, ravishing-looking, intricately plotted adaptation by Kitano of his novel is of interest for its fresh take on a musty genre. That said, it could feel like a slog to watch for viewers who aren’t fans of sword-wielding, screaming samurai movies.

Perhaps the most notable break with samurai-film tradition here is positing that several of the male characters, based on historical figures, were lovers, ex-lovers or just bi-curious. Let me confess upfront that I can’t judge the veracity of this depiction as, until I saw this film, I knew nothing about the background to what’s called the Honno-ji Incident — an attempt in 1582 to assassinate Lord Oda Nobunga (played here as a sadistic supervillain pansexual by Ryo Kase) while he was attending a tea ceremony in Kyoto.

It is apparently something of a mystery as to why Nobunga was betrayed by one of his right-hand men, Akechi Mitsuhide (Drive My Car’s Hidetoshi Nishijima). Kitano’s script proposes that Mitsuhide was secretly lovers with Araki Murashige (Kenichi Endo), another general who had gone rogue and attacked Nobunga in a failed coup, depicted in a gory battle scene that kicks off the film. Meanwhile, Nobunga himself likes to sleep with male members of his entourage in a way that’s not especially loving, and it’s implied he and Mitsuhide had a sexual relationship in the past.

There’s nothing homophobic about these choices, and indeed the relationship between Mitsuhide and Murashige is depicted with tenderness. That said, it’s not entirely clear exactly where Kitano himself stands on the characters given that he got in trouble back in 2012 when asked about the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. for saying:  “Obama supports gay marriage. You would support a marriage to an animal eventually, then.” Ick. (He has vigorously walked back the statement since then.)

The generous interpretation is that this film forms something of a mea culpa for that, although making amends is only part of Kitano’s grand agenda here — in addition to staging a reunion concert of sorts with some of his favorite actors (including Endo, along with Tadanobu Asano, Nao Omori and Ittoku Kishibie among others) and craft collaborators. (Editor Yoshinori Ota has worked with Kitano on nearly every film he directed since Getting Any? back in 1994.)

Kitano’s sprawling story incorporates a vast range of characters, from the mercurial and cruel dictator Nobunaga to foreigners who’ve stumbled onto Japan’s shores, duplicitous sex workers and the lowly peasants who get caught up in the gusts of history. Placed somewhere in the middle of these extremes is Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kitano himself), a wily old warlord who came from peasant stock himself and who plots with his advisers, including shrewd tactician Kuroda Kanbei (Asano), on how to set the various factions against each other to come out on top. Now notably getting on in years but still a compelling, charismatic presence, Kitano presents Hideyoshi as a clever manipulator who understands men’s flaws.

We are talking men here, as there are precious few female characters apart from a brothel madam who is caught spying and a handful of camp-following prostitutes who shuffle around in the background. This is “manly” stuff all the way through, and perhaps could perversely be read against the grain as a study in toxic masculinity. Nevertheless, there is a childish primal pleasure to be had from watching the armies of soldiers — every one of them clad in period-accurate costumes — mixing it up on the battlefield, letting loose thousands of arrows into the air and getting dirty in the muck of combat, depicted as gruesome and ruthless, resulting in many dismembered corpses.

But that gruesome pageantry is as much a part of the allure of samurai films as the stately ceremonial interludes. Plus, there’s the kick of watching he-men strutting around in hand-embroidered vintage silks, indigo-dyed fabrics in shades of cobalt, and leather armor, designed by Kazuko Kurosawa, daughter of Akira Kurosawa. Her work here, as it is in many another recent samurai film (Zaitoichi, The Twilight Samurai), is worth the price of admission alone.

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