In her new film "K-20 " Kaijin Nijumenso-den" ("K-20 " The Fiend with Twenty Faces"), director and scriptwriter Shimako Sato has delivered "Spider-Man"-like excitement and scale, from life-or-death duels at dizzying heights to a fantastically detailed retro-future cityscape. At the same time, she and her collaborators have adapted the superhero genre to local sensibilities, beginning with the title character.
A creation of pioneering Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo (real name Taro Hirai, 1894-1965), the Fiend with Twenty Faces is the Moriarty-like criminal rival to the Sherlock Holmes-esque detective Kogoro Akechi. The film, however, is based on a new story by novelist So Kitamura, in which the setting has shifted from an early 20th-century Japan that more or less corresponds to reality to an alternative-history Japan that, as the action begins in 1949, has avoided fighting World War II (no attack on Pearl Harbor, for one thing) and has thus preserved its old class system, with a wealthy aristocracy lording it over a vast, desperately poor proletariat.
The Fiend is a masked thief who deftly filches the treasures of the rich and moves through the urban canyons like a black-cloaked cat. Effortlessly leaping fences and climbing walls, he keeps one quick step ahead of his pursuers and never reveals his identity.
The most grimly determined of those pursuers is the suave, brilliant detective Kogoro Akechi (Toru Nakamura), who is engaged to the impeccably upper-crust, charmingly unworldly Yoko Hashiba (Takako Matsu). His assistant is a delicate-looking but intensely loyal young chap, Kobayashi (Kanata Hongo), and their relationship has a campy, borderline Batman-Robin vibe.
But the film's true center is Heikichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a talented but penniless circus performer who is employed by a mysterious stranger (Takeshi Kaga) to snap candid photos of Akechi and Yoko. The assignment leads him to being mistaken for the Fiend. With Akechi and the police in hot pursuit, he must find the real deal " whom he suspects is his new employer.
The Fiend's prime target is Yoko, and once he snatches her, the game truly begins, with Endo and Akechi finding themselves on the same side.
"We had to change the story because Rampo's work doesn't suit modern tastes," explains Sato in an interview at the Tokyo International Forum, where she is appearing on stage prior to a prerelease screening of "K-20." "It's seen as dark and erotic " which was not the image we wanted."
Born in Iwate Prefecture in 1964, the slight, soft-spoken Sato studied at the London Film School, then made a series of low-budget horror films in the '90s (including one, 1996's "Eko Eko Azaraku," which I reviewed for this newspaper), but had her biggest successes as a TV scriptwriter and director in the current decade, notably on the hit series "Unfair," which was about a hard-boiled female police detective played by Ryoko Shinohara. Sato scripted both the TV show and the 2007 film based on it.
She was thus given a relatively free hand by producer Shuji Abe when he asked her to write the screenplay for "K-20."
"The only conditions he made were that I use the Fiend with Twenty Faces character, write a role for Takeshi Kaneshiro (who was already cast in the film) and assume a world in which World War II never occurred," she says. "Everything else was pretty much up to me."
Sato stresses the class divide in her fictional capital city, Teito ("It reflects what is going on in Japanese society today," she comments). Also, in filming Kaneshiro " a half-Japanese, half-Taiwanese actor who is based in Hong Kong and is fluent in Japanese " she not only highlights his formidable martial-arts skills, but emphasizes the slightly exotic difference he brings to the role.
"He raises the energy level whenever he is on the screen," enthuses Sato. "He has a real star presence. It's a much bigger film with him in it."
Also, though Kaneshiro's Endo does quite a lot of zooming up and down buildings using a wire-reel gizmo that is like a tape measure on steroids (crafted by a canny, grizzled circus veteran played by Jun Kunimura), he and the Fiend also chase each other about the city using the techniques of parkour " a French-developed discipline for overcoming urban obstacles with strength, agility and flow.
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