For three decades, filmmaker Takeshi Kitano was fixated on a period of Japanese history, in which Lord Oda Nobunaga was inexplicably betrayed by one of his closest allies, Akechi Mitsuhide, in an ambush at Honno-ji Temple. The reasons behind Mitsuhide’s deception are unknown, but Kitano dedicated years to concocting his own theories, going so far as to pen a novel imagining the events that led to the incident.
Adapted from his own book, “Kubi” is an outrageously exhilarating update of the samurai epic, dialing up the blood and guts and sprinkling in the sick humor to match. Its title derives from the Japanese word for head, alluding to the samurai’s penchant for decapitation. And from its opening scene, in which crabs slowly crawl out of a soldier’s gaping orifice where a face should be, it’s clear that many, many heads will roll.
It’s the late-16th century, and Oda Nobunaga (Ryo Kase) faces a rebellion from one of his vassals, Araki Murashige (Kenichi Endo). Angry and erratic, he orders his inner circle of warlords, including Mitsuhide (Hidetoshi Nishijima), to track him down, promising that “whoever works hardest” will take over as his successor. On paper, this is a relatively simple story, but Kitano constructs it as something much more convoluted, thanks to a flurried rush of character and location introductions complete with title cards for the dozens of new faces.
There’s more to Nobunaga’s rage than just political betrayal. Adding another layer to this spiderweb of allegiances, Nobunaga, Murashige, and Mitsuhide are in a sort of sordid love triangle, though you’re never really sure if their emotions are true, or if they’re courting each other for the alliance. In that sense, “Kubi” is refreshingly queer, not shying away from scenes of intimacy and romance. Kitano’s screenplay faithfully reflects the queer history of samurai that is absent from classics of the genre from, say, Akira Kurosawa.
“Kubi” moves at a breathless pace, and Murashige is quickly captured before he’s taken in by Mitsuhide for protection. We learn that Murashige pretends to be enamored with Nobunaga, but that it’s Mitsuhide who he’s truly in love with. As much as there is an ostensible emotional undercurrent to the film, chemistry is certainly not its biggest strength. Hidetoshi Nishijima, who provided much of the inner complexities of “Drive My Car,” is blank-faced throughout, delivering proclamations of love with as much passion as a damp sponge.
Emotion plays second to manic action replete with gore. Ambitious battle scenes are scarce but effective, with long stretches of brutish sword combat captured in lengthy single takes. Kitano also delights in capturing the more intimate clashes, as blood spurts from severed heads, lost limbs, and even an instance of Harakiri that plays out painfully slowly. Ryo Kase revels in it all, his Nobunaga an unhinged warlord whose voice is a permanent hundred decibels louder than the polite sycophants who surround him. Childish, hot-headed, and violent, he’s a leader irrevocably drunk on power.
In fact, every character is searching for power. There’s an emphasis placed on another member of Nobunaga’s court, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (played by Kitano himself), and his position as a former peasant who rose to become a respected leader. Local villagers fear the plundering samurai as much as they envy them. In ruthless pre-Edo Japan, social mobility is a necessity for survival. But as demonstrated by the country’s figureheads vying for the top, no amount of power is ever enough. For those who wield a sword, it’s also a game that comes at a cost they don’t acknowledge. Kitano stops for rare moments of solemnity, as a still camera observes the lifeless bodies of innocent bystanders.
First and foremost however, “Kubi” is pure bloody thrills through and through, reveling in a kind of Monty Python-esque humor where countless samurai are stabbed, slashed, and eviscerated by spears attacking from all sides out of nowhere. The deaths come so frequently that it’s confusing just to keep track of who’s still alive, and off the battlefield, it’s an equal struggle to understand the constant deals, betrayals, and allegiances that change within the same conversation. But the fun of Kitano’s passion project is just watching it all unfold.
“Kubi” was once rumored to be Kitano’s final film, though other reports since then have suggested that this is no longer the case. If it was though, it would’ve been one hell of a swan song. For a director in his late 70s, Kitano stages this blood-soaked epic with the intoxicating energy of an artist who’s only just getting started. We can only be grateful, then, that Kitano is only just shifting gears. [B]