Vague Visages’ Kubi review contains minor spoilers. Takeshi Kitano’s 2023 movie features himself, Hidetoshi Nishijima and Ryo Kase. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Advertised as “surprisingly queer,” Kubi promises a treat. Takeshi Kitano’s unique spin on Oda Nobunaga’s quest to unify of Japan might theoretically have the muscular homoeroticism of Rocky III (1982), Predator (1987) orTop Gun (1986) — in which the filmmakers and performers use subtext to communicate something romantic or sensual about heterosexual men — however, everything is on full display without the need for unearthing ambitions and desires.
Written, directed and edited by Kitano aka Beat Takeshi (who also portrays Hashiba Hideyoshi), Kubi is a black comedy of a sort — a satire aimed at myths that become history, juxtaposing the self-regard and pageantry of courtly life with the brutal violence which enables that luxury. While creative liberty was taken in adapting historical facts, the director effectively communicates the uncaring and unforgiving nature of war seen through the eyes of every sociopolitical stratum — from the lowly peasant to the would-be autocrat. Kubi drives home its point about war’s absurd brutality via frequent killings and well-choreographed combat sequences, and with just a slight edge of goofiness.
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Kubi portrays what is known as the Honnō-ji incident in the Sengoku or “Warring States” period, where an unexpected rebellion under the aforementioned Nobunaga (Ryo Kase) led to a violent transition of power preceding the long-running Tokugawa Shogunate. The Japanese way of the warrior, bushido, defined how samurai ought to live their lives, roughly analogous to the chivalric code of medieval Europe for Christian knights. While bushido was not yet formalized by the late-16th century period with which the film is concerned, Kubi is in part about how samurai might fall short of established standards and morals when society runs afoul with self-interests.
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To call Kubi a revision of the samurai concept in popular culture might give it too much credit, as Akira Kurosawa’s influential Seven Samurai (1954) suggested long ago that the idealized version of the samurai would not necessarily be accurate to the experience of peasantry or historical realities. Nonetheless, Kitano has a lot of fun dealing with the pettiness and vanity of warlords that purport and presume to shape lands and people’s lives.
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Kubi is colorful with braying banners, highlighted soldier armor and architecturally distinct villages — all punctuated by comic and dramatic violence that suddenly underlines the danger of the experience. A total riot, Kubi is a consummate epic that pokes fun at components of the subject matter while communicating the cold tragedy.
Kevin Fox, Jr. (@KevinFoxJr) is a freelance writer, editor and film critic. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine and People’s World. Kevin has an MA in history, loves audiovisual entertainment and dreams of liberation. Check out his Substack at kfjwrites.substack.com.
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