K-20: The Legend of the Black Mask (Japan, 2008)

It’s 1941 and Japan has just signed a peace treaty with the U.S. and the United Kingdom. A mysterious thief – a ‘man of many faces’ no less – by the name of K-20 has been committing a series of robberies, taking priceless objects and taunting the police who fail to identify him. When a young circus acrobat by the name of Heikichi Endo is hired to take some sneaky photographs he fails to realise that he is being set up until it is too late and the police assume that he is the mysterious criminal…

If you’ve ever fancied spending a couple of hours watching a Japanese superhero origin story with steampunk elements set in an alternative 1949 where World War II never happened and where the villain is intent on the world domination, then K-20: The Legend of The Black Mask (aka the equally long-winded K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces) is just for you. Actually, who wouldn’t want to sit through a film like that – I was sold from the second I saw a Police Zeppelin dropping helicopter-aeroplane hybrids into the sky in the opening credits.

K-20: The Legend of The Black Mask (referred to as K-20 for the rest of this review) is a nicely light-hearted action film – it’s kind of old-fashioned in its gentle pacing and manner of storytelling but none the worse for it. In fact, it falls exactly into what we call a ‘Sunday afternoon film’ in our household – it’s got something for everyone, it’s lighthearted and always fun. The film is adapted by writer-director Shimako Sato from a novel by So Kitamura, and it’s clear that Sato is enjoying the material, the script and direction is sharp and moves quickly, calling to mind plenty of classic imagery. While there’s nothing really original to be found in K-20, it must be said that this works in its favour – the familiarity is part of the charm. You could even go as far as to say that K-20 is better than some of the film versions of material like The Shadow (1994), which is the kind of material that it pays homage to / ‘borrows’ heavily from.

The casting really hits the tone perfectly: Takeshi Kaneshiro is in fine form and gives the innocent acrobat Heikichi some charisma given that he’s a pretty unlucky guy – unwittingly becoming mixed up with the dastardly (the word seems appropriate) plans of K-20 only to find himself on the wrong end of the law and needing to clear his name and uncover the identity of the mysterious villain. Takako Matsu is very nice to look at and is fine as the obligatory love interest – although she does have some semblance of a character and just manages to be more than just a pretty face. It’s always a pleasure to see Jun Kunimura’s stoney-looking face -and he gets some fun scenes to play with – plus there’s Toru Nakamura as the chief of Police.

K-20 is certainly a fine looking film. With a decent bunch of special effects and stuntwork the filmmakers clearly haven’t been given the budgets that Hollywood action films have, but it also proves that you don’t always need one. The soundtrack is also nicely epic, again it may be typical of your ‘superhero’ scores, but it works and works well. Strangely, all of this is jettisoned for the closing credits which plays out over an Oasis song…

As far as criticisms go, the film may be slightly overlong – but not much – and it would be nice if it had explored some of its steampunk elements a little more.  These are minor complaints though for a likeable film that doesn’t bring anything new to the table but a new mix of familiar elements, but most importantly has a welcome sense of fun and adventure. All things considered K-20: The Legend of The Black Mask is light fluff, but nonetheless a solidly entertaining film and worth checking out.

Region 2 DVD Review
K-20: The Legend of The Black Mask was released by Manga Entertainment in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD, the transfer is – to my eye – faultless, it’s clear, sharp and colours are strong. The subtitles are excellent and there’s the choice of a 2.0 stereo mix or a 5.1 Dolby soundtrack. A twenty-five minute ‘Behind The Scenes’ wraps the disc up nicely with a bunch of on-set videos mixed with some talking head interviews. A special mention must also go to the DVD sleeve – it represents the film perfectly and is one of the most eye-catching in recent memory…

(Editor’s note: the standard definition region 1 disc, available on Viz Pictures, is also a quality release)

Martin Cleary likes egg-custard pies, has a caffeine habit and is tall. He also writes words for New Korean Cinema and has mumbled his way through episodes on ‘What’s Korean Cinema?’ for the Podcast On Fire Network.