Anime Reporter delves into a fictional version of 1940’s Japan for all of the masks, capes, mystery and pulp style anti-heroics you could hope to fit into just over two hours. K-20: The Legend of the Black Mask, (also known as Kē-Tuentī: Kaijin Nijū Mensō Den in Japanese, K-20 Legend of the Mask and The Fiend with Twenty Faces), is both written and directed by Shimako Sato and based on the novels of So Kitamura.
Set in the year 1949 in a Japan where World War 2 never took place, K-20 is a tale of two starkly contrasting classes within the country. The ultra-privileged nobility live in extreme comfort and excess while the poor work and toil in order to barely feed themselves. Nobody is allowed to improve their class or status and changing jobs is forbidden. Meanwhile, a masked villain, a master of disguise and despicable thief, K20, is taking jewels and priceless pieces of art, striking fear into the upper class and giving star detective Akechi Kogoro, (played by Toru Nakamaru), more than a run for his money.
Having just made off with the revolutionary creation of Nikola Tesla, K20 seems to show no signs of slowing down. This is of little concern to Endo Heikichi, (portrayed superbly by Red Cliff’s Takeshi Kaneshiro), the talented and devoted circus acrobat who is more interested in caring for his pigeons than in applause and praise for his performances. When a stranger approaches Endo with a great opportunity to make some much needed cash, he jumps and/or climbs at the chance. Things take a rather swift turn and before he knows what’s happening, Endo is framed for every crime that K-20 has committed and the life that he knows turns to ash around him.
Eventually, left with no choice, Endo decides to take the fight to K-20, learning all the skills and tricks that the fiend himself uses and turning them against him. If Endo is to be condemned as K-20, then he’ll fight as K-20, using the fear and mystique of the persona for justice.
The first thing he needs to do is convince Akechi Kogoro, (considered by many to be the Japanese answer to Sherlock Holmes), that he’s not the villain he’s been made out to be, though he may have to settle for making an ally of Akechi’s fiancée Hashiba Yoko, (played by Matsu Takako). Yoko comes from a high class family and doesn’t understand much about life on the streets but her heart seems very much in the right place. Together, Endo, Yoko and a pack of charming thieves are going to try to clear Endo’s name, defeat the true K-20 and maybe, just maybe, make a new world for themselves.
This film is something special. It manages to capture the essences of the pulp genre, with much of the colour and energy that Western superhero films had before the trend of darker, much grittier plots entered the genre. Characters are extremely well developed and much praise must go to Shimako Sato for Endo’s warmth and humanity, as opposed to the typical all-flash, no substance superhero and for Yoko’s very human supporting character which manages to stay away from the pitfalls of damsel in distress, spoiled and angry princess or cold but stylish butt-kicker. The overall casting is excellent with a warm and likeable cadre of characters portrayed.
Comedy is present throughout the film, often making Endo seem like a more human, fallible character without undermining the characters or the plot. The special effects are superb and seamless, with the exception of the occasional windswept CGI cloak and the aesthetic does a perfect job of instantly rendering this alternate 1940’s world. Full to the brim with mystery, high-flying action and acrobatics, charming characters and clever humour, this film is the pulp treasure that The Shadow should have been, but failed miserably to be, fourteen years earlier. Fans of superheroes, pulp serials, action, humour or a little dose of fantasy with their mystery should definitely give this film a look.
K-20: The Legend of the Black Mask is currently available in the UK and Ireland from Manga Entertainment UK. For more info on Manga releases, check out their website here.
Style and Personality: 9.5
87% – “Magnificent!”– K-20 hits all the right notes in terms of characters, over-the-top action, imagery and humour, feeling just like the very best superhero film that was never made before the dark and gritty superhero trend of recent Western cinema. This is everything a great superhero film should be and a lot of things that any good film should be.