Dueling with a rare Japanese superhero

In her new film, 'K-20,' director Shimako Sato has brought to life an alternative-history Japan — and a truly compelling arch villain

by Mark Schilling

Japanese pop culture, by and large, doesn’t do human superheroes. Super-powered robots (Atom Boy, aka Tetsuwan Atom), monsters (Godzilla) and aliens (Ultraman) exist in abundance, but it’s harder to find the local equivalents to Spider-Man or Batman, especially on the big screen.

One reason, perhaps, is that in a group-oriented society, human superheroes may seem arrogant — or even offensive. In Hitoshi Matsumoto’s 2007 comedy “Dai-Nipponjin” (“Big Man Japan”), the eponymous hero — a sad-sack loner who transforms into an alien-battling giant — is scorned and abused by his neighbors, who consider him a freak. Even normally hero- worshiping kids gaze at his full-blown form with unease, as if he were more monster than man.

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.

“The two stunt doubles for those scenes were both Russian,” Sato explains. “They used no wires, just their own bodies.”

Though seen in several Hollywood films, notably 2006′s “Casino Royale,” parkour’s major role in “K-20″ is a Japanese film first.

The designs for the city — including a huge, looming glass-domed tower that looks both fascistic and futuristic — were suggested by Sato, then digitalized by the CGI staff at the Shirogumi effects studio.

“They made drawings and models, which I checked,” Sato explains. “They had worked on the ‘Always’ films (two hit nostalgic dramas directed by Takashi Yamazaki) and the designs they made (for “K-20″) had the same incredible level of realism.”

The film’s most blatant departure from the local superhero norm is Takako Matsu’s character of Yoko Hashiba, who may be a quintessential ojosama (i.e., a well-bred, well-off young lady) but is also brave and quick-witted, if somewhat ditsy, and can fly a plane down the side of a skyscraper with a blithe comic elan.

“I thought that writing her as the usual screaming lady-in-distress would be boring,” says Sato. “She’s really there to provide a comic contrast to the rather serious Kaneshiro, and Matsu is good at comedy. She’s also an ojosama in real life (Matsu belongs to a distinguished kabuki family), so she totally understood what I wanted.”

Sato had not made a theatrical feature in more than a decade when she took the “K-20″ assignment, but the shift from directing for the small screen did not faze her, she claims. “I had trained in London as a film director,” she says. “It was harder for me to direct TV dramas. When I started, they complained that I was making them too much like films.”

Sato would like to direct another “K-20″ film — a sequel is even implied in the ending — but the producers don’t have a firm plan yet for one. “They want to see how this one turns out,” she says. Which is understandable — unlike nearly every other big commercial film being made in Japan today, “K-20″ is not based on a popular comic, TV show or best-seller. It is more of a risk for its producers than the play-it-safe local competition. But “K-20″ also has all the ingredients of a hit.

Unfortunately, its opening-weekend box-office (¥160 million) was something of a disappointment, but strong reviews and good word of mouth — “K-20″ topped Pia magazine’s weekly audience-satisfaction survey — may move it into the black. In any case, Sato, as she told the press after the film’s release on Dec. 20, is now determined to make the followup. The Fiend with Twenty Faces may yet live again.

“K-20″ is showing now.