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Kubi – Nippon Connection Festival (Film Review)

3 min read
A scene from Kubi

In his first film since 2017 (and first samurai fare since 2003), Japanese cinema titan Takeshi ‘Beat' Kitano returns to the scene with a bang with Kubi, his queer samurai epic, a passion project which took 30 years to make a reality. Based on a novel written by Kitano himself, Kubi (which means ‘neck' in Japanese – a good indicator of what bloodshed lies ahead) is a dramatized telling of a real event from 16th century Japan known as the Honno-ji incident. 

Starring Kitano himself, Hidetoshi Nishijima (Drive My Car), Ryo Kase (Letters from Iwo Jima), Nakamura Shido II (Monster), Kenichi Endō (Crows Zero) and genre stalwart Tadanobu Asano (most recently known to Western audiences for his role as Lord Yabushige in FX's Shōgun), Kubi centres on the events leading up to and following an attempted assignation and failed coup d'état on the sadistic Lord Nobunaga (Kase), following the political and personal fallout affecting all of Nobunaga's clan generals. 

While those with absolutely zero knowledge of Japan's feudal history or the Honno-ji incident needn't worry about studying up beforehand, the electrifying pace of Kubi demands intense focus to prevent viewers getting lost in the film's rapid-fire character introductions, refusing to hand-hold its audience through the inter-clan drama and its twist and turns. While Kubi is definitely not a film to half-focus on while dozing off after a hard day at the office, Kitano's signature blend of eye-watering gore spliced with slapstick silliness is enough to keep any viewer – historically literate or not – engaged.

While homosexuality was reportedly common among samurai, it's not commonly depicted in a lot of samurai films. Kubi's homosexual themes– which saw it nominated for a Queer Palm – not only raise the stakes by adding to the interpersonal drama, but also feel respectful and, at times, tender. The relationship between Endō's Lord Murashige and Nishijima's Lord Mitsuhide is the main standout, mimicking military hierarchy in their shifting power dynamics. Such a depiction of homosexual love and sex might not be something you'd expect from a Kitano feature (the 76-year-old director thankfully seems to have learned and grown after some less-than-acceptable comments made in the past), but Kubi's focus on the relationships between its central cast of men are refreshingly nuanced, with the script neither condemning nor deifying them, instead often poking fun at the internalized homophobia and fetishization that some of them display.

Visuals have always been one of Kitano's strong points, and Kubi is no exception. From an opening shot of gag-worthy gore to dreamlike scenes of Noh-masked concubines, Kubi boasts some truly striking moments. The combat scenes, as expected, are a feast for the eyes, as is the attention to detail on what are clearly expensive, period-accurate costumes (although, as is often the case with actors not willing to shave their head for the traditional chonmage style, the obvious lace-fronts do sometimes pull you out of the era).

Overall, while Kubi probably won't convert any non-samurai film fans into loyal followers of the genre, the film's human drama, black humour, queer themes and buckets of grisly gore make Kubi a triumphant, head-rolling good time from one of Japan's most treasured cultural icons.

Kubi plays at Nippon Connection Festival on May 29 and May 30.