Review: In Beat Takeshi’s Kubi, Samurai are Queer Yakuza

Internationally famed director Kitano Takeshi is back. This violent, darkly funny film has some surprises in store for viewers.

Unseen Japan


By Noah Oskow

Poster for Kitano Takeshi's film Kubi in an outside display in Japan.

In Japan, there’s hardly a more well-known face than that of Kitano “Beat” Takeshi, man of a thousand comedy shows, political roundtable programs, theatrical films, and more. And, historically, there’s nary a more prominent figure from the samurai era than Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the farmer-turned-warlord who unified civil wartorn Japan in the 1590s. Bring together Takeshi’s directorial flare and love of violence, wry comedy, and the story of Toyotomi’s blood-soaked rise to power, and you get Kubi, a 2-hour+ samurai epic that doesn’t seem to care whether you take it seriously or not.

Kubi is Takeshi’s first movie in six years, following on from 2017’s Outrage: Coda. Its genesis, however, came thirty years earlier, while Kitano was working on his acclaimed Okinawa-set crime film Sonatine. It was near the beginning of the Kitano Takeshi cinematic boom, where the director’s idiosyncratically violent and funny cops-and-mafioso films were turning heads overseas. That Kubi took so long to develop makes sense — it’s a markedly large-scale undertaking for the director, with a budget of ¥1.5 billion yen. That’s about $10 million, even with the yen at a startling weak rate. Most Japanese films cost around $1-$5 million.[1] (Comparatively, last month’s Godzilla Minus One cost $15 million). The budget gets us numerous action set pieces, lavish costuming, and consistent streams of CGI blood.

All this goes into portraying a bitingly cynical version of the Azuchi–Momoyama period (1568 to 1600), when powerful warlord Oda Nobunaga seemed poised to conquer the whole of Japan and end more than a century of multipolar civil war. Kitano stars as Hashiba Hideyoshi (later to be known as Toyotomi Hideyoshi), one of Oda’s most trusted generals. But “trust” is a relative term in this film, as backstabbings abound, both metaphorical and literal.

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