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

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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.

Kubi and the Great Mirror of Male Love

Kitano’s films have always mixed a deadpan cynicism with a certain humanistic warmth. Sudden, graphic…

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