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

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

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Poster for Kitano Takeshi's film Kubi in an outside display in Japan.
Internationally famed director Kitano Takeshi is back with his new samurai epic, Kubi. The violent, darkly funny film has some surprises in store for viewers.

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.

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

Internationally famed director Kitano Takeshi is back with his new samurai epic, Kubi. The violent, darkly funny film has some surprises in store for viewers. Our main site: www.unseenjapan.com Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/UnseenJapanSite Support Unseen Japan by becoming a Patreon patron — it’d mean the world to us: http://bit.ly/ujpatreon​​​​ Original Godzilla Minus One review on our website: https://unseen-japan.com/review-godzi…

You can watch our video version of this review on our YouTube channel.

Kubi and the Great Mirror of Male Love

Kitano’s films have always mixed a deadpan cynicism with a certain humanistic warmth. Sudden, graphic violence is often juxtaposed with scenes of calm and muted silence. Kubi is much more cynical than warm, but what tender scenes we do get here are quite interesting. Takeshi has decided to portray a side of the samurai most films avoid – that being that samurai society was one in which male homoeroticism was par for the course. In fact, the crux of the film lies upon one of many male-male romantic or sexual relationships.

Kubi is set in the lead-up to one of the most impactful, and mysterious, events in Japan’s warring states period: Nobunaga’s sudden betrayal by vassal Akechi Mitsuhide, who forced the lord to commit seppuku. Known as the Honno-ji Incident, Akechi’s motive for the shocking betrayal – which came as Nobunaga was at the height of his power – remains unknown. Kubi posits that Akechi (played by Drive My Car‘s Nishijima Hidetoshi) was in love with another betrayer of Nobunaga, Araki Murashige. The scenes between Akechi and Araki are the closest the film comes to warm human interaction. Even here, though, power imbalances and implicit threats loom over all.

Takeshi goes even further in showing what 17th-century author Ihara Saikaku once called “the Great Mirror of Male Love.” Samurai armies attracted camp followers, including male prostitutes dressed as female courtesans – historically highly popular with samurai patrons. Many of Oda Nobunaga’s generals seem to have love triangles going on amongst themselves. And Nobunaga himself, gleefully played by Kase Ryo as a deranged sadist with a yakuza’s drawl, keeps more than one male lover on hand. (This includes the historical African samurai Yasuke, played by biracial Japanese actor Soejima Jun.)

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The extended cast of Kubi in numerous rectangular frames.
The extended cast of Kubi.

A Small Aside

(Interestingly, this isn’t really Takeshi’s first foray into queer samurai filmmaking. In 1999, he starred in Oshima Nagisa’s Gohhato, in which he played Hijikata Toshizō, leader of the Shinsengumi, a famed group of late-Tokugawa-era Shogunal bodyguards. In the film, he’s one of many Shinsengumi members transfixed by the beauty of their newest recruit, young Kanō Sōzaburō.)

Nobunaga’s Ambition

Historically, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu are known as the “three great unifiers” of Japan. Each can easily be counted among Japan’s most famous historical figures. Each plays a major role in Kubi, where their historical reputations are both adhered to and exaggerated. There’s a famous saying regarding the attitudes of the three warlords, which fits their portrayal here:

What is to be done if a bird won’t sing?
“Kill it!” says Nobunaga.
“Make it want to sing,” says Hideyoshi.
“Wait,” says Ieyasu.

Oda Nobunaga is known for his vicious campaigns to put down enemy domains, including those ruled by warrior monks. (His wiping out of the monasteries of Mount Hiei is especially infamous.) The version of Nobunaga in Kubi, however, is more than simply brutal in his application of samurai-era realpolitik. He’s a full-blown sadist, taking pleasure in abusing even his subordinates. It’s perhaps a little overblown, but certainly builds anticipation for his eventual fate at Honno-ji Temple.

But the yakuza-esque grandstanding allows for Takeshi’s seeming message to emerge: that these great heroes of Japanese history were really nothing but thugs. Draped in exquisite finery (and surrounded by European objets and Portuguese priests), Nobunaga is nonetheless just the strongest bully on the archipelago’s playground. He interacts with his generals like a yakuza boss does his lieutenants. Each leads their own crew, letting words of loyalty hide their schemes for power.

Takeshi expressed his desire to create this sort of grimy samurai film in a recent interview. [3]

「時代劇といえば大河ドラマなどで描かれていますが、綺麗な出世物語ばかりで、人間の汚い部分や業というものが描かれていない。この作品は『自分が撮ればこうなる』という発想から作り上げました。」

When you think of samurai period pieces you think of Taiga Dramas [a popular line of TV miniseries]. But they’re all just clean portrayals of success stories. Where’s the dirty parts of humanity, their dirty deeds? I made this film around the idea of ‘if I were to make one those, I’d do it like this.'”

A younger Kitano Takeshi at Cannes Film Festival. 2000, photograph by Rita Molnár. CC BY-SA 2.5.

What’s the Beat on Toyotomi Hideyoshi?

Hideyoshi and Ieyasu offer more chances for Takeshi to put his own spin on Japan’s most famous historical warlords.

Takeshi is top-billed, but the film is really more of an ensemble piece. (Such an ensemble that those without warring states guidebooks are likely to get lost in the stream of historical names that appear on screen.) Nonetheless, he delivers a memorable performance as a skilled manipulator – who also happens to be a bit of a buffoon.

Takeshi allows Hideyoshi’s commoner roots to shine through. He reminds us that he’s not a born samurai, and thus able to cut through some of the ritualistic barriers the samurai have set up to gussy up their bloodshed. But he’s also a bit of a fish out of water. He’s seemingly illiterate; one of the most darkly funny scenes comes when he restlessly watches a samurai take an exceptionally long time to enact ritualistic suicide. (“My lord, a samurai’s death is a serious thing!” says a retainer played by Asano Tadanobu, attempting not to laugh.)

Takeshi’s Hideyoshi plays off rival Ieyasu, portrayed as the most genteel of the three lords by Kobayashi Kaoru. But Ieyasu is also a source of humor, constantly hiding himself amongst a series of disposable kagemusha (body decoys). If you’re looking to see the “three unifiers” in action, Kubi offers up an enjoyable extreme version of their best-known traits.

Kubi: Coda

These are some of the more enjoyable aspects of the movie. As a whole, it’s a bit overstuffed. This isn’t surprising, given the complexity of the topic being portrayed. Novelist Yoshikawa Eiji, who wrote an extremely popular serialization of Hideyoshi’s life during Japan’s war years, did so only with trepidation: how would it be possible to make an audience understand the vast array of shifting alliances and murky motivations of the warring states period? [3] Takeshi decides on a surprisingly maximalist version, which may leave some viewers confused about exactly what is going on.

(That maximalism even includes a subplot about a commoner striving for upward mobility, much as we saw recently in our discussions of the classic period piece horror films Ugetsu and Kuroneko.)

This is also the sort of movie you’ll likely only want to watch if you already like war epics or Takeshi’s previous output. You’ll also need a stomach for on-screen violence. However, I’d add that this movie, while full of violent death, isn’t quite the grotesquery early reviews led me to expect. Amongst the severed heads (the “kubi” of the title) are scenes of reflective quiet; the movie hasn’t completely done away with the meditative qualities of Takeshi’s older films. And between samurai battles, leaping ninjas, and deadpan black humor, there’s a lot to recommend here.

It’s been said that, back in the early 90s, when Kitano was first considering his Hideyoshi story, Kurosawa Akira himself expressed anticipation. “If Takeshi-kun were to film it, I imagine we’d have a masterpiece on our hands to rival Seven Samurai.” [4] Does Kubi reach those heights? Well, no, it doesn’t. But it doesn’t feel like the film is trying to be something on that level. For what it is, Kubi is a fun, blood-soaked time, and an interesting look at the “three great unifiers.” If you like samurai and dark comedy, it’s certainly worth checking out.

Sources

[1] Schilling, Mark. (May 30, 2018). Japan Debates the Ethics of Making Films on the Cheap. Variety.

[2] Furukawa, Susan Westhafer. (2022) The Afterlife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Harvard University Press.

[3] お笑いナタリー編集部. (2023年4月16日). 北野武監督最新作「首」2023年秋に全国公開「成功したと思っています」. Natalie.

[4] KADOKAWA. (2023年04月21日). 構想30年、北野武監督が世界に放つ時代劇!『首』完成報告会レポート. Kadokawa Bungei Web Magazine.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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