Had Japan made peace with America and Britain, they would have been spared the destruction of WWII, but would have regressed into a Dickensian world of strictly segregated social classes and Victorian fashions. Such is the alternate historical backdrop of Shimako Sato’s K-20: the Legend of the Mask (trailer here), a Japanese homage to 1940’s pulp fiction and movie serials, which screens during the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival.
Heikichi Endo has no intention of becoming a gentleman thief. However, when the notorious K-20, the so-called Fiend with Twenty Faces, frames the innocent circus acrobat for his crimes, Endo must don the mask of K-20 to clear his name. Given the rigid class system of Mask’s 1949 Japan, the deck is stacked heavily against the working-class Endo. He can trust nobody, except for some street urchins who could have come straight out of Oliver Twist and the mechanical tinkerer from his former circus. However, he might find an unlikely ally in the Duchess Yoko Hashiba. She is attractive too, but unfortunately engaged to Baron Kogoro Akechi, the police detective who has become K-20’s Javert-like nemesis.
Mask works far better than other American-produced retro-costumed caper films, like The Shadow, The Phantom, and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Sato has a real talent for the aerial action sequences, including the particularly cinematic rescue of the Duchess during her wedding dress fitting. The period costumes and production designer Anri Kamijo’s grand set pieces create a richly realized steampunk look for the film. It also cleverly integrates colorful historical details, like Tesla’s experiments and the 1908 Tunguska explosion, into its alternate universe.
As Endo, Takeshi Kaneshiro is a pleasantly sympathetic reluctant hero. Likewise, Takako Matsu is engagingly charismatic as the plucky Duchess. Yet, Toru Nakamura probably shows the most intriguing screen presence as the aristocratic detective.
Sato usually keeps it all moving along at an agreeably frenetic pace, with a lot of caped people flying through the air. Unfortunately, the excessive class warfare of her screenplay is a periodic distraction from the otherwise pulpy entertainment. Still, she gets high style points for overall execution.
Mask is the kind of energetic genre fun the NYAFF programs better than anyone else. Stylish and colorful, it easily holds its own with most of Hollywood’s special effects laden fare. It screens at the IFC Film Center June 20th and June 30th.