Saturday, July 29, 2023

Japan Cuts ’23: The Legend & Butterfly

Oda Nobunaga's wife Nohime did not think much of him at first, but she became his Lady Macbeth, driving his ambitions, before settling into an Eleanor Roosevelt role as a trusted advisor. At least that is how a new film commissioned to celebrate the Toei film studio’s 70th anniversary presents her. The mysterious Nohime finally gets equal screentime with her legendary husband in Keishi Otomo’s The Legend & Butterfly, which screens tomorrow as part of this year’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Nobunaga and Nohime only married to make peace between their clans. The courtship was rocky, to say the least. Nohime only agreed, because she intended to kill him, just like her previous husbands. However, she must accept his protection when her clan is attacked. Of course, Nohime wants revenge, but she pushes Nobunaga to take more when he emerges as one of the most powerful Daimyo in Japan.

For a while,
L&B is like a Chanbara Mr. & Mrs. Smith, because they are both serious butt-kickers, especially her. However, as the film takes on epic scale, Nobunaga becomes the more prominent force. Yet, their relationship also continues to evolve, and in some ways, deepen.

Considering how little was documented on Nohime’s life, beyond her status as Nobunaga’s wife, screenwriter Ryota Kosawa’s speculative attempts to fill-in the blanks are quite convincing. He creates a compelling character, whom Haruka Ayase brings to life quite vividly. By far, she is the most compelling figure in the film. Kosawa and Otomo definitely present her from a modern, pseudo-feminist perspective, but Ayase makes her credible as a woman of her era and relatable to contemporary viewers. She also looks impressive during her several action sequences.

Takuya Kimura still holds his own next to her, as Nobunaga. Arguably, his character’s arc is even more dramatic, starting as a vacuous playboy, evolving into a stone-cold conqueror, and finally maturing into a remorseful elder statesman. They are both so strong, they outshine the rest of the ensemble, except maybe Hio Miyazawa as the serpent-like Mitsuhide Akechi, Nobunaga’s Brutus-like betrayer.

The Legend & Butterfly
is exactly the kind of grand historical fans are looking for at Japan Cuts. It runs a hefty 168 minutes, but it never drags or feels padded. There is some rousing hack & slash action, as well as a good deal of sophisticated political intrigue. Very highly recommended, The Legend & Butterfly screens tomorrow (7/30) as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.