K-20: Legend of the Mask
aka K-20: Kaijin niju menso den
Directed by Shimako Sato
In a world where Japan avoided going to war with the US, the Meiji Era nobility continues to exist in 1949. This has created a huge divide between the rich and the poor in the capital city of Teito. Yes, Teito. Stay with me here. No social mobility leads to a massive poor underclass and a tiny fraction of superrich. This playland for the rich is not without costs, as a masked villain known as K-20, the Fiend with 20 Faces, drives fear in their hearts as he steals their money. K-20 is not a noble thief or a Robin Hood, he is just a jerk who robs jerks.
There are also police zeppelins that drop police gyroplanes, because that always happens in comic books.
Series creator Edogawa Rampo is a popular horror and mystery writer whose work has been turned into cinema since 1927. After WWII, most samurai and similar films were banned, and Edogawa Rampo’s vast contemporary work was quickly put on the big screen. The K-20 stories originate in a Boy Detectives series launched in 1936 that lasted 26 years. Edogawa Rampo’s character of The Fiend With Twenty Faces is a mysterious master of disguise, and Detective Kogoro Akechi is called Rampo’s alter ego. Other early Rampo films include 1946’s The Palette Knife Murder (Palette Knife no Satsujin) and 1947’s Ghost Pagoda (Yurei To) and Phantom With Twenty Faces (Kaijin Nijumenso), which is the same Phantom story that inspired the novel this film is based on.
Said novel is the 1989 work from playwright Soh Kitamura, which updates the classic Rampo Akechi tales. Kitamura’s completely new take on the tale caused much controversy among Rampo Edogawa’s fans, much like many remakes.
More about Edogawa Rampo: Yes, Edogawa Rampo is not his real name, Taro Hirai named himself after Edgar Allen Poe! His first writing successes were in 1923, his erotic horror style is called eroguro-nansensu. Other Rampo stories on film include 1969’s The Blind Beast (Moju), 1969’s The Horror of Malformed Men (Kyofu Kikei Ningen), 1976’s The Stroller in the Attic (Yaneura no Sanposha) and 1968’s Black Lizard (Kurotokage). Rampo eventually became a character in mystery films of his own, in the movie Rampo (and this film has two wildly different versions.)
A demonstration of Tesla’s energy transmission device goes horribly wrong when the assistant guy turns out to be The Fiend with 20 faces, K-20! He whips off his disguise and steals the device. Someone in this scene is the novel author Soh Kitamura, but I don’t know who he is. The cops investigate, so we meet Detective Kogoro Akechi and his boy assistant Yoshio Kobayashi.
Enough of that, Heikichi Endo does his circus act – which consists of acrobatics and magic. After the show, he gets a visit from a reporter from True Tales magazine, who gives him a stack of money to photograph the upcoming engagement announcement of Detective Kogoro Akechi and Dutchess Yoko Hashiba. Yoko Hashiba’s father just happened to be at the 1908 Tunguska explosion in Siberia, rumored to be caused by Tesla experiments. That’s not a rumor I have heard, but let’s just go with it. Hashiba bought all the equipment when Tesla died. Kobayashi thinks K-20 is going to steal the full sized device to use as a weapon.
K-20 vows to steal a painting during the engagement ceremony, at the top of a big building, and Heikichi Endo climbs this building to get photos of the ceremony through the glass ceiling. There is an explosion in the building and gas is released on crowd as K-20’s laughing voice is heard over an intercom system. Endo is spotted on the roof. Shot at and captured! They think he is K-20.
News bulletins go out on the TV. The public cheers the detective despite being all poor and dirty. Despite the film’s weak attempts at class consciousness, it goes nowhere interesting and the poor masses are seen cheering on the upperclass heroes who captures a thief who only targets the upper class. Way to be docile and accept your fate as the lower class, fictitious alternate reality Japanese civilians!
Heikichi is beaten because stolen diamonds were planted in his room, thus proving he is guilty. What is even more odd is that the painting of the Tower of Babel that was targeted is only a copy. Yoko’s grandfather told her it should never leave her possession, but didn’t say why, and she doesn’t share this information with Detective. Heikichi is told by fellow prisoner that K-20 is older and has a scar- just like the guy who assigned him to take photos! Then Heikichi gets a message on a pigeon.
Hiekichi escapes while being transported when a bridge explodes and floats off. The bridge was modified that way in broad daylight. Is the Joker operating out of Teito now? The escape was thanks to his circus friends and his engineer Genji, who is also a thief by night and had some thieve friends help. Genji’s wife Kikuko is also a thief. Heikichi really hates thieves and let’s them all know it. A grateful man, that Heikichi Endo.
Heikichi returns to the circus, but it is all burnt down and all his doves were killed. Then it rains on Heikichi because we needed even more clichés. Heikichi runs into his child helper Shinsuke in the back alleys of the town. Shinsuke takes Heikichi back to a shanty town, where there is another kid who turns out to be dead (but the kid moves his eyes while pretending to be dead, dumb child actor!) Shinsuke has like 20 other kids he needs to take care of as well, so Heikichi goes to Genji to beg him how to teach him to be a thief. I guess he ain’t too proud to be a thief now.
Genji gives Heikichi the legendary Thieves Handbooks, which teach you how to be a master thief and are passed down from thief to thief. Has anyone ever seen a legendary book passed down from person to person? It happens all the time in movies but I don’t think I can think of a real world example besides religious tracts thousands of years ago.
How to be a thief: Learn Parkour years before some French guy named running in a straight line Parkour instead of Running In A Straight Line. Also be a Master of Disguise, like in the Mission Impossible movies where you rip off a full-faced rubber mask that disguises you so accurately that you are played by the actor you are disguised as. 1949 technology is totally up to that task.
To assist with Heikichi’s Parkour fun, Genji gives him a Batman toy, one of those clawgrip ropes with retractable rope so he can pull himself up. He swings around, and one day while Parkouring like a practice thief does he sees Duchess Yoko Hashiba being menaced by K-20 while trying on her wedding dress. Heikichi saves her, and starts a battle with the man who framed him and destroyed his life. Despite the nice choreography, Heikichi is not up to par to defeat K-20 at this time, and thus he must escape with the Duchess, especially when the police arrive, who are after Heikichi as they still think he is K-20.
Heikichi has no choice but to take her to the thieves’ hideout. There are the normal cultural clashes, implied nudity, bloody noses, and bathtime you expect from a rich/poor cultural clash. Heikichi realizes she still doesn’t understand what it is like to be poor, so he shows her the orphans and their shanty town, and explains how the government doesn’t care and most are orphans because rich people killed their parents. He leaves her and heads home.
By the next day, Yoko Hashiba finds purpose in feeding the kids. She later explains to her fiancée, Detective Kogoro Akechi, that K-20 isn’t Heikichi. While she is doing this, Genji and Heikichi are attempting to steal the painting of the Tower of Babel because Yoko told them to. They are disguised and let in to Detective Akechi’s house while Genji’s wife and the orphans run distraction dressed as a nun with singing children. All is for naught because they are caught at the end. But the Duchess reveals she ordered them to steal the painting. They figure out there is a hidden message under the paint, but they need an electromagnetic wave camera to read it. The only electromagnetic wave camera is at the army base.
The crew doesn’t want the military to know what they are doing, because the giant Tesla machine the message will be about could be used as a weapon. And if you remember, the Japanese military was crazy at this point and would probably use it to blow up the parts of China they hadn’t conquered. They will sneak into the base, but first Detective Akechi goes on base to warn them and to get a look at the security. The military guy shows off the latest security methods to Detective Akechi and Inspector Namikoshi, and we see all his men are dressed like COBRA soldiers for some reason. I guess this alternate Japan fights GI Joe. There are pressure floors, laser tripwires, and 100 guards with machine guns.
Just then, Detective Akechi bursts in and declares Detective Akechi is a fake! The Detective Akechi who was already there. The other Akechi reveals he is, and reveals himself to be K-20. Actually, he is Heikichi pretending to be K-20, who escapes not as gracefully as the real K-20 would. There is a big and nicely done escape sequence with K-20 dodging guards, guns, and help via explosions. He escapes via Duchess in a gyroplane and he jumps to the rope ladder and laughs as they fly off. The military guy left for the front lines so Detective Akechi can take a photo of the painting.
The painting has instructions for a cube Yoko has, which when changed resembles floor of the giant tower building. The device is under the floor (as Yoko was playing with the cube in the beginning of the film right before a scene that showed the floor of the building and it was very obvious they were connected.) A note from K-20 appears in room like magic and declares K-20 will get the device and Heikichi will die. Detective is then shot and killed by a gunshot from the window. Heikichi and Genji go to the huge tower to locate and destroy the Tesla device.
SPOILERS!! Don’t read below this if you don’t want to be SPOILED!!
Heikich and Genji open up the floor and the device comes up, poking out of the top of the skyscraper. It is a weapon that has a global targeting system and a key that charges the machine. Heikichi and Genji realize the weapon is far too dangerous even if it can power the entire city, so they must overload it. But then K-20 shows up. Genji gets KOed right off the bat, then K-20 and Heikichi have a big acrobatic fight that goes on and on and moves all over the giant apparatus. They fight over the key to the device, and during the struggle the mask is knocked off of K-20 and he is revealed to be…..Detective Akechi! As anyone paying attention figured out, but, whatever.
Detective Akechi manages to suspend Heikichi by his own Batman device and wants Heikichi to join him in the brave new world he will create after he destroys all the major cities on the planet with the Tesla machine. I guess Akechi has gone quite loco. Heikichi refuses, so Akechi shoots Heikichi with his own gun, then starts plugging in coordinates of major cities into the Tesla machines. He turns on the machine, but instead of targeting New York, it targets the skyscraper it is housed in because Genji did modifications while the fight was going on. Heikichi is also alive, as the gun was a prop gun. They knew Detective Akechi was K-20 because Duchess Yoko recognized his hands when he assaulted her while trying on her wedding dress. Genji leaves, and Heikichi jumps off the side of the building while it goes all ID4 on itself, killing K-20. Heikichi’s fall to his death is stopped because a gyroplane-flying Duchess Yoko saves him yet again.
After the dust has settled, the world thinks Detective Akechi died fighting K-20, who is now living on as Heikichi. They are not entirely clear, but I think K-20 has turned Robin Hood. But it is only implied by the fact Duchess Yoko is doing reformed business practices that give back to the community. Because she has to be the legitimate head of social reform, her and Heikichi can never be together. But this small lip service to social reform is all we ever get, and the film ends.
Rated 9/10 (Domo Arigato, gyro-city, Tesla was a crazy mo-fo, zappy!, Mission Impossible, Today’s secret ingredient is Fiend!, A normal citizen, ker-blammo, key to power in the tower)
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