The first five minutes of K-20 feature, get this, the theft of Nikola Tesla’s wireless-power transmission device by the masked-and-cloaked Fiend of Twenty Faces. If that description makes you grin, then you are most likely the right audience for this film. If you didn’t grin, then you, sir, are no fun.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen something this unpretentiously fun that wasn’t weighted down with irony and too-hip-for-the-screen injokes. K-20 bears most direct comparison to something between the recent redux of Sherlock Holmes crossed with Casshern. It even shares a few cast members with the latter, but it’s far more lighthearted than that film, with swashbuckling and good-humored adventure instead of global destruction and general gloom. I still adore Casshern for what it is but if you’re new to this sort of material, grab K-20 first, then graduate to the other film as your 200-level course.
The story of Fiend with Twenty Faces was a creation of novelist So Kitamura, but the details in the story are straight from the fictional world created by Edogawa Rampo, the Japanese mystery/thriller/adventure author whose name was a clever Nipponization of Edgar Allan Poe. This movie version projects the story into an alternate Japan of the 1950s, where World War II never took place and the country has become even more despotic and autocratic than it was in the Meiji era of the late 1800s. Social mobility is minimal, and the poor spend what leisure time they have living vicariously through the exploits of the rich and famous … or by reading, wide-eyed, of the criminal exploits of the infamous K-20.
K-20’s crimes are as acrobatic as they are photogenic. I mentioned the opening scene, where he makes off with one of Tesla’s inventions. From his stage-magic approach to crime, we’re led to believe he might be Heikichi (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the circus acrobat who worries more about his pigeoans or the ill health of his ringleader than his own personal safety. He accepts a pile of money to photograph the engagement ceremony of Detective Kogoro Akechi (another recurring Rampo character), but it’s a trap: he’s framed for trying to blow up the building and thrown in prison. But mere days later he’s sprung free again by his former cohort “Genji the Gimmick” (Jun Kunimura, always good), who’s been moonlighting as a leader of the thieves’ guild to bring in a little extra dough.
Heikichi has no sympathy for thieves, and no words of thanks for the people who saved him. That and he’s adamantly not K-20: if anything, he sees himself as one of the Fiend’s victims. But there’s nothing left for him to go back to—his circus tent is a pile of ashes, and even his precious pigeons are gone—and so he turns reluctantly back to the thieves he spurned to learn their trade and clear his name. He’s a fast student, and before long he’s sprinting across rooftops, firing his little gas-powered grappling hook gun, and swooping in to rescue damsels in distress. The damsel in question is Akechi’s fiancée, and there’s a bit of a joke in that she hardly needs rescuing since she can flip poor Heikichi across the room with one arm. She also wants to lend a land to Heikichi’s cause, although it takes her some effort to convince him she’s sincere—and she faces more than a little resistance from her husband-to-be, who not-so-subtly resents having his detective turf trod upon by upstarts.
There are, of course, other plot complications I will not go into here, but they are manifestations of the movie’s overall style and not overbearing attempts to inject more substance into the film than it can really handle. Films like this work best when they’re romps anyway, and K-20 stays lighthearted all throughout. Sometimes this means the movie isn’t all snappy slam-bang action; most of the middle section of the film, where Heikichi gets his underworld legs and brings Akechi’s fiancée into the action, is more comedy-of-errors than action.
But when there is action, it’s staged with the flamboyance of a prime Jackie Chan feature, as when Heikichi and K-20 square off in a back alley and manage to bend the laws of physics without ever quite breaking them. The movie also looks great, freely mixing pre- and post-WWII ambience with set designs that bring to mind early Art Deco meeting late Giant Robot. And it was also put together by a team smart enough to realize props and sets alone don’t make a film.