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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Photograph: Cannes International Film Festival

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Takeshi Kitano delivers a samurai ‘Succession’, filled with queer subplots and about a million beheadings

Deadpan Japanese maverick Takeshi Kitano – aka Beat Takeshi – has been making and starring in films for three decades and while often prolific, he’s slowed down a little of late (his last was 2017’s Outrage Coda). So it’s a joy to see him putting his explosive stamp on the samurai movie in a non-stop affair that bubbles with impish humour and basically drenches the screen in blood. It’s like Kurosawa on nitrous. 

Taking the expression ‘heads will roll’ and turning it into an entire film, Kubi is awash with severed noggins. Practically the only bit of screen time without one comes in the film’s open shot, and only then because it’s of a crab scuttling from a headless torso. It’s a kind of crustacean trigger warning: the ensuing jidaigeki mayhem is not for the lily-livered.

Adapting his own novel, Kitano springboards off real-life events – the Honnō-ji Incident in 16th century Japan – to chart a world in which nobility and honour have given way to a mad scramble for power and where violence is everywhere. So, unexpectedly, is queerness, with Kitano showcasing the commonplace reality of gay love between samurai in a way that few movies have.

The big bad here is Ryo Kase’s Nobunaga, a psychotic feudal lord with a touch of the Joe Pescis. He demands that his loyal samurai track down rival lord Murashige (Kenichi Endō), who has narrowly escaped his army after a Ran-like battle at his castle. In return, he sets out a Succession-like scenario: the one who returns with Murashige’s head will be anointed as his heir. The rest will probably lose theirs.

If we’re rooting for anyone in this treacherous world it’s Takeshi’s Hideyoshi Hashiba, a wily old samurai who is able to extricate himself from the tightest of squeezes and who pretends to force his retainers to commit harakiri just for the LOLs.

It’s like Kurosawa on nitrous

With a ninja behind every tree and an arsenal of weapons – muskets, throwing stars, arrows and poison, as well as the reliable katana – there’s about a thousand ways to die in Kubi’s world and Kitano shows us all of them via some epic battle scenes and ambushes. 

And if scale is not lacking here, neither is a healthy irreverence towards the samurai tradition and the genre as a whole. Class warfare is a recurrent theme, with peasants struggling for advancement with just as much ruthlessness as the warriors they serve.
Ultimately, there’s a bit too much going on to bring together into a satisfying third act. Kitano struggles to juggle all the characters and a climactic showdown is delivered without much fanfare. But Kubi is often wildly funny in Kitano’s straight-faced style, and it’s never less than a lot of fun. Fans of visceral, cynical action movies will lose their heads over it. 

Kubi premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Shuta Takahata, Takeshi Kitano
  • Screenwriter:Takeshi Kitano, Takehiko Minato
  • Cast:
    • Yoshiyoshi Arakawa
    • Tadanobu Asano
    • Ken'ichi Endô
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