Japan’s Holmes vs. Moriarty
Niju Menso, the Fiend with Twenty Faces, is one of the classic villains of Japanese literature. Created in 1936 by mystery author Edogawa Rampo (Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination), Niju Menso played Professor Moriarty to Rampo’s Sherlock Holmes archetype, consulting detective Kogoro Akechi. The two characters are as well known in Japan as Holmes and Moriarty are in the West. Since his creation, like many great villains Niju Menso took on a life of his own has gone on to appear in several manga and anime series, as well as two novels by So Kitamura.
This 2008 film versions is adapted from the two So Kitamura novels, which takes a decided spin on the original detective Kogoro Akechi/Niju Menso dynamic. So’s novels were revisionist to say the least, and this version of the Niju Menso story has as much in common with the original as Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes does with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales. However, since Rampo’s Kogoro Akechi stories have never been translated into English, most viewers will be unaware of the shocking twist of So’s novels.
But enough with the history lesson. As a straight film, “K-20: The Fiend With Twenty Faces” is one of the best Japanese superhero films I have ever seen. Too many Japanese films are marred by somewhat amateur CG, but the lessons have been learned and “K-20” mixes a great story with very satisfactory effects. Not quite a straight action movie, there are still some spectacular moves and fights mixed in with the intrigue. Kaneshiro Takeshi’s use of parkour urban-traveling was as well-done as Mollaka in Casino Royale.
The story is set in an alternate history 1948-49. Niju Menso has been locked in a battle with Kogoro Akechi (Nakamura Toru, Umizaru) for years, with a clear victor on no side. When announcing his engagement to the wealthy and beautiful Hashiba Yoko (Matsu Takako, The Hidden Blade) he is interrupted by Niju Menso (called K-20 in the English translation) who is then unmasked as young acrobat Endo Heikichi (Kaneshiro Takeshi, House of Flying Daggers). But Endo is not the true Niju Menso, and appears to have been set up to take a fall. Not only is Endo “exposed” as Niju Menso, he will also take the blame for the ruling aristocratic powers’ plan to use Nikola Tesla’s technology to cause a new Tunguska event which will help to consolidate their power. For Endo there is only one way out. He must truly take on the guise of Niju Menso to clear his own name and to put an end to the dangerous scheme. Oh, and also to save the circus and win the heart of a girl in true hero fashion.
There are some great nods to the original Edogawa Rampo story strewn like breadcrumbs to those who can find them. Kogoro Akechi’s young assistant Kobayashi Yoshio (Hongo Kanata, Returner) is a clever nod to Kogoro’s Boy Detectives’ Club that emulated Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars. Even without the background though, K-20: The Fiend With Twenty Faces is a fully-enjoyable movie.
The DVD is bare-bones. I know this film didn’t get a great US release, but its too bad they couldn’t put something together on the history of Kogoro Akechi and Niju Menso even as a paper supplement to put in with the DVD.