The year is 1949 in Japan, but not as we knew it, for this is an alternate universe where the nation never entered World War II and thus were able to prosper sooner. But this came at a price, for the society became even more divided, as the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer, with no middle ground and no possibility of those on the lowest rung of the ladder to climb their way out of the hole they had found themselves in as the law stated there was no way any citizen could change jobs, they had to stick with the hand life had dealt them. However, there was one person who fighting back against this injustice, the masked vigilante known only as K-20 because of his twenty disguises – if only he had been one of the good guys.
As if to show Hollywood that Japan could get up to just as much superhero malarkey as they could, there were a number of goodnatured ripostes to the blockbusters and would-be blockbusters out of the West in that fantastical vein, and K-20 was one of those, as with the larger degree of them an origin tale of how their lead character came to be. But the twist was that we join him when he’s turning the screws on a corrupt society purely for selfish reasons, though we don’t discover the entire extent of those until the end (where he seems to have a grudge against Tinseltown, one perhaps shared with the moviemakers). That left a void for our actual hero to fill, and he turned out to be the thoroughly decent Takeshi Kaneshiro.
Or rather, the thoroughly decent character Kaneshiro was playing, a circus performer by the name of Heikicho Endo who is very good at his job, a mix of acrobatics and magic tricks, but longs for something better for him and his colleagues that the nation’s hierarchy refuses to accommodate. That’s when a journalist approaches him and invites him to take a few photos for his story; he will be paid handsomely and the only snag is that he has to snap the pics from the top of a building, capturing the social event of the year as the famous detective Kogoro Akechi (Tôru Nakamura) is getting married to a princess, Yoko (Takako Matsu). Sounds simple enough, physical exertion apart, and Heikicho needs the money so up he goes, balancing on the glass dome that crowns the structure.
Alas, a bigger snag than that arises when K-20 stages one of his stunts, all to get his hands on Tesla equipment of the sort we saw him steal at the beginning of the movie, and our protagonist gets the blame, the cuffs slapped on and straight into custody with nobody believing his protests of innocence. One thing leads to another and after getting beaten up, which happens to him with alarming regularity after a fashion, he is rescued by some poor folks led by Genji (Jun Kunimura), an ageing rebel who chuckles his way through any explanations. Now you’ll be thinking you were in for a tract about poor versus rich, with poor coming out the preference, but writer and director Shimako Sato was seeking a more balanced, compromising message for her tale, though crucially that didn’t mean compromised.
It was more finding the middle ground between the classes that appealed, with wholesome, apple-cheeked Yoko meeting up with Heikicho, or rather being strongarmed into a relationship of sorts that allows her to see how the struggling citizens live, including a small army of orphans for reasons of pathos. Luckily for us this doesn’t get too sentimental as this was an action movie no matter its social conscience, and that meant a combination of free running stunts and the kind of activity Batman gets up to around Gotham City, swinging from rooftops with aplomb (after a spot of taking tumbles, making the character look like Sato’s punching bag at times). Really this was a breezy, expensive adventure that was bright where it counted, but didn’t neglect the more serious aspects of its themes without allowing it to turn into a stern lecture. It led up to a fairly spectacular setpiece finale that in spite of its guessable twists made for a winning diversion, and looked to a sequel that never came. Full on orchestral score by Naoki Satô.