For all their grisly mayhem, the earliest films by Takeshi Kitano all demonstrated a keen grasp of negation. Violence was an omnipresent fixture of his first crime capers––from Violent Cop (1989) to Fireworks (1997)––but it unfolded in hiccups. The director enjoyed trading in tantalizing elisions, and his most gruesome scenes would often leave the action offscreen, offering a set-up and aftermath while cutting the most dramatic moments––an approach that would become more frequent after A Scene at the Sea (1991), the first feature he’d edit himself. It was as if Kitano had realized the most visceral shots were those left on the cutting room floor and proceeded to fashion those early projects on an iceberg principle: prodding one to imagine the bloodletting without ever displaying it in full. It was a style predicated on absence; it made the violence all the more vivid, the films all the more original.

None of that reticence survives in Kubi, the director’s latest and long-thought-to-be-last project, rumors that have been dispelled by Kitano himself ahead of the Cannes premiere. From its opening shot––a stream teeming with crayfish feasting on decapitated corpses––this period piece chronicling a tumultuous few years in 16th-century Japan announces itself as an unflinching spectacle, and a gory bloodbath it remains throughout. Where Kitano’s first films handled violence parsimoniously, this one relishes in its full-frontal display, conjuring a two-hour-plus saga paved with decapitations, self-immolations, and countless other atrocities. Even as it routinely threatens to get lost in a head-spinningly knotty plot, the director’s kinetic approach and gallows humor makes Kubi a singular addition to Kitano’s oeuvre. 

Based on the director’s own 2019 novel, adapted for the screen by Kitano and co-scribe Takehiko Minato, Kubi kicks off in 1579, when Lord Nobunaga Oda (Ryo Case), hell-bent on controlling the country, must grapple with an internecine rebellion staged by one of his vassals, Murashige Araki (Kenichi Endo). The sly Murashige survived a siege and vanished in thin air; to track him down, Nobunaga enrolls all his other warlords, promising the throne to the first who’ll hand him the insurgent. It’s a lie, naturally, and it’s the first of several others in a film that plays as a Borgesian garden of subterfuges, conspiracies, spies, body doubles, and double-crossers. Among the supposedly faithful vassals is Mitsuhide Akechi (Hidetoshi Nishijima, last seen sprinting on a red Saab in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car), and of course Kitano’s own Hideyoshi Hashiba––a.k.a “the monkey,” a former peasant-turned-warlord eager to seize the kingdom for himself. Would that it were so simple.

For the road to the throne is routinely thwarted by new sinister figures. Indeed, so many are the characters dotting Kubi, and so shifty their agendas, you’d be forgiven for struggling to keep track of who’s who, never mind who’s loyal to whom. The narrative intricacy aligns Kitano’s latest with its predecessor, Outrage Coda, another film that suffered from an overstuffed plot. But where Outrage Coda took a while to unleash the bloody pandemonium with which Kitano’s yakuza trilogy came to a close, Kubi wastes no time. Sure, the director and Minato are just as intrigued by the Machiavellian politics and restless double-crossing of their samurais as they are by the intramural wars they wage. Yet Kubi never dips into speechifying, and it’s a testament to Kitano’s sleek filmmaking that the film never succumbs to its labyrinthine narrative. 

Still, there are times when the violence feels less entertaining than repetitive. Kitano finds ways to spice up his choreographies: a levitation sword fight between rival samurais jolts one back to the gravity-defying battles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the sound design makes arrows and bullets flying across the battlefield echo like ear-piercing rain. But the film does not carry the same ecstasy and catharsis of Ang Lee’s masterpiece, nor the grandiose sumptuousness of Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 Ran, one of its key touchstones. Not that it needs to, exactly. Transcendence is not what Kitano’s after here. As it was for its precedents, the greatest attraction in Kubi is the way the director employs the actor, and Hideyoshi is another memorable entry in an ever-growing pantheon of implacable heroes. In a saga replete with deranged loose cannons, the cantankerous ex-farmer is the film’s most indelible, and a reliable source of comic relief.

He also stands as a curious departure from the more melancholic Otomo, the near-invincible gangster Kitano played all through the Outrage triptych. That thug shot his way through the trilogy as the last defender of yakuza tradition; he was an old man watching as the world he knew crumbled. The warrior he plays here is a far different beast––part-killing-machine, part-prankster, closer to the displaced yakuza of his 2000 US vehicle Brother. At its most inspired, Kubi radiates the droll energy of a film made by a director who had genuine fun with their material. The enthusiasm is contagious. 

Kubi premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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