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Review: The Legend & Butterfly

[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

Near the end of The Legend & Butterfly—a lavish period epic produced to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Toei—the plot appears to take an unexpected turn into outright historical revisionism reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Oda Nobunaga—grievously injured, cornered by traitors, trapped in a burning temple—forlornly reflects on the lifetime of cruelty that led to his impending demise. Suddenly, he glimpses a minor miracle: a few flimsy floorboards, easily pried loose to reveal a hidden passage. Defying his preordained fate, he escapes from his enemies, reunites with his wife, and stows away on a ship bound for Europe. After an arduous journey, the warlord gazes upon foreign soil; at long last, he’ll be able to realize his dream of peace, tranquility, and anonymity alongside the woman he loves.

But this idyllic vision abruptly fades, the warm glow of the sunset dissolving into the blazing glare of the flames that still surround him. There was no secret tunnel, no desperate ride back to his fortress, no westward voyage; it was all just a fantasy akin to The Last Temptation of Christ—a false hope conjured by the delusional mind of a vanquished conqueror.

Although this double subversion isn’t entirely without merit—indeed, it’s one of the only legitimately interesting creative choices in an otherwise generic jidaigeki—it’s also emblematic of the film’s overall indecisiveness. The relationship between the title characters, for example, often feels contrived, inorganic, and underdeveloped; because the structure is so disjointed (leaping forward several years at a time at seemingly random intervals), the “gradual” evolution of their marriage from political union to mutually beneficial military partnership to genuinely affectionate romance lacks connective tissue—and, consequently, emotional authenticity. The tone is likewise wildly inconsistent, chaotically careening from slapstick comedy and screwball banter to gory bloodshed and overwrought melodrama with little rhyme or reason; balancing humor and horror is a delicate tightrope act, and director Keishi Otomo frequently stumbles.

The movie’s central theme—its most compelling hook—is, unfortunately, equally muddled. The premise revolves around the thesis that Nobunaga’s bride—who is traditionally relegated to a mere footnote in written accounts of his campaign to unify Japan—was actually a hugely influential figure in his reign, nurturing his violent ambition (à la Lady Macbeth) and sculpting him from a buffoonish, pampered thug into a fierce warrior, charismatic leader, and cunning tactician. It is therefore utterly tragic that she slowly loses any semblance of agency as the narrative unfolds, ultimately spending the last hour of the story ill and bedridden. She was previously depicted as such a strong, independent, uncompromising heroine; she refuses to be silenced and marginalized, blatantly and unapologetically challenging the misogynistic attitudes of the Sengoku Era. It is thus a shame to see her reduced to a passive prop in her husband’s conflict.

I don’t mean to imply that The Legend & Butterfly is irredeemably bad; the production design is absolutely spectacular, and the performances are generally solid. Because its flaws are so fundamental, however, its strengths are greatly diminished. Unlike its iconic subject, it simply doesn’t leave much of an impression.

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