Akechi Kogoro vs. The Fiend With Twenty Faces
- Original title
- Akechi Kogoro tai Kaijin Niju Menso
- Japanese title
- 明智小五郎 対 怪人二十面相
- Running time
- 120 minutes
- 23 April 2003
The first and most famous mystery writer in Japan is a man named Edogawa Rampo. In the west, he is mostly known for the film The Mystery of Rampo; only one volume of his short stories has been translated into English. In 1937 he recovered from a financial and creative slump by writing the first of a series of serialized novels for children. They pitched his Holmes, Kogoro Akechi, aided by his assistant Kobayashi and the Boys Detective Club (Akechi's Baker Street irregulars) against a villain known as Kaijin Niju Menso, The Fiend With Twenty Faces. Niju Menso was a master of disguise and a magician, a cultured art thief who often threatened, but never killed. Intended for children, they are written in clear, easy to read Japanese with a limited number of Kanji, perfect for the intermediate student. I read the first three last summer, about the time this TV special aired on TBS television.
Akechi Kogoro vs. The Fiend With Twenty Faces makes the (perhaps) wise decision to cobble a plot together from several of the novels. Sadly, the wisdom ends there: I can think of almost nothing else positive to say about this unmitigated disaster. Beat Takeshi, whose name is synonymous with "master of disguise" phones in a halfhearted performance as Niju Menso. It consists mainly of smirking and chuckling and mumbling through his lines as if reading them from cue cards. Masakazu Tamura, a man at least ten years too old to convincingly play the thirty-something Akechi, sports a silly bowtie and seems to be under the impression that the descriptions of Akechi as a gentlemen are a license to ham it up. His performance is flamboyant, cocky, and detached, and inspires little confidence. It's impossible to believe the police would ever willingly cooperate with this frankly rather sinister lunatic. He would probably have made an excellent Niju Menso.
He isn't alone, however: with the exception of Yuichiro Yamaguchi's surprisingly controlled Kenzo Nomura (a rival detective; this is the man who should have played Akechi) every actor in the movie chews scenery till the movie becomes pure camp. The one character who should be over the top is the villain, and Beat Takeshi makes it clear he is simply picking up another paycheck.
Because, apparently, a detective trying to catch a thief is not dramatic enough, the writers shoehorn in an elaborate back story that takes place during the second world war. In addition to making no logical sense at all, it shows a complete lack of understanding for the novels' popularity.
According to the afterword in my edition of the first novel, the children's magazines at the time (1937) were filled with propaganda. Rampo's mystery adventure novels were almost the only stories being published that did not mention the war, and did not try to cram right wing military values down the readers' throats. The wartime scenes here are hardly propaganda, showing the Japanese army as villains and the people of China as pitiable victims, but still seem misjudged. The story is set ten years after the novels, which provides some justification for Akechi's age, and allows them to humanize their villain with a sob story origin. This is, of course, a hideous mistake: the entire appeal of Niju Menso was based on mystery. We never knew what his real face was, how he could do everything he did, or even what he really wanted.
The writers have made an even bigger mistake with the character, however: this Niju Menso is a killer. In an absurd flashback, Akechi's wife is killed by a car bomb planted by Niju Menso. A flimsy, out of place excuse to tie in a laughable tragic love story. Not one second of Rie Miyazawa's screen time seems like anything more than a bizarre accident. Her performance is confused, her motivations opaque, and the implications of her character's inclusion in the film somewhat offensive. Kogoro Akechi is not the kind of man who would let anyone commit suicide.
The Boys Detective Club has been completely written out of the film, making the children that do appear helpless tools of the plot. Kobayashi, rather than a character who can actually contend with Niju Menso, is a grinning buffoon unable to act intelligently without direction from Akechi. The police, taking their clue from Lupin III and other more recent thieves inspired in part by Rampo's novels, are buffoons. In the novels, they were merely helplessly outclassed. Akechi himself seems rather stupid here; in the novels, even when he seems to be trapped, he is always one step ahead of his enemies. Here, he serves as a witless foil for even the most transparent schemes. Seeing him genuinely fooled by schemes he easily defeated in the novels is infuriating. Surely even children know better than to let a man light a cigarette in a room filled with explosives. Niju Menso's plans seem haphazard and amateurish, and don't even really require Akechi's interference to fail.
Akechi Kogoro vs. The Fiend With Twenty Faces is more like the production staff versus common sense and the corpse of Rampo spinning in his grave. Just as the novel's thirty minute careful applications of disguises are replaced with Mission: Impossible style goofy face peelings, the calculated thrills of the novels are replaced with cheap suspense and campy hijinks. If they were hoping to spark a revival in the character's popularity, then sadly, they have probably simply put the final nail in the property's coffin.