The Legend & Butterfly: Attempt at Kurosawa-Style Epic is a Dud
The Legend & Butterfly is an attempt by Toei Studios to recreate Kurosawa-style epic blockbusters but ends up a muddled and confused dud.
So we spent July 4th watching The Legend & Butterfly on Prime, which is this year's big Toei Studios anniversary historical blockbuster trying to recall the days of Kurosawa epics. 169 minutes long. That's right; I spent July 4th watching a Japanese movie. Alas, it's a 169-minute dud despite starring Takuya Kimura from the Judgement video games, who's the closest Japan has a Brad Pitt now, and Haruka Ayase, two of Japan's top A-listers who have played a romantic couple before. Kimura plays Oda Nobunaga, and Ayase plays Lady No, the wife who became – in this fictional story – his smarter half whose strategic advice enabled him to become the conqueror that History remembers.
The Legend & Butterfly Paints a Beautiful Lie on Top of Real History
The Legend & Butterfly charts Nobunaga's decades from an oafish young lord forced to marry the daughter of a rival lord to ensure peace between their lands, then his progress through the decades as he becomes the first warlord to unify Japan. Almost nothing is known about Lady No, so the filmmakers could create a wholly fictional story about her with a feminist edge. Lady No is a better, smarter fighter than Nobunaga is, and she initially plans to murder him the first chance she gets to help her father conquer his kingdom. When her father is killed in battle with his brother, she starts to advise Nobunaga in his bid to win back her kingdom, then encourages him to set his sights wider and conquer all of Japan, if only to keep themselves safe. Continued success turns Nobunaga power-mad, and he stops listening to her, but ironically they've finally fallen in love. In his conquests, Nobunaga becomes a "demon" to do what he needs to do and deep down regrets it. But once you get to the top, the only thing left is for someone to come after you for your crown. By the time Nobunaga and Lady No finally, begin to express their love for each other, it's too late. That is the tragic love story the movie creates that probably never happened. It's a beautiful lie woven into a true story.
But it's Really Macbeth and Throne of Blood Redux
The Legend & Butterfly is really Macbeth or Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (itself a faithful adaptation of Macbeth to feudal Japan) with a real historical figure… but it wants you to feel sorry for him and Lady Macbeth as a tragic love story. Anyone with a brain who knows their history (which would be everyone in Japan) knows Nobunaga slaughtered thousands, so they can't see him as heroic or noble. He was never a nice guy. WE DON'T FEEL SORRY FOR A WARLORD WHO KILLED THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE, INCLUDING WOMEN, CHILDREN, AND MONKS, ON HIS WAY TO CONQUER ALL OF JAPAN!!! HE DOESN'T DESERVE ANY SYMPATHY!
This is where the thinking behind The Legend & Butterfly is seriously screwed up. There may be a slight feminist edge to the portrayal of Lady No as an intelligent strategist and warrior. However, she is still subservient to the man since Japanese society was and is patriarchal and sexist. Ayase is underused and neglected in the movie because the story is still a service to Kimura's Nobunaga. That their love story really ignites after they stumble upon a hovel of filthy poor people and end up slaughtering them to get out alive probably sums up the muddled thinking in the screenplay. Nothing like murdering a few dozen poor people to get the love going! This is not an interesting way of saying, "Things were complicated." It's completely mush-brained. Life in medieval Japan was awful, and no amount of modern feminist lip service or progressive sop will whitewash that. Lady No's desire to venture to lands beyond the sea so she can live any life she wants without the restrictions of Japanese society is a modern mentality that nobody in medieval Japan ever thought of. It sets up the romantic fantasy and tragic payoff to her love story with Nobunaga that falls flat because that could never happen then, and Nobunaga was a monster who ordered countless atrocities.
In real life, Nobunaga's body was never found, so they never took his head to display on a spike. It's likely he stripped off his armour and tried to escape but got killed amongst the civilians or soldiers, so they didn't recognise him amongst the dead. At the end of the day, The Legend & Butterfly is an interesting experiment in trying to modernize the telling of Japanese historical epics as a relatable blockbuster movie for contemporary audiences. Still, the sheer weight of history and its real horrors dampens it all.
A Snapshot of the State of Japanese Studio Movies
The Legend & Butterfly ends up representing many things: how Japanese historical epics are trying to evolve, the Japanese state of mind and its continuing confusion about gender politics and trying to reconcile modern progressive thinking with the medieval rules that still inform Japanese society, and the country's continued fascination with War, Peace, and Power.
The Legend & Butterfly is now streaming on Prime as part of your Amazon Prime subscription at no extra cost. Amazon has been putting many of the latest Japanese movies and TV shows on Prime with even less advertising or marketing than Netflix does for their content. You never know what you might stumble on when you browse, and there might be pleasant surprises or at least interesting ones like this movie. We would love to cover more Japanese films if only we had the time.