Indeed, Oda Nobunaga is one of the most well-documented figures in world history. His is a recurring legacy in many a multimedia product in film and TV, and to no one’s surprise is source material rich with potential that filmmakers to this day are curious to adapt stories illustrating his life. Keishi Otomo, the mind behind adapting the biggest manga-inspired franchise of the past decade with Rurouni Kenshin, found a way in fitting fashion with his usual caliber of work alongside The Confidence Man JP trilogy and Parasyte adaptation screenwriter Ryota Kosawa.
For this, it becomes a major point of interest as to how anyone interprets history, especially when obscurity befalls one half of the subject matter. Otomo’s 70th anniversary production for Toei, The Legend & Butterfly, makes a daring attempt to christen the genre once more with a peculiar revisit of the late legendary daimyo, born into power and the incumbent inheritor as the head of the Owari clan. Our story begins in 1549 when Nobunaga (Takuya Kimura, Blade Of The Immortal), whose reputation as an incorrigible oddball greatly preceded him at this point in time, is installed through prearranged nuptials to marry the daughter of a rival clan Lady Nohime (Haruka Ayase, Caution, Hazardous Wife: The Movie) to avoid clan conflict. The marriage is instantly a disaster as the two cannot get along, a fact amplified by Nobunaga’s insecurities with Nohime’s outspokeness and physical prowess as a woman in a patriarchal society.
What remains to be seen in The Legend & Butterfly is how Otomo mindfully takes their story to task, particularly given that Nohime’s story isn’t as well documented as her husband’s. Reasonably, it’s a gap that Otomo fills with crucial nuances and connective understanding of events through a suggestive lens that further accentuates the growth and nourishment of the romantic arc that slowly comes to pass between the two figures. There are several crucial moments that gradually adhere to the development of this key aspect of the film, most notably including Nohime’s brilliance at strategy to help Nobunaga win decisive battles, thus fueling the start of his quest to unify all of Japan.
A good deal of the first half of the film is committed to conveying just how Nobunaga and Nohime worked past their differences in an unnerving marriage to find common ground on things, and ultimately each other. During the first half of the film, the two manage to escape the confines of their palace to go on an escapade among the commoners, taking in the sights and visiting the street markets. Nobunaga soon buys her a black frog sculpture, and minutes later, a package of candy that gets lifted by a pickpocket. I won’t get too intricate with what went down after that, but I will say that a lot of what happened in the subsequent scenes that could have been avoided and should have, well, weren’t. Next thing you know, Nobunaga and Nohime are covered in blood and hiding in a derilect hut from an angry mob, and after being shown what caused the brutal fracas, Nohime basically jumps him and the two finally consummate their marriage.
Therein lies the quagmire of being in love with a guy who would slay anyone and anything to ascertain what he wants, and so I’m gonna be very clear here: The Legend & Butterfly doesn’t go out of its way to saturate viewers with a sprawling sugarcoat of history. It’s well known that Nobunaga was, like all power players who have shaped the world with an iron fist, was a tyrant. There are a few inflection points to highlight, but one specifically being siege of Mount Hiei, the moment where Nobunaga and his men attacked, burnt down and slaugtered all of its inhabitants, old and young. It’s here that we finally see a tone set for a marriage withering between a rapacious warlord seeking retribution, and a wife left reflecting on her precipitous feelings of love in the wake of using her status and Nobunaga’s conquest to meet her own ends.
That’s not to say or imply that the spark goes out for both our leads. Quite the opposite as the film gradually shows, while among the film’s biggest and more ominous indicators is the one to watch – the basal of Nobunaga’s troubled political life and position, and afflicted by the man who would soon bring Nobunaga’s rule to a fiery halt in Kyoto, Akechi Mitsuhide (Hio Miyazawa). Culminating Otomo’s epic saga of love as harrowing as nearly any battlefield, is the recapitulating Honno-ji incident led by Mitsuhide with Nobunaga slaying his way through the bloody ambush that would inevitably find him cornered. The scene plays out as the start of a paean that would have you ideally believing one palatable ending that soundly adheres to the collective hope that movie characters based on real life find peace. It’s a scene that quickly reminds you with a shot of our frontman Nobunaga in his final moments, signing off in according fashion with precisely what Otomo set out to do for the film’s 163-minute duration.
Obviously there’s no risk of a spoiler here seeing as The Legend & Butterfly is a standalone film, as epic and entrenching as it is, and what we already know of Nobunaga’s fate, generally. What matters here is that Otomo works an incredible wonder in his experimental and vast retelling Nobunaga’s story with a pointed, pensive focus. The story is further magnified by performances by Kimura and Ayase, who last appeared together in Masayuki Suzuki’s 2007 legal drama, Hero. Hiroyuki Yoshida (Kappei, The Last Of The Wolves) coordinated the film’s requisite stunts and action sequences, including the two featuring both topical characters. Their first scene adds a dose of comic relief and glowing insight to Nobunaga and Nohime and where they stand with one another, while the second delivers a thrilling spectacle of pure, unmitigated survival. It also can’t be ignored how much the action serves magnaniously to the ends of our discovery of who Nohime is through Otomo’s lens; Ayase is in fine and familiar form in the role, having not only played a version of Nohime earlier in her career in a different movie, but has also cut her teeth in several action roles throughout career, including Fumihiko Sori’s 2007 feminine take on the blind samurai genre, Ichi.
On the supporting side we have Hideaki Ito and Miki Nakatani as Nohime’s loyal subjects, Sadaie Fukuzumi and the more emotionally attentive Kagamino. Both roles are prudent to the film’s extenuating framework as we follow Nobunaga and Nohime and their discovery of one another. It also presents a generous, and equally intriguing and perceptive look at Nohime’s role in shaping Japan’s history, juxtaposted with a love story tethered to reflect how the heartless and barbaric Nobunaga could be so transmogrified in his lifetime.
That’s the story we get in The Legend & Butterfly. It is a version of a story that does a near-impeccable job at exploring its own source material to flesh out an immersive profile of two key figures in world history that lends a finely-tuned segue into better understanding a treatment of history that begs you to ask “What if?…”. Frankly, if you or someone you know can tell this story any better, consider yourself placed squarely in Nohime’s shoes ahead of a hunting contest, by all means, be our guest and take the challenge.
The Legend & Butterfly was screened for review for the 16th edition of Japan Cuts. The movie is currently streaming on Amazon Prime where available.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.