Credit: Japan Society
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film

The Legend & Butterfly — Keishi Otomo [Japan Cuts ’23 Review]

August 3, 2023

Repentance is good. At least, it is under certain conditions: it must be clear, sincere, and selfless. Most importantly, while it is always good for the morally at fault to repent, their victims can never be made to forgive their assailant. The Legend & Butterfly, the new film from director Keishi Otomo (Rurouni Kenshin), apparently didn’t get the memo that it’s ineffective artistry to rhetorically force forgiveness without first meriting it.

The film tells the life story of Oda Nobunaga (Takuya Kimura), a man often credited as one of the great unifiers of Japan — and a man in desperate need of repentance. This is no historical epic, though: it’s a historical romance, even if there is never a minute of convincing passion in the entire film. Oda’s wife, Nohime (Haruka Ayase), works from a storytelling perspective as a paragon for Oda’s countless victims of war, and she endures a good deal of his ruthlessness and perpetual misogyny before deciding to ask for a divorce decades into their marriage.

“I’ll kill until no one can oppose me,” Oda claims without a shred of dignity at one point. And kill he does — as daimyō, he defends, conquers, defends, and conquers land in cycles, though the action is trivial in the face of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime. His bloodlust quells any passion between him and Nohime, which is a problem when the story is framed through the guise of a romance, and she is not compelling enough to carry it on her own. Haruka is excellent in the role, always giving just the right amount of emotion for each scene and never over- or under-selling the part; but her abilities are limited by the domestically-oriented script and distinct lack of chemistry with Keishi.

Nohime is only ever defined against masculinity — The Legend and Butterfly; her father, then her husband; she’s a good military tactician despite being a woman — and that inevitably dries out. It’s also never really clear what she saw in the abusive and chauvinist Oda in the first place. Apparently she saw something though: after one run of countryside violence (which she aids her husband in), the two share the longest kiss of the film, with the blood of their victims painted on their cheeks, mixing together as they lock lips. Nothing really turns one on like murdering some villagers, the film would seem to say.

It comes with great irony that the most beautiful scene in the entire film — a loveless romance with an iniquitous man at its center — is of the couple’s end. As dozens of candles surround Oda against the dark night sky while Christian hymns play, Nohime finally asks for a divorce. A brief moment of silence passes with both parties caught in a candle glow, one of the rare noticeable sources of diegetic light in the entire film, before a contemplative Oda grants her request. It’s a scene of pained performance from both leads, and arguably The Legend & Butterfly’s most visually interesting composition. Of course, their separation doesn’t last a lifetime, and the two eventually end up back together. Regardless of whether Nohime ends up forgiving the “legend,” Otomo and screenwriter Ryōta Kosawa can’t force their audience to make the same choice.

The Legend & Butterfly isn’t a film shorn of merit. The production quality is outstanding, and the makeup and costumes are both exceptional… even if (as these things go) only the man seems to age as the 30-odd years pass. At the end of the day, however, one wonders if this would have been better off without the guise and structure of a romance. The legendary Oda ends up being too unbelievable as a loveable and desirable romantic partner, which makes his narrative a tough sell, while also having the effect of brushing away weightier problems like, say, how he earned the nickname “Demon King.” The romance trivializes the violence, and the violence bores the romance; and unlike something more ambitious, like Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, The Legend & Butterfly valorizes its protagonist too much to work outside of the genre standards it all too eagerly adheres to.