Superhero shenanigans are dished up with style in the rollicking adventure yarn "K-20: Legend of the Mask," based on longtime Japanese literary favorites reinvented for a popular '80s manga.

Superhero shenanigans are dished up with style in the rollicking adventure yarn “K-20: Legend of the Mask,” based on longtime Japanese literary favorites reinvented for a popular ’80s manga. Seasoned thesps go along for the ride in the lightweight but absorbing tale, helped by outstanding special effects and a bountiful budget. Pic opened pre-Christmas to respectable but still disappointing local biz, which could possibly kibosh its prospects as a franchise. But the current superhero fad, and the international profile of star Takeshi Kaneshiro, should rescue some profits from the fanboy ancillary market.

Japanese title is the abbreviated name of a Professor-Moriarty-cum-Irma-Vep-like thief known as the fiend with 20 faces. Story is set in an alternate post-WWII universe where imperialist Japan’s regal families are far removed from the plight of a sprawling underclass that struggles in poverty.

In the capital, the government is plagued by a prankster villain known as K-20 (Kaijin Nijumenso-den). Pic opens with the masked man’s theft of a prototype device owned by Hashiba Corp. that transmits electrical energy without wires.

Among the lower classes, Heikichi Endo (Kaneshiro) is an adroit circus acrobat with an amusing sideline in magic tricks. Backstage one night, a scar-faced rep from a gossip magazine (Takashi Kaga, from cult TV cooking show “Iron Chef”) hires Heikichi to take photos of the celebrity wedding of K-20′s longtime nemesis, Det. Kogoro Akechi (Toru Nakamura), and corporation heiress Yoko Hashiba (Takako Matsu). But the assignment is a setup, and fall guy Heikichi is erroneously arrested as the man behind K-20′s mask.

Protesting his guilt, Heikichi escapes from police custody with the help of some circus buddies lead by aging, William Demarest-like technical whiz Genji (Jun Kunimura). Using his physical prowess, Genji’s gadgets and a handy-dandy book of disguise techniques, Heikichi aims to clear his name by catching K-20 himself.

Narrative is a tad tardy as it works to its conclusion, though a jaw-dropping climactic battle between Heikichi and the real K-20 atop a skyscraper is a winning combo of two parkour doubles and impressive visual effects by Kiyoko Shibuya. (Effects guru Takashi Yamazaki, who recreated an authentic postwar Tokyo for the “Always” franchise, receives a separate credit for vfx supervision.)

Never taking itself too seriously, the script allows the cast plenty of latitude. Matsu, especially, shows off the comedy chops she previously demonstrated in the Billy Wilder-like “Suite Dreams” (2006).

In contrast, pan-Asian heartthrob Kaneshiro shows a handsome blandness that’s more Michael Keaton’s serious Bruce Wayne than Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic Tony Stark. Supports, particularly the dry Kunimura, offer a solid base.

The division of duties between U.K. film school-trained helmer Shimako Sato (TV cop show “Unfair”) and her team of action and special effects directors is not entirely clear, but the overall package is seamless. Lensing by Kozo Shibasaki uses the widescreen frame to full advantage, and the rousing score by Naoki Sato is nobly rambunctious in the movie superhero tradition.

K-20 and Det. Akechi characters are revamps of 1920s creations by Japanese crime writer Edogawa Rampo, but the script sets up the possibility of sequels that could go in a completely new direction.

K-20: Legend of the Mask

Japan

Production

A Robot Communications presentation of a Nippon Television Network, ROBOT, VAP, Toho, Dentsu, Shogakukan, YTV the Yomiuri Shimbun, Shirogumi Imagica production. (International sales: Nippon Television, Tokyo.) Produced by Chikahiro Ando, Takaya Kurata, Kazuyoshi Ishida. Executive producers, Shuji Abe, Seiji Okuda. Directed, written by Shimako Sato, based on the manga "Kaijin nijumensu-den" by Soh Kitamura.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Kozo Shibasaki; editor, Ryuji Miyajima; music, Naoki Sato; production designer, Anri Jojo; sound (Dolby Digital), Hitoshi Tsurumaki; visual effects supervisor, Takashi Yamazaki; action directors, Makoto Yokoyama, Tatsuro Koike. Reviewed on DVD, Ichikawa City, Japan, Jan. 3, 2009. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival.) Running time: 137 MIN.

With

Takeshi Kaneshiro, Takako Matsu, Toru Nakamura, Jun Kunimura, Reiko Takashima, Takeshi Kaga.

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