Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest, most memorable, and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that leave a lasting impression on the viewer’s mind.
A murder most foul, mom issues, and a play within a play. Seijun Suzuki’s 1961 action film Tokyo Knights is a 60’s era twist on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet with all the style, fun, and color of the era. Despite the film’s inclusion of the more tragic elements of Hamlet, there are also very silly scenes and characters with a screwball comedy feel. Suzuki’s Tokyo Knights has secrets and treachery, but it also has a wacky American teacher, oddball students who attend a school with very low standards, and a charming leading man with too much responsibility. Tokyo Knights is also very musical without being musical. The film, like the protagonist, will cater to all tastes.
Kôji Wada plays Koji Matsubara, a college student who, like Prince Hamlet, has been called home from school in America to attend his father’s funeral. His father was not the King of Denmark, but he was the leader of the Matsubara crime syndicate, rivals to the Tokutake syndicate. Tokyo Knights begins with young Koji’s ceremony welcoming him as the new head of the organization. He is clearly overwhelmed and not prepared for the task, but he is good natured and goes along with it.
We find out that he is no stranger to pressure. At his new school in Japan he is quickly the most sought after student as his talent in rugby, fencing, and music surpasses that of his classmates. He is kind of like Max Fisher in Rushmore except his classmates love him. The school scenes are wonderfully funny and show who Koji really is as a regular college student as he rocks out on the piano and makes loyal friends.
While there is an abundance of wackiness at the school, there are a lot of serious issues happening at home. His mother is pursued by Mr. Mishima, a colleague of his father’s, thought to be loyal to the Matsubara syndicate, but is he? If you know Hamlet, you can see how Mr. Mishima falls into the role of Claudius. Did Mr. Mishima sell out the elder Matsubara for personal gain? Koji seems to think so because he has just arrived and knows something is up. Using his father’s love of Noh theater, Koji uses his musical and theatrical talents to get some answers about his father’s death.
Despite the drama, the tone of the film is very upbeat. The music is fun and jazzy and makes you want to drink martinis and wear big earrings with silver eyeshadow. The film is stylish, colorful, and full of fast talking characters who are all too smart for their own good. While Koji is a hero who stands up for what’s right, another enjoyable aspect of this film is that he also befriends people who are also brave in their own right. The American music teacher who had just about given up on teaching had his faith renewed when Koji joined the band. This prompts the teacher to stand up to the headmistress when she tries to expel Koji after the entire school gets into a rumble with gangsters who show up at the wrong school to wreak havoc.
Tokyo Nights is the perfect blend of story, character development, drama, and comedy. It is a fun movie you should watch when you just want to enjoy some action with Shakespearean elements. Watch it while holding a skull in your hand and reciting the lyrics to “Mack the Knife”.
Like what we do here at AIPT? Consider supporting us and independent comics journalism by becoming a patron today! In addition to our sincere thanks, you can browse AIPT ad-free, gain access to our vibrant Discord community of patrons and staff members, get trade paperbacks sent to your house every month, and a lot more. Click the button below to get started!