It would be easy to blame Dan Brown and his blockbuster novel and subsequent film The Da Vinci Code for the global obsession with conspiracy theories, but realistically there have been cloak and dagger stories almost as long as there has been people. We can certainly point to Brown’s books as being responsible for the flood of historical cover-up stories of the last half-decade, including Manabu Makime’s 2009 novel Princess Toyotomi (プリンセス トヨトミ) upon which this film is based. With its weighty assumptions and grand posturing, the genre is ripe for parody and in many ways, this is what the film version of Princess Toyotomi sets out to do.
Three elite officers of Japan’s National Audit Board head to Osaka to conduct their systematic review of expenditure of government money. Striking fear in the hearts of government officials everywhere, due to their status of being independent from the government, “Demon” Hajime Matsudaira (Shinichi Tsutsumi, Space Battleship Yamato), Tadako Torii (Haruka Ayase, Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror) and Asahi Gainsbourg (Masaki Okada, Life Back Then) are thorough in their search for irregularities. When a routine check of castle preservation society the H.R.H. Foundation leads to some unexplained occurrences, the group stand on the cusp of uncovering a 400 year-old secret that involves the entire city of Osaka.
Princess Toyotomi begins as a comedy of sorts, or at least a satire. Reading like a travelogue of the things to see in do in the city of Osaka, each of the character archetypes are present. The by-the-book experienced investigator, the straight-laced new recruit and the over-the-top young woman who eats like she has a bottomless pit in her belly. Here the film is at its most fun, with each new turn an excuse to see another of Osaka’s thrilling sights. The centrepiece of this is, of course, the magnificent Osaka Castle, which not only physically dominates the landscape throughout the film, but becomes central to its narrative as well. When the conspiracy element is finally introduced, the film takes a dramatic turn into Dan Brown territory, eschewing with the comic moments that worked so well in the setup. Once it is all long austere corridors, daddy issues and revolutionary Osakans, much of the charm of the film is gone. It remains a taut thriller, just a less engaging one.
While local Japanese audiences may find the idea of an independent Osakan state hilarious, if there is a grander humour to be had here it is missed by this Western critic. Indeed, many will simply find the film’s central conceit silly. There is also a bizarre subplot involving a cross-dressing schoolboy and the girl who protects him from the local bullies. Their misadventures act as a running joke in the background, like a B-story in a manga or anime series. While this story eventually ties into the main storyline, it seems on the surface as a desperate attempt to inject some humanity into the story. This is familiar stuff, to be sure, and is bound to leave most audiences flat.
Princess Toyotomi is playing at the Japanese Film Festival on 18 November (Sydney) and 1 December (Melbourne) 2011 at the 15th Japanese Film Festival in Australia.