A historical epic detailing the relationship between Nobunaga Oda (Takuya Kimura) and his wife Nohime (Haruka Ayase). Oda is a figure who looms large over Japan’s warring states period, one of the most recognizable names of the time with a reputation as a ferocious military commander. “The Legend and Butterfly” begins with the lord as a young man; immature, inexperienced, and spoiled by his position. He is married to the daughter of a neighbouring lord in an attempt to broker a truce between their two regions. The woman, Nohime, is more than a match for the precocious young man; fiercely intelligent and beautiful there is a suggestion she has been sent there as an assassin by her father. Despite a mutual distrust and even hatred between the two, as the years go by they learn to work together and come to love one another, with Oda’s victories in part due to the tactical brilliance of Nohime. The film spans several decades and documents Oda’s rise to great power, becoming the recognizable warlord of historical record.
Little is known of Nohime and Nobunaga Oda’s relationship and writer Ryota Kosawa therefore takes certain liberties with their story. It is exciting to see the characterisations of these historical figures and both Takuya Kimura and Haruka Ayase give moving performances with great chemistry together. It is far from a traditional love story, even with the film-maker’s attempts to make things more romantic and fitting to modern sensibilities. Instead the film retains a sense of reality in showing that these matches were often more political alliances than passionate affairs. The fantastic production value is evidenced in everything from the large casts and sets, the colourful costumes that bring the period to vivid life, and the occasional action sequences (director Keishi Otomo previously worked on the Rurouni Kenshin series and his skill as an action director shows here). Naoki Sato’s score further adds to this sense of a lavish epic. The main failing of the film is in a lack of a unifying narrative; told over such a long period it often feels more like a beautifully rendered docu-drama than a love-story or historical epic. There are many spectacular sequences, but they feel a little disjointed. The story of Oda and Nohime is interesting, but the subtlety of their relationship and adherence to historical accuracy (they are often apart and moments of romance between them are sparse) may leave some viewers cold, especially if you are expecting something more melodramatic. The second strand to the story, that of Oda’s transformation from an inept young lord to the fearsome and merciless commander, is likewise interesting, but often omits the why and how of him becoming this dispassionate leader. In attempting to balance these two strands the film falls somewhere between an out-and-out romance and historical action film. Early on we see a hint that perhaps the relationship between the two will have some relevance to how his military career developed, but this connection becomes more tenuous as the film progresses.
“The Legend and Butterfly” is an impressive historical epic, with incredible set-piece moments and two standout performances from its leads. The tragedy of both characters seems to be the time in which they were born. Both express an interest in foreign musicians they see at a fair, and in a dream sequence towards the end of the film, Oda imagines a possible alternate future for the two where they set sail from Japan to travel together as a peaceful, loving couple. In other ages this might have been possible, but their fates were set by being born in a militaristic society that prided prowess in battle above all else and often denigrated women to the role of child-bearers. The unconventional story, awkwardly balancing facts with a more romanticised fiction, can seem strange at times, but there is so much to enjoy here, from the fantastic sets and costumes, excellently choreographed fight-sequences, and two stand-out performances from the charismatic leads.