An effortlessly stylish, twisty and entertaining gothic suspense. This kitsch avant-garde masterpiece from Japanese auteur Kinji Fukasaku, starring female impersonator Akihiro Miwa, has to be seen to be believed!
Based on play adapted by the famous author Yukio Mishima from the serialised novel by Edogawa Ranpo (who took his pen name inspiration and many of his gothic motifs from Edgar Allen Poe), Black Lizard (黒蜥蜴 kurotokage) is an engaging and unusual thriller. Mishima’s dialogue adds weight and sometimes poetic verbosity to the story.
The opening scene draws you in immediately as we follow the camera through a set of mysterious doors and into a flashy disco scene, body painted dancers interspersed with colourfully lit Aubrey Beardsley inspired drawings.
The camera pans away from the revelry to focus on Ranpo’s famous detective, Akechi Kogoro (played by Isao Kimura), who explains in voiceover that he has been drawn to this secret club by an extravagant crime.
Then all the flashing lights abruptly stop, the room goes black and the enigmatic titular Black Lizard (female impersonator and singer Akihiro Miwa, here credited under his real name Akihiro Maruyama) steps out of the darkness, dressed all in black. Miwa’s pale visage seems to float- rich voice providing a haunting opening song. What unfolds involves a plot to steal a valuable diamond called the Star of Egypt- by kidnapping and ransoming the completely guileless Sanae (always in white, played by Kikko Matsuoka), the daughter of a jeweller (Junya Usami).
The rest of the film switches smoothly between bold kitsch and gothic darkness to reflect the characters and events in each scene beautifully. The camera work and direction in this film enhance the action on screen and are never at the expense of the story. The film cuts quickly between detective Akechi and the Black Lizard, making it not so much a whodunit but more a how-will-they-do-it, as the viewer is gradually fed hints as to the true nature of the crimes. This is finally made clear in the intense last 20 minutes, played out in the Black Lizard’s visually stunning lair. There is even an appearance from Yukio Mishima, showing off his muscles in a short cameo!
Many of the film’s best scenes depict the tense cat and mouse confrontations between Black Lizard and Akechi, each trying to outwit and test the other. Miwa’s flamboyant yet deadly and conniving portrayal is perfectly matched by Isao’s serious and stoic Akechi. These scenes are rendered claustrophobic due to the low lighting and overhead shots in which the furniture seems almost to imprison them. The Black Lizard and Akechi are nearly almost in the same frame in their scenes together- with one in the foreground and the other in the background- underlining the inevitable connection that develops between the criminal and the detective.
Black Lizard is directed by Kinji Fukasaku (best known for his final film, Battle Royale, in the west). Its kitsch moments are balanced out by some short, sharp fight scenes and one particularly gruesome killing (foreshadowing the gritty yakuza films Fukasaku would go on to make in the early 70s). The soundtrack is sometimes a little too overpowering in some of the dialogue heavy scenes it is used in, but most of the time it enhances the film’s atmosphere well.
Overall, Fukasaku, Mishima and the actors involved do a great job of bringing to life the decadent, gothic, bizarre and grotesque elements of Edogawa Ranpo’s work. Black Lizard is an unusual, engrossing, and well paced movie that never loses its momentum.
Unfortunately, the last release of this film seems to be a 1993 VHS produced by Cinevista. There isn’t even a Japanese DVD! A great shame as it is a wonderful example of 1960s avant-garde Japanese filmmaking. Hopefully Criterion can give it a revival someday.
Fukasaku did make another film with Akihiro Miwa- a slower paced thematic sequel of sorts called Black Rose Mansion. Though not quite as good as Black Lizard, it is a decent film and is available on DVD.