Friday, May 18, 2012

Black Lizard (Kinji Fukasaku, 1969)

Look up the word "fabulous" in any dictionary, and you'll find a photo of me when I was sixteen (the year I discovered creepers and started to wear black socks with black shoes on a semi-regular basis), and a picture of Akihiro Miwa from Black Lizard (a.k.a. Kuro Tokage), the coolest Japanese spy thriller/camp comedy/transgendered love story to slither its way out of the festering sore that was the swinging sixties. It's rather obvious why someone like you would be associated with the word "fabulous" (you got that right, I'm exceedingly fabulous), but I was wondering if you could explain why you think Akihiro Miwa as the titular character from Kinji Fukasaku's ultra chic (yeah, that's right, it's "ultra" chic) mishegas is the definition of fabulous? Sure, I can do that. In fact, I just re-watched the film. In other words, I'm the ideal person to extol the many virtues of Akihiro Miwa in Black Lizard, as only the truly fabulous can really understand what it means to be fabulous. Exuding everything the word that rhymes with sabulous has come to represent the moment she appears onscreen, Akihiro's affected mannerisms and soothing temperament caused the needle on my camp detector (gauging your consciously artificial characteristics since the mid-1980s) to go haywire as a result of the pure, uncut campiness on display during the film's opening salvo; a psychedelic club sequence bursting with bright colours, but also bathed in darkness. A lesser drag queen would have been dwarfed by the sheer gaudiness of the nightclub; most wouldn't stand a chance up against the trippy artwork, kitschy production design, and the scantily clad go-go dancers. However, I think it's safe to say that Akihiro Miwa isn't your average drag queen. One of the best ways to judge the effectiveness of a drag performer is to watch how the non-drag queens react when they enter a room. And with all the distractions I just mentioned that are going on in this particular room, this drag queen is going to have to bring their A game. 

Entering a Bava-esque nightclub in Osaka, Japan with the a forceful yet dainty brand of aplomb, the Black Lizard (Akihiro Miwa) emerges from the valley of shadows and begins to sing the aptly titled "Song Of The Black Lizard" for her adoring fans. Holding a cigarette attached to a cigarette holder in her right hand, which, of course, is sheathed in a black opera glove (don't worry, her left hand is also sheathed in a black opera glove of equal length), the Black Lizard acknowledges the audience's applause while, at the same time, navigating a flight of stairs (on top of being a great singer, she's an excellent multitasker).
Approaching a detective named Akechi (Isao Kimura), the Black Lizard strikes up a conversation with the dapper gent. Realizing almost immediately that Akechi isn't your average detective, the Black Lizard unleashes a barrage of her trademark wit at the unsuspecting gumshoe. Declaring the evening to be, "a night made for crime," the Black Lizard slinks away. Remembering what she told him, Akechi tells Mr. Iwase, a rich business man, to "guard your daughter carefully," as there's rumour floating about that someone will kidnap her at midnight.
Meanwhile, the Black Lizard is having a friendly chat with Mr. Iwase's delicate daughter, Sanaye (Kikko Matsuoka), in her hotel room.  Discussing a wide array topics, the Black Lizard tells the young woman about her love of beauty, particularly a large jewel called the "Star of Egypt." Which, coincidentally, is a jewel that Sanaye's father happens to possess. Interesting.  I wonder if the Black Lizard is gonna use Sanaye as some kind of bargaining chip in order acquire the jewel through illegal means. Oh, wait a minute. It looks like one of the Black Lizard's henchmen has entered the room. And, holy crap! He's smothering Sanaye's face with a cloth that's been purposefully soaked in chloroform. So, I guess that answers that question. Removing her clothing, the henchman places her in a box, and before he closes the lid, the Black Lizard says, "She will make a lovely doll."
With a couple of hours to kill before midnight, the time the actual kidnapping is supposed to take place, the Black Lizard visits Akechi, who's supposedly guarding Sanaye in her hotel room. We already know that Sanaye's been kidnapped, so this adds a weird bit of tension to the scene where the Black Lizard and Akechi play cards and chat about crime. I liked how this scene was edited, in that, it mixes the sight of them playing cards (which is filmed through a glass table), close-ups of clocks ticking, and the occasional shot of a high speed train whizzing through the Japanese countryside to create this unnerving effect.
Like I said, we already know Sanaye has been kidnapped, but Akechi doesn't know that, or does he? Either way, part of the fun is watching the Black Lizard and Akechi's back and forth with one another as midnight approaches, as it oozes style and sophistication.
Even though she's successfully duped "Japan's number one detective," the Black Lizard finds herself under Akechi's suave spell. She even makes it official by uttering as a much to herself while dressed as a man, Oh, and the reason for gender change was because the authorities were looking for a woman in a slinky gown, not a man who looks like fashion model turned New Romantic chanteuse, Ronny combined with Steve Strange as he appeared in the music video for the song "Visage."
Don't ask me how they managed to botch the kidnapping, but Sanaye is safely back with her father in Tokyo in no time. If, however, you think the Black Lizard is going to stop trying to kidnap Sanaye, think again. That's right, break out the chloroform soaked rags, it's time to give it another go. Coded language; ornate sofas made from nishijin-ori brocades; Hina, the snake lady (Toshiko Kobayashi) posing as a maid; a severed hand; a group of Yakuza bodyguards (they swoop down the stairs in a manner that was reminiscent of the way some of the Crazy 88's navigated stairs in Kill Bill, Vol. 1), and, of course, a chloroform soaked rag are all employed in an elaborate rouse to get what they think is Sanaye out of the house.
Everyone is in love with the Black Lizard. Her bodyguards, her henchmen, and even her adversaries are all under her enchanting spell at some level or another. And why wouldn't they be? She's an amazing human being. Actually, one of her henchmen, Junichi (Yûsuke Kawazu), is so in love with her, that he is willing to betray her in the hope that it will allow him to be close to her. Huh? You see, the Black Lizard turns her enemies into dolls (some with downy hair), which she keeps on display at the museum located in her secret lair. Stay with me. And every once and awhile, the Black Lizard will kiss and caress her dolls in an affectionate manner. Which, from Junichi's warped perspective, is the only way to be close to her. Whew! That wasn't as hard to explain as I thought it would be.
Speaking of explaining stuff, the scene where Juichi explains his bizarre plan to Sanaye was my favourite non-Miwa scene, as it features the line, "Our counterfeit love is destined to take on the form of true love."  
The living embodiment of fabulousness, Akihiro Miwa is a force of campy nature as the stylish jewel thief/cabaret singer. Sure, it's true, the weapons in her arsenal might not sound that fierce: frilly shirts, cigarette holders, gowns with fifteen foot trains, and opera gloves. But her poetic approach to villainy is quite the sight to behold. You really get the sense that the Black Lizard enjoys being evil, and those whose job it is to stop her can't help but admire her enthusiasm. If you think about it, the Black Lizard makes Akechi a better detective. And, in the grand scheme of things, you have to give it up to those who make us strive to improve ourselves.

uploaded by Fountainheadz


  1. Funny timing. I was just reading the original story for this film.

    This is a wonderful film. The screenplay was written by Mishima Yukio (三島由紀夫), who stars alongside Miwa Akihiro (美輪明宏), as well. They were quite the item back then. It was probably Mishima's celebrity and pull with the producers that got his boyfriend the part. But that is just speculation on my part. If you haven't looked up Mishima's life, then please do so. He was even more fabulous than Miwa, and definitely one of the finest writers of the 20th century.

    As for Miwa, I've seen lots of him on television when living in Japan. He still shows up on daytime talk shows, always looking perfectly coiffed. Here is a compilation album of his singing. Mostly in the enka (modern folksong) style:

    Director Fukasaku really had a flair for the wonky. Its especially interesting to contrast this with his 1970s yakuza film series 仁義なき戦い (Jingi naki tataki, "Battles without honor and humanity"), which were hyper-real and extremely grimy. No camp, fun, or idealization of the gang warfare that tore apart Hiroshima following the total defeat in 1945.

    Finally, the whole thing is based on 黒蜥蝪 ("The Black Lizard"), which although famous, is really one of Edogawa Ranpo's (江戸川乱歩) lesser works. Being familiar with the story, I can understand how it translated so nicely to cinema. Edogawa was the master of both detective fiction and the エログロ (ero guro, "Erotic Grotesque") genre in 20th century Japan. Lots of his more famous stories have been translated to film, some more successfully than others. I'd recommend Ishii Teruo's (石井輝男) 1969 masterwork 恐怖奇形人間 (usually translated as "Horrors of Malformed Men", which works ok) as a primer. Its mostly based on his long novella 孤島の鬼 (Kotou no oni, "Demon of the Lonely Island", no English translation available now, I think), but also borrows from the famous story パノラマ島奇談 ("Strange Tale of Panorama Island") and several other of his short stories. Its condenses a lot of his themes and aesthetics into one gushy ball of grotesque intellectual boner fuel. It also stars Hijikata Tatsumi (土方巽), one of the founder of Ankoku butoh (暗黒舞踏), the "Dance of Darkness" in a major role. So the entire proceedings play out like a butoh performance. Its fucking awesome.

  2. Dang! You know, that's a lot of info to digest. I deserve to suffer "The Devil's Punishment" for my ignorance. ;)

    Oh, and, yes, I did read about Mishima Yukio's life. Wild, wild stuff.

  3. Maybe not "The Devil's Punishment", but definitely a firm swatting on your Canadian behind.

    Sorry if I went overboard. I'm doing research on Edogawa Ranpo right now, so it was good timing. I actually don't know much about modern literature, since my main work is in medieval Japanese performance and religion. Honestly, I'm just trying to survive my PhD, and come to your blog to read about female leg accoutrements and unwind.