The decadent world of the Black Lizard

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Akihiro Miwa and Yukio Mishima on stage together in the ’60s

“Ever since I first met him here, I’ve dreamt about Akechi. A vain man who acts like a critic. When his face appears in my dreams it disturbs me. I’ve never before had such an experience. He looks as if he knew and understood everything. His eyes! His lips! He obstructs my dream. He pursues its form. He’ll eventually become the dream itself.”
– Black Lizard

Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku made two of my favorite films of 1968. Blackmail is My Life (aka Kyokatsu koso Waga Jinsei) and Black Lizard (aka Kurotokage). My deep affection for the Black Lizard was made public when it landed in my list of 25 Favorite Foreign Language Films that I compiled last year. At that time I mentioned that I wanted to write more about Fukasaku’s film and after watching it again recently I thought It was time to finally share some of my thoughts about this fascinating and extremely entertaining movie that always manages to find its way onto any list of “Favorite Films” that I compile.

Black Lizard (1968)

Black Lizard (1968)

Black Lizard (1968)

Black Lizard opens with a detective named Akechi Kogoro (Isao Kimura) following his friend into a private night club hidden in a maze of Tokyo alleyways. As the two men silently descend into its depths the camera scans the club walls and occasionally focuses on large reproductions of Aubrey Beardsley’s art for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which are lit by colorful florescent lights that seem to flicker and bounce across the screen. When the men finally reach the main entrance of the club, the doors burst wide open and they’re greeted by nude girls covered in body paint who dance wildly to the sound of psychedelic rock and carefree laughter. Numerous couples can also be seen throughout the club engaging in erotic play while consuming vast quantities of booze. Detective Akechi makes his way to the bar to order a drink and while it’s being poured he wonders aloud why he has followed his friend into this strange place. As he contemplates the evening and makes mental notes of future events that will soon consume him, the club suddenly goes dark and silent. Out of the shadows steps a beautiful woman (Akihiro Maruyama aka Akihiro Miwa) cradling a long cigarette holder in one hand while she surveys the room with her hungry eyes. When she finally slinks up to bar and strikes up a conversation with the befuddled detective it’s clear that she is no ordinary woman and this is no ordinary nightclub. Detective Akechi has entered the decadent world of the Black Lizard where nothing is true and everything is permitted.

Kinji Fukasaku’s film follows the exploits of a criminal mastermind known as Mrs. Midorikaw aka “The Black Lizard” and her gang of outcasts that include a hunchbacked confidant, a dwarf and a murderous snake-eyed woman. The Black Lizard likes to collect beautiful jewels as well as beautiful people who she kills and then displays like dolls in her hidden island lair. The Black Lizard is obsessed with a priceless diamond known as the Star of Egypt and plans to steal it from a world-class jeweler as well as kidnap the jeweler’s beautiful young daughter so the girl can be turned into a lifeless “doll” for her trophy collection. Unfortunately a wrench is thrown into the Black Lizard’s plans when Detective Akechi arrives on the scene. Over the course of the film the beautiful criminal and brilliant detective play an erotically charged cat-and-mouse game that will leave one of them dead and the other heartbroken.

Black Lizard (1968)

Black Lizard (1968)

Black Lizard is based on a stage play written by the acclaimed and controversial Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Mishima adapted his play from an original story by the renowned mystery and horror author Edgowa Rampo that was first published in 1934. Many of Rampo’s original story elements and basic plot points can be found in the script for Black Lizard, but Mishima injected his adaptation with a romantic decadence and homoeroticism that was clearly his own creation. Yukio Mishima often found inspiration in the writing of British authors such as Oscar Wilde who was part of Britain’s Aesthetic Movement and many of the themes found in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray reoccur in Mishima’s own work again and again. Mishima’s script for Black Lizard is really an extravagant showcase for many of his favorite themes including sadism, martyrdom, unrequited love and an obsession with beauty and death, which are also popular motifs found in the art and literature of the Aesthetic Movement.

During his lifetime Yukio Mishima wrote many highly acclaimed Kabuki plays and modern versions of classic Noh dramas. The structure, style, depth and melodramatic tone of traditional Japanese theater is also echoed in his script for Black Lizard. Characters often speak their dialogue with a poetic rhythm while using dramatic gestures to signify what they’re feeling. And the elaborate sets used in the film are staged and lit in a way that resembles modern theater with a distinctive pop art sensibility. It’s also important to note that Japanese Noh drama is performed entirely by men who wear masks to portray female characters and in Kubuki plays the female roles are frequently performed by male actors. Although Yukio Mishima’s stage adaptation of Black Lizard often starred female actresses, Mishima thought that the cross-dressing male actor Akihiro Miwa was the only performer who was able to fully inhabit the role of Mrs. Midorikaw / the Black Lizard.

Mishima’s play was undoubtedly also influenced by classic literature and poetry that emerged from the Shudō (homosexual) tradition among samurai warriors in medieval Japan who Mishima greatly admired. These tragic and melodramatic tales often focus on unrequited love, erotic obsessions and the romantic lives of the warrior class. Naturally these stories occasionally ended with the death of a samurai who takes his own life during a ritual suicide, which is referred to as “seppuku” within the bushido code.

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Akihiro Miwa

Akihiro Miwa and Yukio Mishima first met in 1952 when Miwa was a young hostess working at a coffee bar in Tokyo where gay intellectuals and artists would often gather. The two became very close and while Mishima was gaining attention and recognition in Japan as one of the country’s greatest writers, Akihiro Miwa was making a name for himself as a popular cabaret singer and stage actor. Over the years Akihiro Miwa has made different claims about the seriousness and nature of his relationship with Yukio Mishima, which were probably influenced by his respect for Mishima’s family. The author’s family attempted to deny Yukio Mishima’s homosexuality after his death, but it now seems to be common knowledge that Akihiro Miwa and the legendary author were long-time lovers.

Film director Kinji Fukusuka was a fan of Yukio Mishima’s work and after seeing the play performed by Akihiro Miwa he asked Mishima and Miwa if they would be interested in collaborating on a film version of the play with him. Thankfully they agreed and the two apparently worked rather closely together with Kinji Fukasaku on the 1968 film adaptation of Black Lizard. Although background information about the film’s production is rather scarce, I suspect that Mishima must have had some influence over the film’s look and impressive set design. I also believe that Akihiro Miwa worked closely with the costume designer and celebrated manga artist Masako Watanabe to create his wardrobe for the film.

Yukio Mishima’s script for Black Lizard was first filmed as a musical in 1962 by director Umetsugu Inoue who’s probably most well-known for the colorful musicals he made with the Shaw Brothers (Hong Kong Nocturne, Hong Kong Rhapsody, etc.). I haven’t had the opportunity to see Umetsugu Inoue’s version of Black Lizard but I have seen clips and still shots from the production and by all indications, it looks like it’s an amazing movie. Information about Umetsugu Inoue’s film adaptation of Black Lizard is almost nonexistent but I suspect that Mishima generally preferred Kinji Fukasaku’s adaptation of the film since the writer was much more confident about his creative ideas and world view in 1968. Naturally that confidence transfers into his film collaboration with Fukasaku. This is reinforced by Mishima’s brief role in the 1968 film playing a violent man that the Black Lizard kills and turns into one of his favorite “dolls.” Yukio Mishima did not appear in the 1962 film version of Black Lizard and he seemed to distance himself from Umetsugu Inoue’s film adaptation of his play over time.

Black Lizard (1968)

Black Lizard (1968)

These days Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard is often referred to as a “camp classic” by critics who don’t seem to fully grasp or appreciate Yukio Mishima’s creative aesthetic and intellectual influences, which are clearly evident in Fukasaku’s film. Black Lizard does contain occasional moments of black humor but there really isn’t anything overtly funny about the film and the humor comes from how individual viewers interpret it. The humorous aspects of Black Lizard are obviously exaggerated by modern audience’s propensity towards irony and by critics who find it impossible to take a male actor playing a female role seriously, even when that actor is someone as beautiful and talented as Akihiro Miwa. But the Black Lizard is actually played completely straightforward for dramatic effect. Besides the over-the-top action and suspense, the real focus of this entertaining film is the romantic tension between Detective Akechi and the Black Lizard, which is celebrated by Mishima’s flowery prose. No effort is made by the actors to acknowledge that Akihiro Miwa is male but there is a wonderful scene where the character changes into a man’s suit to escape detection. While Miwa is admiring his appearance in a mirror he smiles at himself and proclaims that he has “no true identity.” In turn the audience is forced to come to their own conclusions about the Black Lizard’s sexual identity, which remains fluid throughout the film.

The Black Lizard contains a lot of wonderful moments that are well worth highlighting. After the impressive club scene that opens the movie, Detective Akechi finds himself in a “medical college dissecting room” investigating the suicide of a troubled musician whose body as been stolen. The detective discovers a dead “black lizard” (the criminal’s calling card) next to a large tub filled with corpses that bob in and out of the dark water. The moment is both shocking and visually striking. In some ways it also foreshadows what the future holds for the detective as well as the Black Lizard. Another one of my favorite scenes involves a lengthy card game played between the Black Lizard and Detective Akechi. Director Kinji Fukasaku shot the scene from an upward angle through a glass table and the effect is impressive. The scene between the two actors is similar to a moment in Norman Jewison’s film The Thomas Crown Affair when Steve McQueen and Fay Dunaway engage in a game of chess that is filled with sexual tension. Black Lizard also features some great action sequences including a memorable car chase that is interrupted by a motorcycle gang who shoot colorful smoke from the back of their bikes to obstruct the view of the police behind them. Like many of the scenes in this captivating film, it has a surreal quality and seems as if it’s taken straight out of a Tokusatsu production or manga story.

Black Lizard (1968)

Black Lizard (1968)

Black Lizard (1968)

Kinji Fukasaku’s film was a minor hit with Japanese audiences and critics when it debuted in 1968, but the movie didn’t find an international audience until its revival at Chicago’s Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival in 1985. The film began to gain a small but devoted cult following when it was released on video by Cinevista Inc. in 1992 and subsequently the film has been shown at various other venues across the country. Unfortunately Black Lizard has never been released on DVD and it is possible that Yukio Mishima’s family is partially responsible for the film’s limited distribution. I wrote a letter to Criterion about five years ago asking them if they would consider releasing the film on DVD but I never got a reply. With their recent DVD releases of Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism (1966) and Paul Scharder’s biographical film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), I can only hope that Criterion will consider releasing Black Lizard in the near future and give this important and entertaining film the special attention it rightfully deserves.

A year after the release of Black Lizard Kinji Fukasaku followed up its success with an imaginative sequel called Black Rose Mansion (aka Kuro bara no yakata), which also featured a script by Yukio Mishima. Akihiro Miwa once again has the starring role in this production as a tragic figure named Ryuko. Many of the themes found in Black Lizard are carried over into the sequel, but Black Rose Mansion is a much more melancholy film with gothic overtones and very little action. It some ways it seems to reflect the sullen mood of Yukio Mishima at the time. Black Rose Mansion was the last film adaptation of Mishima’s work before his death. The following year the author would commit seppuku in a very public ritual suicide leaving his lover Akihiro Miwa to mourn his death alone.

If you’d like to see more images from the Black Lizard you can find them in my Black Lizard Flickr Gallery.

16 thoughts on “The decadent world of the Black Lizard

  1. Keith says:

    Hey Kimberly. Wow! What a great write-up. This film sounds amazing. It’s a shame it’s not on DVD. This would definitely be a wonderful film to see. I totally understand why you love it so much. Love this blog post.

  2. cinebeats says:

    Thanks Keith! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It took me awhile to write since the film is a favorite and I wanted to touch on aspects of it that I haven’t seen other writers or critics discuss. I could go on forever and probably end up with a book about this film since it has a lot of depths that are fun to explore and it’s a favorite.

    I’ve been interested in Mishima’s work for a very long time so I enjoy writing about it a lot.

    I’m also a huge fan of Akihiro Miwa! One of my greatest regrets was not seeing Miwa perform when I was in Tokyo in 2005. I was staying at a hotel and across the street at a much swankier hotel they were advertising a Christmas concert and live performance by Miwa. I really wanted to see it but I was scheduled to leave Tokyo a week earlier. I actually looked into changing my flight and staying a bit longer so I could see his show (I also didn’t want to leave Japan!) but during the Christmas season Tokyo is overrun by local tourists and visitors who all come to the city to shop and spend time with family. Naturally hotel prices and flight costs go through the roof during that time and I just couldn’t afford to extend my trip any longer.

  3. harris says:

    Thanks for the terrific overview of this great film. I first saw it when the VHS first appeared years ago, and have been eagerly awaiting a DVD release so I can see it again. It’s funny, but back then it all but impossible to find a copy of Seijun Suzuki’s “Tokyo Drifter,” now that Suzuki’s films are more available, this one has disappeared. Well, actually, it’s not that funny, or interesting, but at least it’s true, so that’s something. And as long as I’m babbling inanely about stylish late 1960s Japanese cinema, how about a DVD of Toshio Masuda’s “Velvet Huslter”?

  4. cinebeats says:

    Thanks Harris! It is pretty amazing how many previously hard to see Japanese films have been released on DVD from Criterion but there is still so many more great movies I’d like to see them release too. They’ve done a pretty good job of making Suzuki’s filmography more readily available to westerners but there are still lots of Suzuki films I’d love to see released on DVD. Toshio Masuda (director of the excellent Velvet Hustler) is another director who made a lot of films but almost none of them are available on DVD, which seems strange to me. I’d love to see the release of Black Lizard from Criterion with a lots of extras. Since Miwa is still alive I’m sure he could provide some interesting background information on the fim.

    I heard a rumor months ago that Criterion would be releasing a batch of Japanese crime films from the ’60s so I hope they follow through with that! Maybe The Velvet Hustler will be one of them? It’s funny but I just watched that film again recently so maybe I’ll write about it soon.

  5. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for the info Peter! For the last 3 or 4 months I haven’t been able to keep up with all the new DVD releases but as soon as the election is over I hope to start up my “DVD Pick of the Week” again.

    I really like An Actor’s Revenge but I’m surprised about the title change. I wonder why they did that? It’s rather annoying to have American distributors always changing the titles of foreign films when they release them here.

  6. Kris says:

    Dear Cinebeats,
    What a great introduction to the world of the Black Lizard !
    Anyway thanks to you, I learnt about Aubrey Beardsley.
    I really admire his arts…
    Cheers,
    Kris

  7. cinebeats says:

    Hi Kris! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and were able to learn something new. Beardsley was an amazing talent and I’m very fond of his work myself.

  8. Robert H. says:

    I saw BLACK LIZARD in SF in the early 90’s (at either The Castro or The Red Vic… memory is fuzzy as to which theatre, since I frequented both often) and that kicked off my appreciation of Fukasaku (the guy who did THE GREEN SLIME made this?!!). I also hope that this will eventually make it to DVD for more people to discover its charms.

  9. Bill says:

    I dropped by for a visit and see long articles I will have to read shortly. Great to see some material on writer Yukio Mishima here. You had some pictures earlier, one from the excellent Paul Schrader film. I skimmed the essays and they look informative, seriously researched and written. I hope my writing style can develop in a manner such as this with a little more practice.

    Your site has become one of my favorites lately and I will sit back with a black coffee one afternoon and check out your archives. Good work!

  10. cinebeats says:

    Robert – We probably saw the film for the first time right around the same time. It kicked off my appreciation for Fukasaku as well since before seeing this I wasn’t all that familiar with his work. Hopefully it will get a DVD release soon!

    Bill – Thanks a lot for the generous compliment! I hope you enjoying exploring my blog archives in the future.

  11. andre says:

    I still have not seen this. ( we really need a proper dvd release ). but I am a huge fan of Black Rose Mansion, which was my intro to Akihiro Miwa.
    i was wondering, when you say there are few sources available on these works, if you have been checking in English or Japanese. I am not fluent in Japanese, so I have been unable to check for production history or info on these films, but I would suspect there may be quite a lot of it in Japanese ( maybe it would require a trip to a film-oriented library in Japan, like the equivalent of UCLA’s library, or the Academy library here), considering the stature of Mishima – not to mention Fukasaku, who was president of Japan’s Director’s Guild – and not discounting Miwa’s lasting celebrity.
    I would like to see Miwa in person too. It’s one of those living-legend type things – people I feel I should see in my/their lifetime.
    My gf tells me that Miwa nowadays proclaims to be some kind of psychic medium who is able to read people’s auras. She has also performed as a voice actor in several of Miyazaki’s films.
    There seems to have been an interesting cross-section of artists collaborating in Japan in the late 60s/70s. I spotted Miwa in Terayama Shuji’s THrow Away Your books, Rally in the Streets. It would be cool if somebody with the resources of a Criterion could put together a few titles that explored the significance of this group of people and their artistic output…. to help decode it for the rest of us.
    I have not listened to the Criterion commentary on Mishima (Schrader), but there is a brief flashback scene of Ogata/Mishima dancing with a man who I believe is meant to represent Miwa.

  12. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for the feedback Andre!

    Naturally there are probably more resources about the film in Japanese, but I own just about every single Japanese film resource published in America in the last 20 years and there is very little information about the production of the film in English outside of reviews. I find it extremely odd that no one has bothered to translate this information if it is readily available. This is why I tried to bring a lot of new information about the film to light in my piece that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else in English.

    I recommend going back and reading more of my previous posts about Japanese cinema and film books available in Japan for more information on the topic.

    Miwa currently appears on a television show in Japan with popular psychics. I’m not sure about all the details, but I believe he/she may consider himself a “sensitive” now and assists other psychics on the show. Besides voice acting in various anime, Miwa is still a popular stage actor who performs in stage plays regularly in Tokyo.

    I’d really like to see a lengthy book written about the collaborative efforts between filmmakers, artists, musicians, etc. during the ’60s in Japan. Many of them were part of radical student groups and often created politically charged work together. Hopefully as interest continues to grow in Japanese cinema more information will be made available to westerners.

  13. Nicole says:

    there IS a dvd release of this movie available! But I am unsure of whether it has English subtitles. I found a Region 3 copy selling though an Asian DVD imports site, but I highly doubt that would have English subs. But maybe…If you look it up on Amazon, you will see the dvd which sells for about $15, but the VHS is now selling for a whopping $80 !

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