“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.”
– Akihiro Miwa as the 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 opens with a detective named Akechi Kogoro (Isao Kimura) following his friend into a private nightclub 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 up by colorful fluorescent lights that flicker and bounce across the screen. When the men finally reach the main entrance of the club, the doors burst 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 alcohol. The handsome detective 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 club’s 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. But 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 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 but Mishima injected his adaptation with a romantic decadence and homoeroticism that was clearly his own creation. 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 the film is 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 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 Kabuki plays the female roles are frequently performed by male actors. Although other stage and screen adaptations of Black Lizard 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 of unrequited love, erotic obsessions and the romantic lives of the warrior class often ended with the death of a samurai who takes his own life during a ritual suicide referred to as “seppuku” within the bushido code.
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, Miwa was making a name for himself as a popular cabaret singer and stage actor. Over the years Miwa has made different claims about the seriousness and nature of his relationship with Mishima, which were probably influenced by his respect for the author’s family. Mishima’s family attempted to deny his 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 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 adaptation of the play. They agreed and the two reportedly worked closely together with Kinji Fukasaku on the 1968 film version of Black Lizard. Although background information about the 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 Miwa worked closely with the costume designer and celebrated manga artist Masako Watanabe to create his wardrobe for the film.
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 Inoue’s 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 worldview 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.” Mishima also made it clear that he preferred Miwa in the starring role and the author seemed to distance himself from Inoue’s film adaptation over time.
These days Fukasaku’s Black Lizard is often referred to as a “camp classic” by critics who don’t seem to fully grasp or appreciate Mishima’s creative aesthetic and intellectual influences. Black Lizard does contain occasional moments of black humor but there isn’t anything overtly funny in the film and the laughs arise from how viewers interpret it. The humorous aspects of Black Lizard are obviously exaggerated by modern audience’s propensity towards irony and camp compounded 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 played completely straightforward for dramatic effect.
Besides the over-the-top action and suspense, the real focus of the 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 Miwa is a cross-dressing man but there is a wonderful scene where the character changes into a men’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 sexuality, 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 has 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 and reminiscent of classic film noir techniques. 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.
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 finally released on video by Cinevista Inc. in 1992 and subsequently it has been shown at various other venues across the country. Unfortunately, Black Lizard has never been released on DVD and it is possible that 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 Mishima. 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 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.