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  • Simon Abrams

I Kill For Love: Kinji Fukasaku's Black Lizard (1968)

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Black Lizard is an extraordinary success for both director Kinji Fukasaku and playwright Yukio Mishima, the former of whom helmed a 1968 version of the latter’s 1962 stage play. Which makes sense, given that Mishima’s piece, an adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s 1934 novel of the same name, was also an unusual hit. All three versions of Black Lizard follow the same plot: master criminal Black Lizard executes an elaborate kidnapping scheme while taunting and being pursued by genius detective Kogoro Akechi. The Black Lizard initially hopes to swap Sanae, the daughter of wealthy jeweler, Iwase, for the Star of Egypt, a priceless diamond, but her target changes with her mood. She eventually hopes to not only possess, kill, and taxidermy Sanae, but to also seduce and destroy Akechi. In both Mishima and Fukasaku’s adaptations, the Black Lizard is played in drag by a male onnagata-style performer, a stylistic tribute to the mannered, melodramatic traditions of kabuki theater.

Despite a number of essential similarities, each version of Black Lizard feels distinct. Rampo’s surreal detective thriller (and vehicle for popular serial detective, Akechi) focuses on the jarring, Lansdale-worthy plot twists and mood swings that earned its author his reputation for writing sui generis ero-guro (or “erotic grotesque”) crime and horror fiction. Mishima’s blackly comic play is a series of monologues about “the tragedy inherent in the hopeless search for enduring beauty”, as kabuki onnagata and Black Lizard star Bando Tamsaburo explains in Mishima On Stage.

Fukasaku’s campy thriller, which was scripted by Masashige Narusawa, combines elements of both prior Black Lizards (not counting the lesser-known ballet libretto adaptation that Mishima wrote before his 1962 play). There’s less philosophical banter in the 1962 movie, but both Rampo and Mishima’s startling, dynamic versions are still exceptionally adapted in this giddy queer/pop gem.

There are a couple reasons you might not have heard of the movie version of Black Lizard. For starters, it wasn’t made at an especially high point in Fukasaku’s career; he was sort of on the outs with his regular studio collaborators at Toei after his Wolves, Pigs, and Men (1964) flopped (big time) at the box office. Fukasaku was subsequently loaned out to Shochiku for a few projects, including Black Lizard, though he also still worked on Toei projects like the delightfully berserk The Green Slime, an MGM co-production (also from 1968).

Western cinephiles might also feel defensive at the thought of Fukasaku toiling away as a hired gun. American cultists probably associate the protean jobber with singular triumphs like Battles Without Honor and Humanity, the formative yakuza crime saga (1973-1979), and Battle Royale, Fukasaku’s blood-soaked 2000 swan song. But Fukasaku wasn’t too unhappy with his career, as Marc Walkow writes in Film Comment, where he calls Fukasaku "a resolute anarchist, sympathetic to left-wing causes, who found his greatest satisfaction working as a salaried employee on assembly-line films produced by [Toei,] Japan's most notoriously conservative studio."

Still, Black Lizard was so popular that Schochiku immediately asked Fukasaku to chase its success with Black Rose Mansion (1969), a thematically complimentary (yet narratively unrelated) vehicle for star Akihiro Maruyama, whom Mishima biographer Henry Scott Stokes calls “the most celebrated female impersonator of his day.” Black Rose Mansion is so similar to Black Lizard that many Western viewers —i ncluding whoever edits IMDB and Wikipedia, as well as several reviewers — assume it’s based on a Mishima play, too. It’s not, but you can see why some think otherwise.

Mishima bridged the gap between Rampo’s novel and Fukasaku’s movie, both on and off-stage. He sought and was granted Rampo’s approval for his own adaptation, having been a boyhood fan. Rampo was delighted that Mishima fleshed out Akechi and the Black Lizard’s doomed romantic attraction since that was a story element that he didn’t really develop.

Mishima’s success with his Black Lizard was also somewhat anomalous, despite his inescapable fame as a playwright throughout the 1950s. Japanese media scholar Donald Keene notes, in his introduction to Mishima on Stage, that Mishima had as many as nine plays staged and performed in 1955 alone. But by 1964, Mishima’s outspoken nationalism alienated his colleagues at the famous Bungaku-za theater, which is saying something given that Mishima’s politics also led him, in 1949, to collaborate with the relatively apolitical Bungaku-za company instead of their hyper-left-wing rivals at the Haiyu-za theater. With Black Lizard, Mishima combined elements of mannered kabuki-style dialogue and structure with the relatively modern shingeki-style of psychological realism; of his ‘60s plays, Black Lizard was his biggest hit.

Mishima was fascinated by onnagata performers like Bando Tamsaburo and Nakamura Utaemon IV, the latter of whom Mishima scholar Laurence Kominz describes as “the leading onnagata of the second half of the twentieth century.” Mishima, being an avid fan and amateur kabuki critic, described Utaemon as having “a cold, desolate strength, like fire freezing over, and when you touch it you will burn your hands.” So it’s not really surprising that Maruyama was cast as the title role in the Black Lizard movie, though his performance as a man dressed as a woman is never commented upon or alluded to in the movie. Mishima was also a fan of Maruyama’s, having previously met him at Brunswick, a Tokyo gay bar.

Maruyama’s character is the center of the 1968 Black Lizard: thematically, narratively, aesthetically. In that movie, Akechi serves as a foil to the title antagonist; he’s more of a featured supporting character and not a full-on co-lead. This gives Maruyama’s villainess enough room to not only roll out her complicated plans, but to also establish the movie’s plot as an extension of her perverse desire to either “penetrate” (Mishima’s words) or destroy the objects of her desire. The Black Lizard covets jewels like the Star of Egypt for the same reason that she lusts after Sanae: they’re so pure that they’re only corrupted by sheer proximity to their admirers.

Mishima expands on this concept in various speeches, not all of which are delivered by the Black Lizard. Iwase has an especially good ramble in which he says that, since the value of jewelry remains fixed, the only thing that can be changed about them is the way that they temporarily absorb their owners’ “sickness”: “jewels never dream, but worry and anxiety always surround them[…]the more valuable a jewel is, the sicker it is. But no matter how sick it gets, a diamond can never die.” Maruyama’s Black Lizard has a similar speech early on in the movie, only she’s not talking specifically about Sanae or even suicidal youth Junichi Amamiya (Yusuke Kawazu), but rather to Akechi, since he’s “thinking about death.” Haruyama’s character explains, in a speech that’s unique to the movie:

“Whenever I see a pretty person, I feel sad. I imagine how she will look ten or twenty years from now. I’d like to preserve that beauty forever. People grow old because of anxieties and spiritual weakness. If there were some way to remove the soul…”

She then compares the purity of youth to jewelry: “Look into a diamond or a sapphire. They’re transparent throughout. There’s no soul. That’s why a diamond sparkles with eternal youth.” This speech is especially intriguing given Akechi’s secondary role in the Black Lizard movie.

Both Akechi and the Black Lizard have their respective opposing philosophies, both of which depend on highly abstract views of the other. But Akechi’s perspective on crime, and what attracts him to it is simple enough, and directly transcribed from Mishima’s play: he says that there are three types of women, distinguished by how they might react upon discovering an insect in a bouquet of roses. The first woman tosses her flowers, as well as the insect, into a nearby fireplace; the second throws out just the insect; the third keeps the bouquet, insect and all, and shoves the flowers’ sender into the fireplace. To Akechi, this third woman is most likely to be a criminal, but only because “she is so full of emotion” and “has a tender heart.” She’s a frustrated romantic in Akechi’s eyes, and therefore not really evil.

Rehabilitating this hypothetical third woman is Akechi’s mission, as he explains in a choice line from the play: “a jail cell will be my gift of love.” That explanation, while poetic, is implied in the movie since so much of the plot is, as in both the novel and play, focused on understanding and thwarting the Black Lizard’s schemes. All three Black Lizards focus on the title character, but only the book concludes that, while the Black Lizard may be attractive, she’s also a threat that needs to be demystified and contained. Both the play and the movie seem to sympathize with her perspective to the point of arguably being more about and from her point-of-view instead of just another Kogoro Akechi mystery.

You can get a sense of who the Black Lizard is in all three versions just by looking at an especially horny common scene: the title character imagines that, having recently abducted Sanae using a hollowed-out couch (a nod to Rampo’s kinky short story “The Human Chair”), she has discovered Akechi hidden aboard her ship, which is then en route to her secret island and its Museum of Terror. She talks with Akechi, seemingly hidden in the couch (Sanae is tied up and being held elsewhere), while quietly signaling her men to tie up and dump the sofa and its stowaway into the ocean. In Rampo’s book, the Black Lizard stalls for time, asking Akechi to explain how he managed to sneak aboard the ship unnoticed. This scene’s tension is mostly situational, though the Black Lizard prods viewers a bit when she, “revealing her true maliciousness”, announces, “We’re tying up the famous private detective right now! Ha, ha, ha!”

In the play, the Black Lizard not only taunts Akechi at some length — “Kogoro Akechi, Japan’s greatest detective, has just been wrapped up like a sushi roll” — but rubs against and kisses the sofa, all while explaining why “I must kill you because I love you.” “I want to cover this sofa with my kisses,” she says, adding, “even though your body will sink to the bottom of the icy sea, my kisses will cover every inch of your body like long strands of red seaweed.”

Mishima’s vamped-up update of this scene is especially remarkable given his choice to cast an onnagata-style male impersonator. In Mishima on Stage, he’s quoted as saying that the Black Lizard’s role should be performed, “in the style of the great French actresses of the nineteenth century. The actress has to be a 'tres grande dame.'” He’s also quoted as saying that, from a young age, he was “stunned” that an onnagata like Nizaemon XII “could produce such a voice. Kabuki was indescribably strange to me. It had a rancid flavor to it, but even as a boy I could tell that it would be a strangely delicious flavor were I to taste it."

Mishima’s love and understanding of kabuki performances was unabashedly carnal: speaking again about Utaemon, he says that “the appeal of the actor is entirely physical. His acting is in no way intellectual, nor can a brilliant actor be analyzed intellectually. If you can, then he is not a great actor."

But back to Akechi and the sofa: the Black Lizard, in the movie, also kisses her prisoner’s well-upholstered prison, though she understandably does not soliloquize at the same length as in the play. Some restless but precise camera movements — quick, sometimes jerky pans and tracking movements around the sofa and the surrounding cabin — capture this scene’s neurotic energy. It’s almost as if the camera has absorbed the movie’s central anxieties and suspicions, a mix of fear and intoxication at the thought that A) there’s something in that sofa but B) it’s impossible to know for sure. There’s never a cut-away shot of the sofa’s interior, just some bobbing around the couch’s exterior, accompanied by the sound of Kimura’s voice.

An easy-to-guess plot twist kind of explains this choice, but still, tension builds in this scene just because we can only move around Akechi without ever seeing him. His hiding place is as impenetrable as the Black Lizard hopes to be, a reflection of the movie’s general sympathy and fascination with her suspicion and desire to either enter or destroy anything she can’t control with her gaze (“I’d like to see your pretty face. Can I get out?”). This scene’s probing, frustrated camerawork contrasts with the camera’s inhuman perspective during an earlier card game played by Akechi and Black Lizard: the camera slips under a glass table, tipping the players’ hands, if only to us. Both characters assume they know their respective hands and therefore their game’s outcome, but they don’t really know, not like we do.

The Black Lizard movie synthesizes both Rampo and Mishima’s perspectives into a work that feels simultaneously more straight-forward and elusive. Black Rose Mansion expands on some of the themes from both the play and movie version of Black Lizard, though it’s otherwise unrelated. In that movie, Miwa plays Ryuko, an aloof but seductive chanteuse who attracts the attention of both middle-aged businessman Kyohei (Eitaro Ozawa) and his reckless son Wataru (Masakazu Tamaru). Ryuko naturally does not share Kyohei’s interest, but she does lead Wataru astray since “true love becomes more pure through continued betrayal,” as one of Ryuko’s other frustrated suitors explains.

Still, how to explain Miwa’s role and presence given that it’s not explicitly addressed in either movie? I’d argue that both Black Lizard and Black Rose Mansion are both genre pieces with key drag elements, and are therefore simultaneously more beguiling and accessible than you might expect from other queer cinema of the late ‘60s, as Julian Stringer writes in the Journal of Homosexuality. Speaking about Black Lizard, Stringer contends that “escaping the marginal, safely regulated zone of the midnight movie show and subcultural arena, Fukasaku's detective thriller places absolute transvestism squarely in terms of popular culture." I also mostly agree with Andrew Grossman who, in a GLBTQ Arts article about queer Japanese cinema, notes that Black Lizard is exceptional in that its “main concerns are the gender ambiguities of romantic attraction, unalloyed by sexual exploitation or politics.”

Despite Black Lizard’s immediate popularity (all three versions), both Fukasaku’s movie and Black Rose Mansion are still in the process of being rediscovered by Western audiences: Black Lizard only screened to Western audiences thanks to decades-later repertory screenings at film festivals like Edinburgh in 1984 and Rotterdam in 1999, as well as Manhattan’s own Film Forum in 1991, which prompted the New York Times’ Vincent Canby to speculate that Black Lizard “could well equal the success” of Paris is Burning (1990). Film scholar Juan A. Suarez, writing in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, also praised these kinds of festival screenings for having “helped us discover the history of the queer image, and, simultaneously, have queered film history.” Here’s hoping that that process of discovery only continues as more cinephiles learn about and see both of Fukasaku’s gorgeous, intoxicating movies.

Simon Abrams is a film critic whose work has appeared in various publications, including Ebert Voices, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Vulture. He is also the co-author of "Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone" with Matt Zoller Seitz.

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