The delirious adventures of a queer criminal as seen by Yukio Mishima and Kinji Fukasaku.
Footsteps echo in the dark. A hand knocks on a door. A flap is lifted, a pair of eyes peeks out, the door opens. Footsteps lead down a corridor decorated with fluorescent drawings. Another door flings open and the psychedelic lights and music of a nightclub explode onto the screen, frenzied dancers wearing little aside from body paint gyrate to a wild groove while men gleefully grab handfuls of sequined breasts, the walls around them decorated with Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. In such a heady atmosphere of decadence and loose abandon, it does not seem unnatural that the mistress of the place, a femme fatale in slinky black dress and diamonds, should be played by a cross-dressing male actor (the celebrated Japanese transvestite Akihiro Miwa, here credited as Akihiro Maruyama). Mrs Midorigawa, aka the famous criminal Black Lizard, approaches Detective Akechi, sitting alone at the bar, who came ‘by chance’ to the secret club, and their encounter is the start of a sexually charged, fatal face-off where romantic tension is played out as the mind games of two people on opposing sides of the law.
Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard was adapted from a stage play by Yukio Mishima (itself based on a short story by the often filmed mystery writer Edogawa Rampo), so the sexual ambiguity and cult of the body that dominate the narrative should come as no surprise. The opening of the film dramatises ‘straight’ Detective Akechi’s entrance into a world unknown to him, an underground world of illicit desires ruled by the androgynous Black Lizard, where crime is not simply the ravishing of beautiful jewels but that of beautiful bodies too. Black Lizard plans to steal the Star of Egypt diamond, but she covets the body of Sanae, the attractive daughter of jeweller Mr Iwase, even more intensely. The substitution of a male actor for a female role infuses the battle of wits between Black Lizard and Akechi with a clear homoerotic subtext, but the ostensibly female identity of Black Lizard adds an extra twist: in a typically succulent line of dialogue, Black Lizard tells Sanae, ‘I am fascinated by the splendid curve of your breasts,’ and it is unclear whether she desires her in a Sapphic way or whether she wants to literally appropriate her body – ‘I love jewellery, but I’d prefer to have your body. I’ll come back for it,’ she says after her first kidnap attempt has been foiled by Akechi. Sexual identity is complicated even further in a deliciously ambivalent scene where Black Lizard dresses up as a man to escape from the police. It is in that ‘disguise’ that she acknowledges her nascent feelings for the detective for the first time, homosexual desire able to find expression only through an elaborate succession of sexual substitutions.
The fluid sexual identity of Black Lizard is part of a world where nothing is as it seems, a world of permanent illusion, sleight of hand and make-believe. The first kidnapping attempt on Sanae involves replacing her with a doll to fool the police into believing that she is still asleep in her bed. Later on, there will be another replacement involving a body double. The failed musician Amamiya fakes suicide early on and reappears as Black Lizard’s right-hand man under the fake name of Yamakawa. A trick sofa is used to secrete bodies in and out of various locations and Akechi himself reveals his talents as a master of disguise. No one’s identity is ever fixed, all is constantly changing and transforming into something or someone else. Fukasaku emphasises the baroque quality of this world through heightened theatricality, sumptuous colours and elaborate compositions, to which are added Black Lizard’s flamboyant outfits, culminating in her final outrageous white feather number. The vitality of the direction, combined with the numerous twists and turns of the plot, conveys the energy of a world where all is in a state of permanent change and nothing is ever static.
This makes Black Lizard’s (read Mishima’s) obsession with preserving the beauty of the body by freezing it out of time all the more startling in contrast. In her island lair, she has a collection of ‘dolls’, stuffed bodies that have been emptied of life and soul so they can eternally remain as pure objects of youth and beauty. Tellingly, Mishima himself appears in a cameo as a muscular, perfectly proportioned sailor ‘doll’. Where the other substitutions in the film celebrate a sense of identity in constant mutation, this particular replacement sees the flow of life – and its attendant promise of decay – sacrificed to the rigid, frozen beauty of the body idolised above all else.
The tension between these two ideas is what gives the film its dynamism. In the follow-up made by Fukasaku with Akihiro Miwa in 1969, the balance shifts and the idea of the inevitable disintegration of life, love and beauty prevails: in the magnificent, melancholy melodrama Black Rose Mansion, Miwa plays a nightclub singer incapable of love, who causes the ruin of the men who fall for her. Although the mood is entirely different, the two films offer a fascinating take on the femme fatale figure: whether a decadent aesthete/criminal or a tragic noir type, the fact that she is played by a cross-dressing man emphasises the extraordinary nature of the character and her social and sexual subversiveness while throwing into question conventional ideas of gender and beauty.