Black Lizard (1968)

It’s been stated ad nauseum that a cinematic hero is only as good as the opposing villain. The films that brought us Skywalker-Vader, Creed-Balboa, and Matrix-Bennett are all examples of how contrasting characteristics bring balance to the contentious relationships between protagonists and antagonists. The characters headlining Kinji Fukasaku’s 1968 crime film BLACK LIZARD may or may not have chairs at the same table as the aforementioned duos, but they are definitely in the same restaurant. In news that will surprise no one, the food and cocktail pairings are really good there.

Kurosawa regular Isao Kimura plays Detective Akechi, a stern but clever everyman drawn into a strange plot after he’s hired by a wealthy jeweler named Iwase (Junya Usami) to protect his daughter, Sanae, (Kikko Matsuoka) from being kidnapped. The paranoid father also expects that Akechi, Japan’s “number one detective,” will also identify and apprehend the person behind numerous threatening letters to Iwase about the impending kidnapping. He suspects that someone is trying to extort him out of the “Star of Egypt,” a spectacular jewel that enhances everything from strapless ball gowns to replica basketball jerseys.

The source of the letters is a vivacious nightclub owner named Ms. Midorikawa (Akihiro Miwa) who moonlights as a criminal mastermind known as Black Lizard. She “acquires” precious stones and dresses to the nines at all times. Obsessed with the impermanence of human beauty, she laments the effects of anxiety and “spiritual weakness” on outer appearance; this neurosis is manifested in her secret collection of taxidermied lovers and cohorts from years past. She inevitably crosses paths with Akechi, and what follows is the cinematic 1960s Japanese crime-mystery equivalent of a 1991 H.O.R.S.E. game between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Their perspectives on criminal behavior are near-perfect mirror images, the dialogue underpinning their one-upmanship crackles, and their adversarial dynamic is pressurized into something bordering on romantic.

Based on a screenplay by literary icon Yukio Mishima (itself based on the novel by Edogawa Rampo), BLACK LIZARD was an engaging cinematic departure for this reviewer when considering the wider body of Fukasaku’s work. While the film is categorized as a comedy on several prominent websites — none bigger than IMDb — I’m not sure that label adhesive really has any sticking power after a critical viewing. There’s a certain visual campiness between the gaudy vibe of the Black Lizard’s island lair and her garish naked-and-neon nightclub, for sure. However, I found that neither the characters nor the dialogue necessarily suggested farce. The Black Lizard’s obsessions are shallow and creepy, and her tactics are usually brutal.

To that point, Akihiro Miwa is an absolute powerhouse as the titular Black Lizard. A drag queen icon in his native Japan, Miwa brings both elegant beauty and criminal calculation to a very dynamic role. Miwa’s costumes are fantastic — at one point he’s dressed like a ruffle-shirted clone of PURPLE RAIN-era Prince — and his line delivery is wonderfully over-the-top. This might be grating for some, but I thought it worked well opposite Kimura’s downbeat delivery of his dialogue. There’s a lot of voice-over monologue in this film too, but thankfully it’s more contemplative than expository. At one point, Fukasaku uses the V.O. device to weave both main characters’ separate thoughts together to make a more cohesive whole. The symbiotic relationship between Akechi and the Black Lizard is well-illustrated in both the narrative elements and the technical ones.

Those watching this film for signs of Fukasaku’s directorial trademarks might be a bit disappointed. The handheld technique on display in his YAKUZA PAPERS films is mostly absent here, save for a lone scene of first-person perspective as a camera bobs down a long and colorful nightclub corridor. Beyond a colorful car chase and Sanae falling victim to an ether rag (on more than one occasion) there’s very little choreographed action, and even less on-screen violence. Though this film is largely character-driven, we’re still left with a visually engaging piece of work. Fukasaku uses full and smart compositions in his shots, and balances the darkness of this criminal underworld with bright colors quite well. His idea of a coroner’s office is a little curious — Akechi goes fact-finding in a dissection room containing what appears to be a bubbling hot tub of dead bodies that goes unacknowledged — but the locations are varied and materials are put to good use. As is the case with a lot of espionage films, some of the hijinks and convenient circumstances require a willful suspension of disbelief from the audience, but they were consistent with the wild overall tone of the film.

This content was originally published on The Horror!?

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