For my second It Came From Asian Cinema column, I thought I’d stray from my usual review format and focus on an interesting two movie collaboration between one of Japan’s most versatile filmmakers and one of it’s more unique performers, director Kinji Fukasaku and female impersonator Akihiro Miwa. Both films are based on the works of Yukio Mishima who is another one of Japan’s most controversial talents.
THE COLLABORATIONS OF KINJI FUKASAKU AND AKIHIRO MIWA
Kinji Fukasaku is one of my favorite Japanese filmmakers, probably one of my favorite filmmakers, period. His work over his 40 year filmmaking career was delightfully diverse, directing a wide variety of films from hard boiled Yakuza movies like Graveyard Of Honor to silly and campy sci-fi flicks like The Green Slime and Message in Space to the film he is most known for by today’s movies fans, the violent and satirical Battle Royale. But no films truly display Fukasaku’s daring and versatile filmmaking style than his film collaborations with Akihiro Miwa, a Japanese drag queen and cabaret singer who was quite renown at the time. Fukasaku and Miwa made two films together in the late 60s, the campy crime thriller The Black Lizard in 1968 and the noir-ish romantic tragedy, Black Rose Mansion in 1969. In both films Akihiro Miwa, billed as Akihiro Maruyama, plays the lead role and in both cases the characters are femme fatales and the fact that he is actually a man in drag never comes into play. The roles are of women and Miwa’s performing them is never used as a gimmick, but strictly as a bold casting choice.
The first and most fun of these two films is the campy and decadent crime thriller The Black Lizard. The tile refers to Miwa’s character of the master jewel thief, the notorious Black Lizard who is as seductive as she is dangerous. The film is based on a play by the infamous Yukio Mishima from a book by Japanese author Edogawa Rampo and Mishima even has a cameo as one of Black Lizard’s former lovers, now preserved and put gruesomely on display. The film follows Lizard’s attempts to steal The Star of Egypt and of a detective (Isao Kimura) who is hired to stop her. In between there is plenty of intrigue, kidnapping, murder and the deadly charms of Black Lizard. The film is very stylish and has a heavy campy 60s spy movie feel with a dash of Rocky Horror thrown in, years before that play/film was created. It’s a fun movie and Fukasaku has a blast with it, as does his star who plays the dragon lady Black Lizard with all the gusto of a Disney evil queen or fairy tale witch. Very 60s and a very entertaining movie with a wonderfully comic book visual style.
Black Rose Mansion is quite different. It is written by Fukasaku from a play by Mashima and tells the tragic story of Ryuko (Miwa) a lounge singer hired to perform at the Black Rose Mansion, a home turned into a nightclub by owner Kyohei (Eitaro Ozawa). But Ryuko is a victim of her own charms and a string of ex-lovers follow her there all emotional, suicidal and even homicidal. This comes decades before Scott Pilgram’s Ramona Flowers had the same problem. Worse still, is that both Kyohei and his son, Wataru (Masakazu Tamura) have fallen for the seductive singer and a tragic love triangle of Shakespearian proportions is the result. Again Miwa is playing the femme fatale, but here he plays a sad woman who carries around a black rose to symbolize her ever broken heart. She feels that when the rose returns to it’s red, she will have finally found the true love that has always eluded her. Unlike the campy Black Lizard, Miwa plays Ryuko with both a tragic sadness and a passionate fire. A women who, despite all her lovers, has yet to know true love. A woman who can’t help who she is and the effect she has on the men around her. Much like the scorpion in the timeless fable with the frog, it’s in her nature. Fukasaku also directs the film far more serious then Lizard, but imbues it with his trademark visual style. There’s a great shot of one of Ryuko’s heels floating in the surf to symbolize the beach tryst she just had with Wataru. Evidence she is figuratively drowning by letting her passions govern her choices. A shot that really resonates. Fukasaku gives the film some surreal and psychedelic dream and flashback sequences to keep things lively and interesting, as well. The film is both very 40s noir and very 60s colorful as evidence of Fukasaku’s versatility as a filmmaker.
Fukasaku, obviously went on to have a diverse film career before passing away in 2003. His final completed film is considered his masterpiece, the ultraviolet Battle Royale (he only filmed one scene in BR2 which was completed by his son, Kenta), but fans of that film should be aware of the impressive variety his filmography carries.
Akihiro Miwa, a Nagasaki survivor as a child, who, aside from being a female impersonator and cabaret performer, was also a composer, who wrote his own songs including the Black Lizard theme song, and an author who wrote numerous books. He also did some TV work and voice over work in animation including Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle for the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.
Their collaborations may not be for everyone, but they are worth a watch for film fans who are always looking for something intriguing and diverse, or fans of films, especially Japanese, of this era. But watching the result of two talented and unique individuals working together is reason enough to peak the curiosity.
Currently Black Rose Mansion is available on DVD and can be rented from Netflix, while sadly Black Lizard is unavailable.