IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE COLLABORATIONS OF KINJI FUKASAKU AND AKIHIRO MIWA

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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.

 

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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 then 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.

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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.

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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. 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, that is evidence she is figuratively drowning by letting her passions govern her choices, that really resonates) and he gives the film some surreal and psychedelic dream and flashback sequences to keep things lively and interesting. 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.

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: THE GREEN SLIME and MESSAGE FROM SPACE

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THE GREEN SLIME (1968)

Ten years before the campy fun of Message From Space, Kinji Fukasaku (who directed Battle Royale as well) helmed this equally campy and equally fun 60s space opera about a space station overrun by tentacled alien creatures played by Japanese midgets in rubber suits. The film stars Robert Horton as hot shot Commander Rankin who is sent on a perilous mission to blow up a giant asteroid hurtling toward earth by landing on it and planting explosives. The mission is launched from space station Gamma 3 commanded by rival Commander Elliot (Richard Jaeckel) and the two butt heads over command issues and their mutual love interest, the sexy station doctor, Lisa (Luciana Paluzzi). But all that soap opera nonsense will have to wait as the asteroid is destroyed, but a sample of an organic tissue splashed onto one of the space suits makes it’s way back to Gamma 3 and soon grows into an army of one-eyed, green creatures with electrified tentacles. Can Rankin and Elliot put aside their differences and mutual lust for buxom space doll Lisa before these creatures overrun the station and kill everyone on board?

This colorful and fun B-movie as directed by the versatile Fukasaku was a co-production from MGM and Japan’s Toei Studios with a mainly Anglo cast, who take the silly proceedings dead serious and that’s what makes this so much fun. The SPFX are delightfully cheesy as are the sets, the totally 60s sci-fi costumes and the hilariously campy dialogue. It’s like watching a 60s rubber monster version of Aliens!

A fun and entertaining flick that is a really nostalgic good time if you can appreciate monster movies like this. Very 60s and a lot of fun. A nice, no frills DVD and Blu-Ray is available from MGM’s archive website.

3 and 1/2 (out of 4) rubber suited space monsters!

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MESAGE FROM SPACE (1978)

Message From Space is Japan’s answer to Star Wars, though there are not as many similarities as one might expect, as this colorful and deliriously fun space adventure is actually based on a Japanese legend, The Legend of the Eight Samurai. Message tells the tragic story of the planet Jillucia, which is ravaged and conquered by the Gavanas, led by tyrannical leader Rockseia XXII (Mikio Narita) and his henpecking mother (actor Hideyo Amamoto in drag). The Jillucians send out a distress in the form of eight glowing seeds which legend says will lead eight warriors, picked by the gods, to come to their defense. Jillcucian Princess, Emeralida (Etsuko Shihom) leaves to follow them and gather the warriors to return with her. Soon a ragtag group of both would be and reluctant defenders, including retired drunk General Garuda (Vic Morrow), exiled Gavana, Prince Hans (Sonny Chiba) and a bunch of space racing slackers, are off to Jillucia to take on the invaders who have now set their sights on Earth.

Directed by the versatile Kinji (Battle Royale) Fukasaku, Message From Space is a fast moving and delightfully silly and fun space opera. With an abundance of entertainingly cheezy SPFX and numerous battles and action sequences, this unlikely group of heroes go up against an almost invincible empire. You can have a real blast if you go into it with the right mindset and the right beverages. Vic Morrow’s drunken space general and his faithful robot sidekick are worth watching it for alone. There is also some really imaginative art direction and spaceship designs including a ship that resembles an old sea galleon. Message looks more like a live action Manga than a Star Wars clone with it’s art deco sets and space samurai costumes.

A really fun Saturday night film fest flick that would also make a great double feature with Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond The Stars if you can’t get your hands on The Green Slime.  Also starring Philip Casnoff, Hiroyuki Sanada, Peggy Lee Brennan and Masazumi Okabe as Aaron, Shiro, Meia and Jack respectively, the young space slackers who become heroes. Message has just become available for the first time on a beautifully remastered DVD and Blu-Ray from the awesome people at Shout Factory!

A campy , fun 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) star galleons

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