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‘Black Lizard’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 23, 1991


Kinji Fukasaku
Akihiro Maru Yama;
Yukio Mishima
Not rated

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Kinji Fukasaku's 1968 Japanese film, "Black Lizard," could be seen as an exercise in extravagant high camp, but that would be selling it short. It's campy, all right, and preposterously bizarre, but it's more. Camp, in this case, is the springboard into strange territory that is both howlingly comic and, at the same time, shockingly perverse.

This strange little item creates its own category. Based on a stage adaptation by Yukio Mishima (the writer/nationalist fanatic who two years later committed ritual hara-kiri) of a novel by Rampo Edogawa (which is the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe), it has the psychedelic complexion of an Age of Aquarius spy thriller. It's like some nutty cross-cultural translation of a James Bond movie -- or better yet, a James Bond knockoff like the cheesy Dean Martin Matt Helm films -- where the ultimate in decadence is a swinging nightclub with pulsing strobes and shindigging dancers cavorting with their customers in nothing but dayglo body paint.

The movie's ambiance is lurid and suggestive; it's what you'd imagine a kegger thrown in Caligula's back yard might look like. In one scene, a slinky chanteuse spies a despondent young man in the corner. Oozing in for the kill, she says, "You're thinking about death, aren't you?" -- that's her pickup line! -- and then leads the man into a back room, never to be seen again.

The woman, as it turns out, is a master criminal called the Black Lizard, who's played here by Akihiro Maruyama, Japan's most famous female impersonator. The Black Lizard is a sort of Moriarty figure who has her eye on a priceless diamond known as the Star of Egypt. She's an ardent collector of jewels, which she likes because, unlike humans, their beauty never fades.

The Black Lizard's collection isn't limited solely to jewels: She also collects bodies, young beautiful bodies, which she embalms and turns into human dolls. (Mishima himself turns up as part of her collection as a symbol of love pickled in perpetuity.) She'd also like to add Sanaye (Kikko Matsuoka), the daughter of the jeweler who owns the Star of Egypt, to her kingdom of dead dollies, and so she kidnaps her, strips her naked and stuffs her in a trunk. Exactly what Fukasaku and Mishima are getting at with all this is a little hard to say. In a sense, it's a morbid meditation on the transience of beauty. On another level, it's simply a face-off between a master criminal, the Black Lizard, and Akechi (Isao Kimura), the superdetective who's hired by the jeweler to protect his merchandise. Akechi, in the long-standing pulp tradition of philosopher gumshoes, is every inch the Black Lizard's equal, which, also according to tradition, makes them soulmates.

Maruyama's performance is the cherry at the top of this one-of-a-kind confection. Dressed in black, she's like the witch in "Sleeping Beauty," the epitome of pure, amoral evil, and Maruyama's wigged-out conviction gives her a dimension of mythic grandeur.

On the surface, "Black Lizard" is little more than a stylish genre piece, an example of arch, high '60s-style playfulness. But there's a knowing element of parody here; what Fukasaku does with his crime story is close to what Godard did with similar material in "Alphaville." It's the subtext, though -- and the subliminal hint of something truly sick -- that sets this film apart. It's truly, darkly strange, and, from start to finish, a total blast.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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