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What a Drag!

If you've started to swallow this generation's subtle ethnic-assassination campaign

- resolving Japan's dominance of world business by denigrating the Japanese as button-down, honor-bewildered, investment-confounded numberheads - you should probably hop in your Toyota and go see Black Lizard. If you've ever hankered for a detective story in which the femme fatale villain captures beautiful human specimens so she can kill them and preserve them as dolls, then Kinji Fukasaku's 1968 thriller is the film for you. And if you've ever fantasized that the very same villain would be named Black Lizard and portrayed by a drag queen, then you're every bit as strange as this camp-and-crime masterpiece.

From the opening scene, which bleeds in through the wrought-iron gates of an imposing manse to reveal a bustling discotheque where body-painted Sixties sex kittens writhe and wriggle, Black Lizard swallows form, theme, and fashion all at once. Sitting at the club bar, leaning over the counter with the weathered look of a man who belongs somewhere else, is Akechi (Isao Kimura), a hard-boiled detective who ranks among the best crime solvers in Japan. "This was a world unknown to me until a gaudy crime dragged me into it," Akechi confesses through voice-over. After the balance of the gloriously bizarre Black Lizard, you'll feel much the same way.

As a result of a series of kidnapping threats, Akechi has been hired by a silk-pocketed jeweler named Iwase (Junya Usame) to protect Iwase's daughter, the beautiful Senae (Kikko Matsuoka). Daring master-criminal ploys do war with righteous law enforcement as Akechi attempts to unmask his nemesis and reveal the person responsible for these loathsome trespasses. As he discovers quite early, his enemy is none other than the Black Lizard (Akihiro Maruyama), a wealthy thirtyish woman whose elegant exterior belies a lurid, evil heart.

Based on a pulp novel by Rampo Edogawa (a pen name that approximates the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe), the film came from the stage, where it enjoyed a long run on the strength of a dramatic adaption by Yukio Mishima. Yes, that's right. Perennial Nobel candidate Yukio Mishima. Modern myth Yukio Mishima. And, in this case, cheesy scriptwriter Yukio Mishima. Mishima's Black Lizard, aided in the transition to celluloid by contributing screenwriter Masashige Narusawa, shoehorns florid interchange after florid interchange into every frame, combining the impressionistic dialogue of Forties melodrama with a psychomythic bent that suggests a gun-toting Jung. "He obstructs my dream," muses Black Lizard in one of many fantastically obtuse moments. "He pursues its form."

As the cat-and-mouse games intensify, Akechi develops a begrudging respect for the Black Lizard, who returns the favor by formulating a powerful infatuation for the dashing law man. A great detective and a master criminal, and the line between them blurred? Hmmmm. It's a plot as old as Holmes and Moriarty, older perhaps, and one that has special resonance in Asian cinema, where the wuxia pia genre of intimate chivalry interprets the cop-and-criminal struggle as a complex mate-and-kill dance. (John Woo's The Killer, a 1989 Hong Kong feature that played Miami this past fall, went gleefully over the edge with this twin-star theme, painting overcoat after overcoat of homoerotic varnish onto the fundamental story, which involved a crusty detective's zealous pursuit of his hit man nemesis.) In The Black Lizard, the prospect of interpenetration is made even more literal by the overt sexual tension.

Remember, though, Maruyama is a man. You'll have to remember, because there's no admission of his true gender. As far as the film is concerned, the Black Lizard is an honest-to-goodness, bona fide, I'll-show-you-my-XX woman. Maruyama, one of Japan's foremost practitioners of onnugata (female impersonation), is stunning as the manipulative, omnisexual Lizard. Half Agnes Moorehead and half Anjelica Huston (who may well prove to be the next great stomping ground for drag queens), she struts through every frame with an intensely entertaining mix of haughty autocracy and histrionic pining. Gown after gown after gown attests to her power. And whether she's flashing her telltale tattoo, commanding her band of henchmen (which includes two purple-robed dwarves), or passionately wailing, "I kill because I love you so," as she plunges a dagger into a Nishijin-brocade sofa she believes hides Akechi, there's no one quite like the Lizard.

While he's clearly overshadowed by Maruyama's huge performance, Kimura holds up quite nicely as Akechi, treating his co-star as a legitimate, if formidable, leading lady. The lines of passion that run between Black Lizard and Akechi are powerful, then farcical, then powerful again, mischievously tweaked from side to side by the concealed (and counterintuitive) thrill of Maruyama's drag status.

In the overdressed and overwrought world of the Black Lizard, identity is never certain, not only in the overt and running joke of Black Lizard's gender ambiguity, but in the series of disguises, concealments, and doubles that pervade the film. The sex play and disguise of traditional comedy mix with the gore and cathartic death of tragedy to produce a riveting period of rising action. The attraction between Akechi and Black Lizard swells and ebbs. Senae's fate hangs in the balance. More evocative, nonsensical dialogue ("The white sheet of tedium suddenly smolders to reveal a crime's profile." "Is the time that we set more precise than the schedule of a king?") flows from the mouths of the principals. Not since The Manchurian Candidate has there been a film this aware of the value of absurdity. And thanks to Fukasaku's inspired mix of slant-angle shots and deeply evocative lighting, not to mention the lush Shuguchicolor of the print, the film looks as modern as today's Nikei.

For a crime drama, Black Lizard is unusually irrational, plotted with more attention to narrative lyricism than to sense. The Mishima/Narusawa script barrels ahead through a Bondlike series of card games, motorcycle pursuits, and boat chases. In the final, galloping climax - a thoroughly anti-gravity blend of Doctor No, The Collector, and The Tempest that even features Mishima himself as one of the Lizard's bounty - Black Lizard rushes madly through deceit, reversal, prurience, and even a final, stunning revelation in the person of a crippled boathand. And only the icy-hearted will remain dry-eyed at the Black Lizard's Oriental Death Rattle (apologies to all of the members of the Velvet Underground, even Doug Yule). It's the holiday season. Give yourself a gift. Cast off your corporate and colorless Addams Family fetters and invest in some genuine and heartfelt strangeness. Long live the Lizard!

THE BLACK LIZARD
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku; written by Masashige Narusawa and Yukio Mishima from the novel by Rampo Edogawa; with Akihiro Maruyama, Isao Kimura, Junya Usami, Kikko Matsuoka, Toshiko Kobayashi, Tesuro Tanba, and Yukio Mishima. Unrated. In Japanese with English subtitles.


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