The works of Japanese Mystery author Edogawa Rampo (in private life, Taro Irai) have been adapted to the screen on numerous occasions, with his 1934 novel Black Lizard -- one of many chronicling the adventures of his master detective character Kogoro Akechi -- getting the film treatment twice within a period of just several years. Though difficult to track down despite the fact, the best known of these is probably Kinji Fukasaku’s 1968 version for Shochiku, a riot of camp psychedelia that featured a female impersonator as its titular femme fatale and a cameo by controversial author Yukio Mishima -- who wrote a stage adaptation of the novel -- as a human statue.
But there was another, earlier version of the story filmed for Daiei in 1962, in this case by director Umetsugu Inoue. Now, my only familiarity with Inoue is through the work he did for Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio in the late 60s and early 70s, but that alone has made me a huge fan. And now that I’ve seen his Black Lizard -- just one of many films helmed by him during a period in which he worked for almost every major studio in Japan -- I’m happy to say that the flamboyant aesthetic on view in his Chinese language movies was every bit as much in evidence before his defection.
In fact, while Fukasaku’s take on Black Lizard is furiously modish and very much of its time, it’s Inoue’s version that seems the most ahead of its time and, if possible, the most irreverent. For one thing, he stages the whole thing as a musical of sorts, with random dance numbers and songs popping up just infrequently enough to jar our expectations. The female master criminal at the center of the story is this time around played by Rashomon’s Machiko Kyo, a star whose dance background well suits her for those occasions on which her character is required to break into spontaneous soft shoe routines, as do her black garbed minions.
On the trail of the Lizard is, of course, the crack private investigator Kogoro Akechi (Minoru Oki), here portrayed as something of a smug egomaniac who constantly refers to himself as “the best detective in Japan”. Akechi has been hired by the jeweler Iwase to protect his daughter Sanae (Black Test Car's Junko Kano), who has been threatened with kidnapping by the Black Lizard and her gang as part of a plan to get hold of the Egyptian Star, a priceless diamond. (Perversely, Iwase seems eager to see Akechi fail at his mission, despite what’s at stake, perhaps due to the detective’s tireless flaunting of his “perfect” record.) However, unknown to the men, the Lizard, a mistress of disguise, has already infiltrated Iwase’s inner circle and manages to snatch Sanae from under their noses with ease, setting in motion a game of wits between her and the determined Akechi.
Kyo’s Black Lizard evinces an obsession with youth and beauty and, though on the opposite side of the law, Akechi compatibly proves himself to be much more of an aesthete than a moralist. Indeed, the sleuth finds himself increasingly beguiled with the Lizard as her criminal genius is revealed. (In an opening monologue, Akechi opines that a crime can sometimes be “visionary and noble” and that such crimes, unlike brutal everyday street crime, can make the world “a better place”.) The Lizard, for her part, finds herself responding in kind, if with chagrin, out of a feeling that she has finally met her intellectual match. This blossoming love between these two self obsessed decadents is cheekily documented by Inoue in a feverishly red lit, split screen soliloquy that he stages like a romantic duet.
Relying heavily on Dutch angles, anti-realist lighting techniques, and Sunday funnies color schemes, Inoue gives Black Lizard a pop art look that would be right at home in the camp obsessed world of 1966, but which seems tremendously forward looking in 1962. He also shows a tendency toward Meta staging, such as in the numerous instances of characters breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. And this is without even mentioning the scattered bits of musical business, which seem intended more to mine the narrative for absurdity than to enhance it; Pivotal moments go unsung, while a trio of burly bodyguards, onscreen for just one scene, see fit to introduce themselves with a hilariously tossed-off sounding song.
As Black Lizard progresses, the cat-and-mouse game between Akechi and the Lizard increasingly becomes an elaborate flirtation, with each trying to showily outdo the other in terms of mimicry and cunning. This eventually leads to a climax -- set in a cavernous underground lair decorated with human taxidermy -- that’s a farcical riot of doubles and switched identities, making a mockery of any attempt on the part of the audience to keep track of who’s who. Of course, by this point, Inoue is likely banking on the probability that that audience won’t even care, which I think is a good bet. Like Inoue’s great Hong Kong musicals, Black Lizard is a stylish delight. If that comes at the expense of its nominal function as a mystery thriller, I think most viewers will forgive that as a crime both visionary and noble.
(Umetsugu Inoue's Black Lizard is currently available on Hulu. The Fukasaku version can be found on YouTube. People, this truly is a golden age.)