Black Lizard/Review

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While going through the filmographies of great directors, it's interesting to see how many of them have made a detective movie. Being from India, I love the fact that Satyajit Ray has directed *three* detective movies. This, despite being generally considered an auteur who looks down upon conventional cinema. These include two Detective Feluda movies, a detective of his own creation as a children's writer. And a Byomkesh Bakshi movie (considered the Indian version of `Sherlock Holmes).

For me, I can gobble up anything thriller related for days on end. The wonderful aspects of the detective movie are that despite the cliches, it still can throw up a surprise. It had never ceased to amaze me how much action Dashiel Hammet's books had the first time I read them. Especially Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Imagine my surprise when I realized I had totally misjudged the writer from whom many of the conventional tropes of the genre came from.

Most obvious of the cliches is its main character who mainly comes under two categories. First is the down on his luck detective who is struggling to pay bills and is in over his head and might not always win. The second kind is the unflappable, all-conquering detective in full Sherlock Holmes mode. This guy rarely makes a misstep and still gets the bad guy. Kinji Fukasaku's Black Lizard is for better or worse among the latter category.

Based on the best selling Japanese detective series written by Rampo Edogawa. It was later adapted into a play by the infamous but brilliant Yukio Mishima. (who actually cameos as a beautiful dead statue). More on that later.

The main lead is a detective Kogorō Akechi (Isao Kimura), or rather Japan's most famous detective as everyone likes to stress on. Hired to protect the daughter (Kikko Matsuoka) of a jeweler, he is a man who is willing to go to any lengths to win. We soon realize that she is under threat from a jewel thief, the titular Black Lizard (Akihiro Miwa). She is out to steal an exquisite diamond from the father using the daughter as bait. After gunning for the diamond in the beginning, she soon develops an unhealthy obsession for the daughter. The reason? Black Lizard has her own private collection of statues and wants to add her to the collection. Now, this is no ordinary collection. But made of corpses she has murdered for their beauty.

If any of the above sounds weird, wait till you watch the movie. It is as strange as they come and earns every bit of its reputation as a bizarre cult film. The rest of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the Black Lizard trying to get her hands on the diamond and the girl. And the detective trying to protect them from her clutches.

It took me a couple of viewings to figure out the plot (something like Inherent Vice). But no matter how convoluted the plot got here, it was still easy to figure out. It helps that the story moves in a pretty straightforward way despite all the twists and turns. As my friend (who recommended this movie) told me, "It's the right amount of convoluted." The second viewing could be used for the 1962 version of the movie. If not for anything else, to see how despite saying the same story the two movies have two completely different takes on it. The older version even being a musical and a much more colorful and happy take on the story. The main difference is it leaves no ambiguousness in the sexuality of the Black Lizard. That changes the entire dynamic between the two leads.

The relationship that develops between the detective and the thief over the course of the movie is worth mentioning. Now there might not be sexually charged chess game ala The Thomas Crown Affair or the likes in here, but the interactions between the two and how they try to one-up each other is enough to keep you intrigued.

One of my favorite discussions about the detective genre in pop culture came not from a movie or a novel or even a TV show. It's a scene from the comic book series Starman. Between torturing the captured Starman, the torturer goes into this whole tirade about the virtues of a detective movie AND how his favorite Philip Marlowe movie is Lady in the Lake because of the gimmicky POV angle where the whole film is shot from his perspective.

Now I get why the POV scene can be one long gimmick but it has nothing on the stunt casting of Akihiro Miwa who plays the titular Black Lizard. Renown drag queen cum cabaret singer, he was long supposed to be in a relationship with Timia, so his casting as the Black Lizard is a stroke of genius. He elevates the movie into the cult movie it is. It helps that he plays the character as androgynous and whose sexuality is pretty blurry. This also gives a completely different meaning to their relationship. Isao Kimura (who often turns up in various Akira Kurosawa movies) is also well cast as Detective Kogorō Akechi. He brings a quiet strength to the character who always seems to snatch victory right when it looks like he's lost.

It is a movie that needs to be seen and loved for all the bizarreness it adds to the genre. Part of the joy in the detective genre is peeling off the layers and figuring out the various twists and turns. All the while watching the detective deal with the various offbeat characters. Here, there might only be one weird character in the movie, but if the character is as weird as Black Lizard, then that is more than enough. Also, there are enough twists here to please the detective aficionado in you. It's a worthy addition to detective pulp fiction in general.

Alif Majeed is a contributor to Grindhouse Cinema Database. You can find a list of all his reviews HERE.

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