Black Lizard May 21, 2021
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
heard Black Lizard has supernatural powers, like the devil.” So says a minor character in the 1962 movie named after this reptilian jewel thief. This rumor is pure hyperbole, though only literally. This ultra-successful criminal (Machiko Kyô) is indeed so savvy — a master of disguise and spectacular liar always a step ahead of the law on her beautifully clothed tail — that it does feel a little bit like she has a kind
of power uninhabitable for someone more beholden to conventional humanity. We don’t know much about Black Lizard’s past. Did she materialize as an exceptionally decadent criminal who likes money and power but not as much as she does simple beauty? “I like jewelry, but I also wanted your body,” she says frankly to an attempted mark. Black Lizard dreams of a world without borders — to the point that people can walk into another’s home, no questions asked — and where even subway tunnels are slaked in diamonds: a reality where pristinity, both aesthetic and emotional, smother ugliness and hardship so effectively their existence could be forgotten. Black Lizard doesn’t think about the future; always searching for an immediate high, she’s a parasite to the excitement of a fleeting moment — an excitement she has frequently created herself. (She abhors physical violence — it’s too ugly — though we will learn later on just how nonchalant she is about inflicting both emotional and psychological cruelty. What’s important is that violence is not tangibly unsightly.)
As the film opens, Black Lizard has staged one of her most elaborate crimes yet: the kidnapping of the 19-year-old daughter (Junko Kano) of loutish jewelry merchant and recent blackmail victim Iwase (Masao Mishima, a laugh-out-loud-funny caricature of greed). Black Lizard wants his prized “Egyptian Star” piece; she envisions it as her jewel collection’s centerpiece. Her plan is painstaking — the sort of clever crime one might see play out at the top of an episode of Columbo. (She first builds trust with Iwase and the daughter, Sanae, by getting hired as a traveling companion; then she'll fleece them of their goods.) Black Lizard anticipates potential hurdles. Iwase is usually flanked by bodyguards, and has recently hired “the best detective in Japan” Akechi (Minoru Ôki) at a million yen a month to protect him. But Black Lizard seems genetically predisposed to remix anxieties into excitement. When someone reacts worriedly to something born out of her plotting, she can’t restrain herself from openly giggling at her own cunning. She can’t be bothered to genuinely worry about what a peal of laughter could reveal. If anything, it will just create another puzzle for her to solve.
Akechi, Black Lizard soon learns, will be more of a problem than she had at first thought. Plenty of skilled detectives have fumbled when confronted with her deceit. But Akechi seems to understand Black Lizard on numerous levels. He’s not only able to perfectly string together, mostly through guesswork, her new scheme — he is also as much of an aesthete as she is: an admirer of the craftiness of the very people he undermines for a living. He likens crime to art. During one of the few moments in the film where he pulls out a gun, he briefly stops to ogle this “beautiful object.” And Akechi, too, is a master of disguise and good liar. Any criminal of Black Lizard’s ilk crossing paths with an investigator on a similar wavelength might fret. Who would want to meet this version of “their match”? But the unpredictable Black Lizard is intrigued instead. As the chase wears on — the kidnapping plot, spoiler alert, doesn’t conclude as planned — the more besotted Black Lizard becomes with Akechi, and vice versa. “As I chase her, I’m the one being chased,” Akechi says to himself mid-movie.
All this will eventually coalesce into romantic tragedy — the destruction of a woman unable to give herself over to a genuine rather than material love. But the movie, committedly silly before then, hasn’t done enough to earn a climax defined by what seems to be a ploy for emotional power. The final few scenes have a tendency to feel a minute or two too long; you can feel the buoyancy of the practically giddy film preceding it plummeting. Yet I couldn’t help but want to applaud this additional storytelling risk in a movie full of them.
Black Lizard predominantly inhabits the form of a colorful 1960s caper. Once in a while, though, a character will be so emotionally overwhelmed by something that a musical sequence will wash over the drama. (Upon her first escape from near-captivity, Black Lizard literally waltzes out of the building in the guise of a sharp-suited man; when she later rewards her minions for their recent work, they do little dances in response — not to impress their mistress but because they cannot contain their rhapsody.) There are casual fourth-wall breaks — “you agree that Akechi is fabulous, right?” Black Lizard asks the viewer just before disappearing into some shadows — and there is a scene at the beginning of the movie where Akechi and several other characters we have yet to meet stand solemnly on a soundstage, look into the eyes of the audience, and warn us about the super-criminal we are about to meet. “There is such a thing as a perfect beauty that can never be conquered,” we’re told.
The movie’s funniest lines have an absurd expositional lift. Right after he discovers Sansae has been kidnapped, Iwase breaks out into a breathless monologue about how this is bad because, when he was a kid, he passed a carnival, muttered to himself that someday he would buy it for his children, and now that Sansae is gone he can’t do that anymore. When his wife later hears of the ransom’s terms, she says, without pausing, “We can’t compare Sanae’s life to anything, but nothing is more precious than the Egyptian Star!” The movie finds the dark humor in avarice by pushing rancid ideological subtext into the main text. Black Lizard’s delight in rebellion and contempt for orthodoxy is conspicuous, both narratively and presentationally. It pokes fun at cat-and-mouse-thriller expectations while eschewing formal steadiness with an infectious confidence.
I should admit that I watched Black Lizard — based on a play by the controversial Yukio Mishima, in turn based on a novel by Rampo Edogawa — by mistake. I’d meant to watch the better-known 1968 adaptation. I wasn’t paying attention to the date on the service I watched the movie on nor aware that there even was a version of Black Lizard from 1962. But now that I’ve watched both, I’m particularly happy about the blunder. Although the 1968 version features an excellent performance from Akihiro Miwa, in drag, as Black Lizard — it’s an inspired hybridization of Mae West and Ava Gardner, complete with a trademark laugh — it’s the weaker film: a comparatively serious noir thriller that while often visually stylish doesn’t amplify the playfulness inherent to Mishima’s work as joyously as its 1962 counterpart does. The Black Lizard of 1962 is shinier. In the spirit of its heroine, I couldn’t stop myself from gravitating toward it. A-