Black Lizard made me gay. Or, at the very least, Kenji Fukasaku's 1968 jewel-toned mod noir opened my quasicloseted 16-year-old eyes to a certain queer aesthetic one which foregrounds its own artifice by using Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations for Oscar Wilde's Salome as wallpaper; one which dresses deviance in a gown with a 25-foot-long feathered train; and one which knows that the flipside of fabulousness is utter ridiculousness. It certainly wasn't something I was seeing in the twink-filled issues of XY foisted upon me by my Pride ringwearing, secret community college beau, but something closer to what I later found in John Waters's films with Divine, James Bidgood's diaphanous beefcake photography, and Ronald Firbank's deeply purple prose.
However, unlike the above artists, Fukasaku was heterosexual, and Black Lizard represents an anomaly within a career that included much macho studio boilerplate. Even at his finest, Fukasaku had a flair for rough stuff: he directed some of the best yakuza films ever made (Battles Without Honor and Humanity ) and ended his career with 2000's controversial adolescent bloodbath and political fable Battle Royale. Yet, as with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's practically flaming 1959 adaptation of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly, Last Summer, there was just the right combination of elements (and most importantly, the right combination of peacocks involved) to make Black Lizard one of queer cinema's unsung gems. Which is precisely why freelance curator T. Crandall chose the film to kick off his rep series, "The Revival House: Classic Queer Cinema," at Artists' Television Access.
As clichéd as such a phrase may be, Black Lizard is awash in precious stones and glittering surfaces but none shine with as much brilliance as the transvestite Akihiro Miwa (credited as Maruyama), who plays the titular jewel connoisseur and criminal mastermind that kidnaps specimens of human beauty to freeze them in eternal tableaux vivant on her island lair. The film is completely Akihiro's: her entrances stop time, her song is a siren call which causes men to become her slaves, her lavish outfits become more so with each new scene. "The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event," quipped Roland Barthes (referring to Audrey, not Kate). Miwa's face, whose mouth morphs rubber bandlike from a sour moue into the devouring O of a deep cackle unleashed, is a gloss on Barthesian idealness.
Prior to Fukasaku's film, Miwa had appeared in the same role in Yukio Mishima's long-running stage adaptation of pre-World War II mystery and suspense novelist Edogawa Rampo's 1934 short story "Black Lizard." Rampo's tale was one of many starring his Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant detective Gogoro Akechi, who in Mishima and Fukaaku's retelling falls heart-first into a dangerous pas de deux with his androgynous quarry. Miwa was a successful nightclub entertainer active in avant-garde theater (and she still is: last year, she starred in a Tokyo production of Jean Genet's The Eagle Has Two Heads) when she met Mishima our second of the aforementioned peacocks who was haunting Tokyo gay bars to "research" his 1953 novel Forbidden Colors.
It's not hard to see why Rampo's story of a moribund ice queen obsessed with changeless beauty appealed to Mishima. By 1968, Mishima was that queen, fully immersed in his own homoerotic brand of aestheticized Emperor worship, which would reach its grisly apogee in his ritual suicide four years later. Prior to Black Lizard, his muscular body had already been given the coffee table book treatment in Ba-ra-kei: Ordeal by Roses (Aperture, 1971), where Hosoe Eiko's photographs present the author posed as a martyred St. Sebastian or as a snowbound samurai.