“If you’re the perfect detective, then the perfect criminal must be out there.” ~ Mrs. Midorikawa
The world would be a better place if there were more artful crimes, renowned detective Akechi Kogoro tells us in the opening of The Black Lizard (1962). There are too many heinous crimes now, but as crime is a human endeavor there is also the possibility of crime as art. Not many crimes can match those of his nemesis the Black Lizard for their artfulness. And not many films can match The Black Lizard for its jazzy, stylized and Queer delights as the master criminal Black Lizard pursues a life of romantic and eroticized crime. There are disguises, doubles, daring escapes, chloroformed damsels (and gentlemen) in distress, cunning schemes, mysterious codes, a sinister sofa and musical numbers—though I could use more—and a heart-breaking trumpet solo. The theme song and soundtrack by composer Toshiro Mayuzumi stick in my head for weeks at a time. And I knew I loved the film when Machiko Kyō, resplendent as a drag king, dances away from the scene of the Black Lizard’s most recent crime in a fashionable Osaka hotel.
Perhaps this Pride Month, the Black Lizard will dance into your heart, too.
Directed by the prolific Umetsugu Inoue, The Black Lizard (1962) is one of several film and television adaptations of the eminent writer and critic Edogawa Rampo’s eponymous story. This version is the first of two based on the still performed play by the ever-complicated Yukio Mishima. Kaneto Shindo (Children of Hiroshima (1952), Onibaba (1963), Kuroneko (1968)) wrote the screenplay for the 1962 film, based on Mishima’s stage adaptation. The film was produced during Rampo’s lifetime, but I’m not sure Mishima was pleased with it. He went on to have a cameo in all his ripped, shredded, jacked and masochistic glory in The Black Lizard (1968), directed by Kinji Fukasaku and starring famed drag queen and cabaret performer Akihiro Miwa as the artful thief and murderer. This second adaptation is more famous in the English-speaking world. But I love The Black Lizard (1962), because sometimes you want a drag king. In this version, Machiko Kyō plays the Black Lizard. Kyō is better known for more respectably dramatic roles in films including: Rashomon (1950); Ugetsu (1953); Gate of Hell (1953); and, Floating Weeds (1959). And well, she also played Lotus Blossom opposite Glenn Ford and be-yellow-faced Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) the same year she played Mickey in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame. Kyō’s performance as the Black Lizard is delightful.
The Black Lizard (1962) feels distinctly Bond-like, but it was released the same year as Dr. No. And it has some of the camp charm and feel of the 1966-8 Batman tv show, but again predates the series. And it has much more darkness and adult themes mixed in with its fun and musical numbers about how fabulous Akechi is or how body guards will eat all the food in the Iwase house. The Black Lizard (1962) is stagey in the best way, stylish and jazzy as hell. Like the novella it celebrates the forms of its genre.
The Black Lizard features Rampo’s premiere consulting detective, Akechi Kogoro, who appears in numerous stories and adaptations. But while Akechi (Minori Ōki) manages to hold his own in the novella well enough, the film is the Black Lizard’s. Like her colleagues Fantomâs, Arsène Lupin and Irma Vep*, the Black Lizard is dedicated to the artful crime. She is passionate about beauty in any form, whether jewels or the human body. And after the musical opening of the film we discover the Black Lizard has been sending jewelery magnate Shōbei Iwase (Masao Mishima) letters telling him that she will kidnap his daughter Sanae (Junko Kano). She plans to demand the Star of Egypt, a massive, 32 carat diamond as a ransom. Their preparations only make the crime more thrilling for the Black Lizard.
The letters alarm Iwase enough that he hires Det. Akechi at a fee of ¥1 million per month. Akechi, Iwase and Iwase’s best client Mrs. Midorikawa keep watch on Sanae in an Osaka hotel. At first, to his embarrassment, Akechi fails to take the threat seriously enough. In a world of inartful crimes, simply keeping Sanae in a locked hotel suite with her father and Mrs. Midorikawa would be enough. Who doesn’t like playing pinochle with a beautiful woman in a stunning kimono while waiting for the clock to strike midnight? But after his initial embarrassment, Akechi is delighted to find a partner in crime, even though they are on opposite sides. Her skill and imaginative schemes only make unraveling her plots and ultimately catching her more interesting for Akechi. And both use all their tricks, disguises and cunning in attempting to win the battle. The Black Lizard is more frank about their foreplay than Akechi, saying, “You’re sexy enough that crimes are drawn to you.” But even Akechi eventually realizes that he has more feelings for the Black Lizard than detectives typically have for criminal when his assistants wonder he is in love with her.
When the Black Lizard finally kidnaps Sanae from the impregnable Iwase compound—or does she?—she says she will return Sanae. But after she receives the Star of Egypt on the observation deck of Tokyo Tower, the Black Lizard does not. Instead, the Black Lizard takes Sanae first to her private steamer and then to her lair filled with art, jewels, mannequin heads and dioramas dedicated to beautiful people. It turns out the Black Lizard wants Sanae for her body, too.
First published as a serial in 1934 you can read Rampo’s story in The Black Lizard and The Beast and the Shadow (Kurodahan Press, 2020) translated by Ian Hughes and with an excellent introduction by Mark Schreiber. The Black Lizard reads very much as a pulp serial. The narrator, probably not Akechi himself, addresses the audience and each chapter leads the reader from a twist or thrilling escapade to the next danger and the next chapter of thrills, deceptions and clever escapes as the ace detective and the devious master criminal attempt to top each other. (And yes, I know what I did there).
Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965)** was the nom de plume of Hirai Tarō. The name is famously a play on “Edgar Allan Poe.” Rampo himself was fond of Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Detective Akechi first appeared in “The Case of the Murder in D. Hill” published by Shin Seinen magazine in 1925. And “The Black Lizard” was serialized in the same magazine in 1934. Rampo was tremendously prolific, writing stories, novels and critical essays until his death. And while Rampo might not necessarily have been the first Japanese writer of mysteries, he has become the most eminent and Rampo’s influence on Japanese literature in general is profound. In 1947, he founded the Detective Authors Club, which became the Mystery Writers of Japan in 1963. The organization bestows awards on the best mystery and crime fiction, criticism and biography. They also give the annual Edogawa Rampo Award to the best unpublished mystery and crime novels. Rampo reportedly liked Inoue’s film and Inoue went on to direct television adaptations of Akechi Kogoro mysteries.
Rampo was also part of a movement of Japanese writers engaging with world literature and the possibilities created by Japanese liberalization and democratization during the Taisho and early Showa eras, roughly from 1910 until 1936. This was also the era of ero guro nansensu. Jeffrey Angles has my favorite translation: “eroticism, grotesquerie and nonsense.” Angles describes readers and writers interests at the time, “Throughout the Taisho and early Showa periods, readers were captivated by stories about the bizarre, ridiculous, irrational or fashionably odd, and if there was an extra dimension of eroticism, then all the better.” (Angles, 101). During the 1930s, the Japanese government was increasingly militarized, nationalistic and concerned with social hygiene and cracked down on ero guro nansensu art, including Rampo’s works. Akechi, always devious, made it through, though.
The Akechi mysteries are generally more what we would consider family friendly compared to Rampo’s other fiction. In “Caterpillar,” for example, a soldier loses all his limbs and is tormented by his caretaker. You can see the influence of the story everywhere you encounter that unpleasantness, for instance, Takashi Miike’s 2010 remake of Thirteen Assassins. In “The Human Chair,” a carpenter creates a secret compartment in his most finely crafted sofa so that he might feel other people’s pressure on him, among other things. The Black Lizard isn’t as extreme as “Caterpillar,” but “The Human Chair” is referred to in the novella and appears in the film adaptation.***
There are elements of ero guro nansensu in The Black Lizard. Or you might say The Black Lizard (1962) is kinky, queer, campy, weird and sometimes disturbing. The book feels almost like a straight adventure story or mystery. Not the kind where you solve a puzzle, but the kind where you enjoy and admire the cleverness and complexity of a criminal’s schemes and a master detective’s counter methods. The film is set in 1962 rather than 1934, but Shindo’s adapation of Mishima’s play is faithful to the novella. There are trilbys and saturated colors, but there are also false whiskers, enormous jewels, secret lairs, and so many parallel schemes that it’s not always easy to know what’s what. Poor Sanae is stuffed into things, doubled and counter doubled and snatched from the heart of both Akechi and the Black Lizard’s defenses. At the same time, there is definite kink. The Black Lizard’s museum not only displays jewels and antique Western furniture, but naked, beautiful people. There is also an instance of black face during an otherwise amazing dance sequence among the human collection, so be aware.
There is also queerness as the Black Lizard says, in the key of nonbinary, during her first escape from Akechi in musical form, it doesn’t matter whether she appears as a man or a woman because “there’s no me.” And the Black Lizard repeatedly confirms she is attracted to both Sanae and Akechi. And she has some feeling for her faithful Jun (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). But anyone the Black Lizard desires ends up in her museum, at least if she has her way. As in the novella, the Black Lizard is straightforward about her interest in Sanae, commenting on Sanae’s breasts and telling her, “I like jewelry but I also wanted you for your body.”
This attraction dooms Sanae. The Black Lizard’s plan includes displaying Sanae alive at first, but ultimately displaying Sanae’s taxidermed corpse in “The Joy of Two Lovers” exhibit. The second lover in the diorama will be Jun, a talented trumpeter who had earned a temporary reprieve as long as he was both a loyal henchman and a man who stood up to the Black Lizard. In a divergence from the novella, the Black Lizard initially approached Jun when he was suicidal and chloroformed him. But Jun’s urge passed and the Black Lizard gave him a reprieve. Again, she makes very clear that she wanted Jun as her plaything where his preserved body is in her museum. You could say the Black Lizard cannot tolerate the vulnerability of attraction, but for whatever reason, Sanae will be Black Lizard’s joy forever if she gets her way. There’s a lot to unpack there, as they say, so much about dominance, submission, pansexuality, bisexuality, gender, gender fluidity, identity and possibly necrophilia.
In the end, Black Lizard kills herself with a strong suggestion that death equals sex. But it’s also more complicated than that. She tells Akechi as he cradles her, “I didn’t do it because I got caught, but because you heard how I feel.”
And it doesn’t feel like the tragic impossible love as in so many queer depictions. The end of the 1968 film kind of does to me. Her death a demonstration that underscores the sincerity of her declarations. Both of how she feels and how she feels about having been revealed or boxed in criminally and in terms of her identity. It might also be Black Lizard’s final assertion of her identity and her assertion of her control. She will not be someone else. She will not be “just a woman” as Sanae or her decoy call her when they realize she loves Akechi. The Black Lizard will be herself till the end. And maybe next time she and Akechi meet, they will be on the same side of the joy of artful crimes.
*I know, but I like Irma Vep better than the Grand Vampires. I assume there is another episode in which she reveals they were her pawns the whole time.
**I’m using “Rampo” over “Ranpo” following Mark Schreiber’s introduction to The Black Lizard And The Beast in the Shadow.
***You can watch “Caterpillar” in anthology film, Rampo Noir (2005)… if you dare!
Jeffrey Angles, “Seeking the Strange: Ryōki and the Navigation of Normality in Interwar Japan.” Monumenta Nipponica. Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring, 2008): 101.
Ian Buruma. “Ero Guro Nansensu.” Inventing Japan: 1853-1964. NY: The Modern Library, 2003. 63-84.
Carol Borden plots artful crimes in her secret lair but she’s a more Catwoman than Black Lizard. No stuffed corpses or mannequin heads, thanks.
This essay was published by the Cultural Gutter on June 10, 2021.