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TCM Imports - April 2013
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Kurotokage (1962)

Kurotokage (1962, aka Black Lizard) has its origins in a 1934 detective novel -- originally published as a magazine serial -- by Edogawa Rampo, the pen name of writer Taro Hirai. ("Edogawa Rampo" was meant to mimic the pronunciation of "Edgar Allan Poe," a writer Hirai greatly admired.) The novel was one of a series that Rampo wrote about the exploits of detective Akechi Kogoro; in this one, he meets his match in a master jewel thief and femme fatale named Black Lizard, with whom he engages in a cat-and-mouse story as he falls under her charms.

In 1956, renowned Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima adapted Rampo's tale into an avant-garde stage play, which in turn formed the basis of this film. It was also the source of a 1968 remake that is now considered a campy cult classic. Mishima had a cameo in the later film, two years after which, at the age of 45, he committed seppuku, or ritual suicide.

As directed by Umetsugu Inoue, the 1962 movie is a showy, farcical mishmash of stylized lighting, garish color, tilted angles, direct address, and random musical numbers. Inoue, who died in 2010 at age 86, directed a whopping 116 features and 300 TV dramas in a thirty-five year career, making his mark in films that helped create a new genre known as Nikkatsu Action -- a stylish, vibrant blend of action and music that owed something to both Hollywood and the French New Wave, and which expressed the dreams of the young Japanese generation. Later in the 1960s, Inoue went to work for the famous Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong, but in 1962 he was freelancing around several Japanese studios, including Daiei, which produced Kurotokage.

Yukio Mishima's 1956 stage version of the story had starred a drag queen, Akihiro Maruyama, in the role of Black Lizard. Maruyama reprised the role in the 1968 film, and went on to a still-active career as a popular singer and television personality. But for the 1962 version, the role was played by one of the top Japanese actresses of the era, Machiko Kyo.

Kyo had begun her career in 1936 as a dancer, and made her film debut in 1944. In 1949 she signed a contract with Daiei and became one of the first Japanese actresses to be groomed into a star primarily through her sex appeal. At Daiei, she made Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (1953), and Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell (1953) -- all true classics that helped establish Kyo as a major star. She also played opposite Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford in MGM's The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), which contributed to her international stardom.

In 1955, in fact, Mademoiselle magazine named Kyo as one of the seven great women in the world. She was both the only Japanese and the only movie star to be mentioned on the list. Critics at the time compared her to Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Susan Hayward and Marilyn Monroe.

A printed program that accompanied a New York retrospective of Kyo's career in 1980 (at the city's Japan Film Center) reflected on her stardom: "What exactly is it that has made her popular? In 1949, when Daiei began promoting her, they were banking on her sex appeal; she was the first Japanese star to get the full bathing suit, cheesecake, pin-up treatment. Her early film roles were as women, often heroines of earlier eras, whose sensuality smolders just beneath the surface of socially proper behavior. Pretenses of propriety were shed in her role as a prostitute in Street of Shame (1956).

"In many of her later films power, success, and security are more important to her characters than fulfilling relationships with men. Whether she plays a woman struggling to survive on her own, as in Night Butterflies (1957) or Sweet Sweat (1964), or a more 'conventional' woman who exerts her strength from behind the scenes, as in A Woman's Testament (1960) or The Family (1974), she always makes full use of her sensuality and erotic magnetism to achieve her ends.

"Miss Kyo's characters present us with some paradoxes. They seem at once refined and earthy, endearing and nasty, innocent and conniving, retiring and aggressive. She works so adroitly on the ambiguities of these characters that in the end we often come away unsure if the women in question were naughty or nice."

When the Daiei studio went bankrupt in 1971, Kyo concentrated more on television and the stage, working into her eighties. She is currently (as of 2013) 89 years old.

By Jeremy Arnold

SOURCES:

Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film

Jasper Sharp, Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema

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