Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Umetsugu Inoue, 1962)

“I want to live in a world where things kiss spontaneously, money divides society like it does you and me” says the Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Kurotokage) to her mark, affecting the role of an elegant older woman but failing to conceal herself within the disguise. Though the later 1968 version by Kinji Fukasaku may be better known, Umetsugu Inoue’s adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s 1934 short story, filtered through Yukio Mishima’s stage play and scripted by Kaneto Shindo, is a camp classic in its own right. Making full use of Inoue’s talent for musicals and the dance background of marquee star Machiko Kyo, Black Lizard is a full hearted crime melodrama in which the villain’s defeat is a perverse tragedy leaving the truly treacherous to ponder what it is they may have destroyed. 

Another outing for Edogawa Rampo’s master detective Akechi (Minoru Oki), the picture opens with “Japan’s best detective” offering a monologue to camera in which he explains that the world is a brutal place but crime too can be an art, it is after all a man-made creation. If only we had more artful crimes, he claims, the world might be a better place. That is perhaps why he seems to have fallen for the crafty Black Lizard, his Irene Adler talented at elaborate heists involving disguise and subterfuge. 

His present case, however, finds him on a retainer to boorish jewellery merchant Iwase (Masao Mishima) who has been receiving threatening letters claiming that someone “very evil” is planning to kidnap his 19-year-old daughter Sanae (Junko Kano) whom he is currently trying to marry off. The reason they’ve made this trip to Osaka (without her mother) is so that Sanae can meet another prospective husband. She doesn’t seem very happy about the idea, but is going along with it and it seems Iwase doesn’t intend to pressure her into a marriage she doesn’t want. In any case, she’s something of a sheltered young woman which might be why she doesn’t suspect anything of the over friendly Mrs. Midorikawa other than she seems to have designs on her father. Knowing that no young girl relishes the prospect of arranged marriage, “Mrs. Midorikawa” makes a point of introducing her to a “friend” of hers, Amamiya (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), whom she thinks might be more to her liking. Of course, Midorikawa is really Black Lizard and Amamiya is her henchman. They’ve come to kidnap Sanae in the hope of ransoming her for the precious jewel “Egyptian Star” that Iwase can’t stop boasting about. 

The thing about Black Lizard is that she’s not driven by monetary gain but by a lust for beauty. She loves everything that sparkles, but more than that the aesthetic pleasure of the human form. Black Lizard tells Sanae that she dreams of a world with no borders, in which people are free into wander into the homes of others, and the subway hangers will be made of diamonds and platinum – literally a sparkling world of peace and freedom where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. In a slightly transgressive moment, she casts her eyes over Sanae’s youthful body, admiring her “perfectly shaped breasts” before turning melancholy in admitting that she feels sad whenever she sees someone beautiful in knowing they will soon grow old. Later, we realise we should have taken her at her word, her objection to transience apparently having turned murderous. 

Even so, Sanae in rejecting the idea of arranged marraige, foolishly admits she’d rather be stolen than bought. In her eyes, a desire to be swept off her feet by a romantic hero saving her from a bourgeois existence, but she is indeed about to be “stolen” if only to be redeemed when her father agrees to give up the Egyptian Star to save her. Iwase, however, like the Black Lizard herself, was seduced by the allure of precious jewels after striking it lucky as a working class young man labouring in a quarry. He loves his daughter, but cannot bring himself to surrender this the most precious of all his jewels even to save her life. Akechi assures him that he has a plan which will save both Sanae and the diamond, but is left with only contempt for the way that Iwase has been corrupted not quite by greed but by a kind of misdirected lust for illusionary lustre. 

Black Lizard, for her part, is smitten by Akechi’s acumen, taken both by his handsome form and by his ability to challenge her. They chase each other while wondering who it is that is really being pursued and what they intend to do if ever they manage to catch their quarry, but vowing to emerge victorious all the same. Black Lizard guards her heart jealously, like the most precious jewel of all, while Akechi is continually captivated by the perfection of her criminal escapades. “What I hate most in this world is fakes” Black Lizard exclaims, confronted by Akechi’s complicated doubles game where no one is quite whom they first seemed to be, but it’s her own authenticity which eventually blinds her in realising she might have made a damning confession to the man who has “stolen” her heart. Grotesque as it eventually is, and it ends in a bizarre museum of human taxidermy crafted into “beautiful” tableaux, Akechi cannot help but admire the “beauty” in Black Lizard’s artistry, lamenting the loss of something precious while those like Iwase will continue to sell their glittering emptiness to an increasingly “brutal” world. 


Black Lizard dancing away from the scene of the crime (no subtitles)

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (蛇娘と白髪魔, Noriaki Yuasa, 1968)

snake girl and the white haired witchLittle Sayuri has had it pretty tough up to now growing up in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, but her long lost father has finally managed to track her down and she’s going to able to live with her birth family at last! However, on the car ride to her new home her father explains a few things to her to the effect that her mother was involved in some kind of accident and isn’t quite right in the head. Things get weirder when they arrive at the house only to be greated by the guys from the morgue who’ve just arrived to take charge of a maid who’s apparently dropped dead!

If that weren’t enough her “mother” calls her by the wrong name and then dad gets a sudden telegram about needing to go to Africa for “several weeks” to study a new kind of snake! On her tour of the house, Sayuri finds a room full of snakes, reptiles and insects (and also for some reason a large vat of acid?!) as well as a room with a buddhist altar where the food seems to disappear just as if Buddha himself were really eating it. Eventually, Sayuri is introduced to her secret sister, Tamami, who has slight facial disfigurement and a wicked disposition which has seen her locked away from view for quite some time…..

Based on the manga by Kazuo Umezu, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (蛇娘と白髪魔, Hebi Musume to Hakuhatsuma) is, apparently, aimed at a younger audience which explains its child’s eye view of events but the film makes no concessions to the supposed softness of little minds. With a host of surreal imagery including dream sequences full of creepy, hypnotic spirals, and moments of shocking violence such as a large frog being suddenly ripped in half right in front of Sayuri’s eyes the film certainly doesn’t stint on blood, horror and general freakiness.

Sayuri herself seems largely unperturbed by these strange goings on outside of her nightmarish serpentine visions. She seems to have been well cared for at the orphanage and is happy to have found her family rather than just to be escaping the institution. On getting “home” she does her best to fit in right away, acting politely and trying to bond with her mother even in her confused state. She even tries to get on well with her mysterious sister despite the ominous warning to keep her very existence a secret from her father. Tamami, however, is a nightmare child with homicidal tendencies who isn’t interested in playing happy families with the girl who’s come to usurp her place in the household.

There’s a little more to the set up than just snake based horror (the clue being the Silver-Haired Witch of the title) but the secondary message seems to be one of remembering that the true beauty of a person lies not in their external appearance but in the goodness of their soul. The previously deformed Tamami is later said to be looking sweeter after having “redeemed” herself and Sayuri pledges to honour Tamami’s sisterly sacrifice by always remembering to hold fast and true to the beautiful things in her own soul without being swayed by worldly charms.

Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is more of a psychological horror tale than some of the effects laden efforts of the period. However, there are a fair few practical effects on show most notably during the dream sequences – one of which sees Sayuri actually fighting a giant snake with a sword, as well as the creepy spirals and the appearance of weird vampire-like snake women, dancing oni masks and the Silver-Haired Witch herself.

A children’s film that no one in their right mind would actually show to a child, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a freakishly psychological horror show seen through the eyes of a little girl. Part dreamscape and part terrifying reality, the film mixes the real and the imagined with a fiendish intensity and it just goes to show that sometimes you really do need to pay attention to the strange fancies of intrepid young ladies.


This trailer doesn’t have any subtitles but it is actually quite scary…..

Giants & Toys (巨人と玩具, Yasuzo Masumura, 1958)

91C6JzGDYTL._SL1500_Less acerbic than Masumura’s later Black Test Car, Giants & Toys (巨人と玩具, Kyojin to gangu) is an altogether more humorous, if no less piercing look at post-war consumerism. This time the battle ground is confectionary as the Japanese sweets industry laments the all powerful American candies taking over the Japanese landscape. Three sweet companies are duking it out for the hearts of Japanese consumers and the hard working salarymen in the PR & marketing departments are becoming ever more desperate to find the key to becoming Japan’s top selling sweet maker.

The three companies are Giant, Apollo and World, each of which is currently trying to come up with an advertising campaign which has a competition element that will really hook in the populace. Our main focus is with World whose top PR man, Goda, is currently stumped when he spots quirky hillbilly Kyoko in a bar and hatches on an idea to make her the central poster girl of his ad campaign. Kyoko is 18 with gap teeth and a childlike innocence that makes her a great fit for selling their confectionary products to the adult market. At the same time, Goda’s assistant Nishi meets an older female executive from Apollo who’s trying to shift a set of spacesuits. This fits in neatly with another of Goda’s space themed ideas and a suitably bizarre campaign is launched with the gangly Kyoko dressed up in a kitsch spacesuit and pointing a ray gun which is somehow supposed to encourage people to buy sweets. Kyoko is a hit! However, the more popular Kyoko becomes the more her innocent charms begin to dissipate. What will become of her, and of the campaign, as the competition mounts?

For an area that’s supposed to be so totally frivolous and cheerful, confectionary sales are serious business. Goda is working himself into an early grave just to sell sweets to grownups and old people. It’s advertising and marketing but like everything else in life it’s just so much spin. What they’re really trying to sell is frivolous fun and a return to childhood’s freedom all packed into a momentary suck on a salted caramel. In the Japan where “everyone works all the time” this may be quite an attractive idea, especially to the put upon members of the confectionary marketing board.

However, trivial as sweets are, they represent the fleeting unimportance of pop culture memes. During one of Kyoko’s recording sessions we meet one of the solitary female producers (labelled a “machine” by two of the other women waiting to be seen) who laments that a has been star keeps hassling her for work though her time has passed and no one’s interested. This is most likely how things will wind up for Kyoko, five minutes of being everywhere followed by a lifetime of being nowhere at all. After signing with World for their TV and radio advertising she becomes a break out personality attending events as a celebrity in her own right and later even becoming a pop star complete with a totally strange, South Pacific themed musical number referencing some kind of cannibalistic genocide where they’ll sell back the remains of the men they’ve killed to the native wives. Pointed satire in more ways than one.

Goda wants to build a kind of mass media dictatorship, cleverly controlling the public mood through all pervasive advertising (a prescient thought, if ever there was one). Having taken things too far, he’s taken to task by his underling, Nishi, who’s had a bit of a rethink following a series of heartbreaks involving friends and lovers. “I won’t sacrifice my dignity” he says, only to be shown doing just that a couple of minutes later as he himself dons the ridiculously camp space suit, takes the ray gun in hand and wanders out into the streets to be met by a series of bemused stares from the passersby. Eventually, the woman from Apollo with whom he’d been having an affair spots him and with an equally amused expression instructs him to “smile warmly”, at which point he grimaces before managing to turn it into a robotic grin.

Still oddly current, Giants & Toys is an absurdist’s guide to corporate politics where personal integrity is sacrificed on the altar of commerce. Everyone runs round in circles working hard to sell things no one really wants or needs to other hardworking people just to keep the wheel spinning. “Kanban Musume” come and go, one ridiculous meme follows another and we all just fall over ourselves to chase whichever unattainable ideal they pitch us. It would be nice to think the world has moved on since 1958, however…


Giants & Toys is available on R1 DVD with English subtitles courtesy of Fantoma.

No trailer but here’s the beautifully bizarre cannibalistic genocide themed music video

 

Black Test Car (黒の試走車, Yasuzo Masumura, 1962)

tumblr_n2w2l2mX1a1tvmqcgo1_1280The automobile business is a high stakes game. Do you want to play faster, shinier and sleeker, or safer, family friendly and reliable? Family cars are the best sellers – everyone one wants something that’s reliable for getting to work every morning, getting the grocery shopping done and that you won’t worry about taking your kids to the park in. However, it’s the 1960s and lifestyles are shifting, men (in particular) are marrying later and they want to have fun before they do – hence having quite a lot of disposable income they can blow on a flashy two-seater sports car with no wife to complain about it. Tiger have just finished a new prototype called the Pioneer they plan to launch as a revolution in commercial sports cars which is super speedy but with the convenience of an everyday sedan. However, the Yamato company are also set to launch a new car and it keeps looking suspiciously like the Pioneer – does Tiger have a mole?

Black Test Car (黒の試走車, Kuro no Test Car) begins with the prototype model of the Pioneer bursting into flames during a test run. Not the best start, but it’s early days and at least the driver wasn’t hurt. The guys at Tiger suspect sabotage as they can’t find anything wrong with car’s design. Onoda, the man who’s in charge of the project, has summoned some of his best employees to become the “industrial spying” department to flush out the mole. However, their first few plans fail and Yamato always seems to get there ahead of them. Yamato’s “chief of spying” is a slightly sleazy older man by the name of Mawatari who lost his wife and daughter during the Manchurian campaign (where he also may have been a more official kind of spy). Luckily (for some more than others), Onoda’s protege, Asahina, is dating a girl who works in the hostess industry and it’s suggested to him that he get his girlfriend to spy on Mawatari as he has a particular fondness for a certain hostess bar. The shady dealings only get worse from here on in, blackmail, bribery, pimping and prostitution – is this the yakuza or the automobile industry?

Yasuzo Masumura turns his cynical eye to big business and finds just as must drama as in your cold war spy epic. Onoda is a fanatical company man whose primary reason for living is his work. He barely comes home, rarely sees his children and views his precious Pioneer as his legacy. As such, he’s determined to find the man who’s betraying all his secrets and has become something of a petty dictator in the process. “We’re industrial spies!” he keeps declaiming, as if those words had any kind of authority. He’s not a policeman, he’s not a warrior for justice, he’s just a guy at a car firm who’s poured altogether too much of himself into a few scraps of metal.

His assistant, the up and coming Asahina, seems set to follow in Onoda’s footsteps. He’s young and ambitious, he wants to get the head of department job so he can marry his girlfriend who is still working as a bar hostess (which he doesn’t actually seem to mind about if she doesn’t mind about it either). The girlfriend, Masako, worries that work is changing him. When Asahina asks her to spy on Mawatari she refuses, but when he half jokes that he might not want to marry her she if won’t do as he says, she eventually agrees. Later he asks her for more than that which might just be enough to nip this young love story well and truly in the bud.

Having lost out several times already, the Tiger guys think they’ve got an angle and decide to launch the Pioneer way ahead of schedule to undercut Yamato’s price and release date. However, right away there is a scandalous accident which ends up all over the papers as the driver of the car (who survived unscathed, there were no serious injuries involved) drags the wreck all over town with a loud speaker to announce just how dangerous he believes the car to be. Of course, he’s a stooge, set up by Yamato and aided by another undiscovered mole in the Tiger camp. This incident is the last straw for those who still have a moral backbone at Tiger – culminating in violence and suicide, it leaves the fresh faced executives wondering whether they’re on the career ladder at a respectable firm or among the ranks of thuggish gangsters prepared to lie, cheat and extort to get along.

Shot in a noirish black and white with a moody jazz score, Black Test Car has its film noir overtones with the immorality of big business at its centre. At the beginning of the film everything is for the company – no one thinks of themselves or their own soul, they just want in and to climb the ladder while its there. Or so it seems because everyone is also taking kickbacks whilst blackmailing other people for doing exactly the same thing. There are spy cams interpreted by lip readers, undercover prostitutes masquerading as nurses and men in bushes with microphones – not a dignified way of doing business. At one point Onoda scoffs “you can’t get hung up on  morals. You’ll just have remorse” – this is the choice that presents itself, would you rather have the flashy sports car or retain your humanity?


Black Test Car is available on R1 DVD with English subtitles courtesy of Fantoma.

(unsubbed trailer)