by Kris Tronerud
Black Rose Mansion • Directed by Kinji Fukasaku • Shochiku Studios • 1969
Exactly 30 years ago, I found myself crouched down in a neighborhood theater to watch what was being openly marketed as a Star Wars ripoff with my ten year old son, frankly not expecting a whole lot beyond an amusing Saturday afternoon hangout with the kid. What I got was an intensely colorful, surprisingly heartfelt sci-fi saga that straddled the line between Space Opera and Fairy Tale a lot more fully than did Star Wars, and whose fanciful, if not exactly realistic special effects achieved a palpable sense of childhood wonder on about a zillionth of George Lucas’ budget. Starring Vic Morrow(!) and Sonny Chiba, Message from Space had believable, well drawn characters, and was alternately thrilling, funny, touching, scary and goofy, in about equal proportions. Welcome to the world of Kinji Fukasaku.
Kinji Fukasaku made every kind of picture in his long and productive career, from traditional samurai tales (Shogun’s Assassin and the enormously entertaining medieval fairy tale version of Magnificent Seven, Tale of the Eight Samurai) to the bitter yakuza films which cemented his reputation in Japan and abroad (Street Mobster, the immensely popular 5-part Yakuza Papers, and his crime saga masterpiece Graveyard of Honor), to florid melodramas like Mansion; with several international American cast hits (the candy-colored Italian style space opera The Green Slime, the big budget disaster movie Virus and the Japanese scenes in the underrated WWII docudrama Tora Tora Tora) along the way. He finally reached international star status with his last complete film, the brilliant, bitter teen age holocaust Battle Royale, but Fukasaku first made a name for himself with the Drifting Detective series of crime programmers, starring a young and up-and-coming Sonny Chiba, who, despite his sudden international fame in the Street Fighter series, remained a recurring Fukasaku player throughout his career. He first attracted serious critical attention with a thoroughly unique little number called Black Lizard, a psychedelic/pop-art/anime-style spy caper flick that starred Japan’s legendary female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama as a sultry master thief leaving a trail of larceny and brokenhearted (not to mention mostly dead) admirers behind her. The film’s brazen originality, humor, extravagant visual style and high-concept pedigree (it was based on author and radical gay militarist Yukio Mishima’s adaptation of a short story by classic mystery novelist Edogawa Rampo) made it a huge popular success, and Fukasaku a hot property. Shikoku Studios (who had lured Fukasaku away from rival Toei for Lizard) were anxious to repeat its success with another vehicle for Maruyama in a female role, but equally interested in being recognized as sophisticated, modern studio. Settling on Studio boss Akira Oda’s love of the old fashioned melodramas that had made Shochiku’s fortunes, and painted in a gorgeous widescreen big budget 60’s look, Black Rose Mansion tells the story of the arrival of mysterious, spellbinding and ageless beauty Ryuko (Maruyama) at a secluded and exclusive men’s club retreat, the Black Rose Mansion. Herself bearing an ever-present black rose which she swears is real, and will turn red when she truly falls in love, Ryuko immediately wins over the vaguely unhappy middle aged owner, successful (and married) tycoon Kyohei (Eitarô Ozawa) and his clientele, becoming a nightly attraction known for arriving at precisely 8, singing her torch songs, and leaving at exactly 11. This cozy setup has a drawback however: Ryuko brings a bit of baggage with her, namely a seemingly endless supply of ex-lovers and husbands, all of whom have an unfortunate tendency to track her down at the club and get crazy on everyone’s ass. When two rejected suitors show up at once and kill each other simultaneously at her feet, Kyohei professes his love and offers to be her protector/lover. Against her better judgment, she accepts, but when Kyohei’s brooding, hunky son Wataru (played with a beautiful James Dean intensity by future TV star Masakazu Tamura) comes home in prodigal disgrace and falls for the terminally fickle Ryuko, he joins in an ill-advised quick rich scheme proposed by a low-life criminal friend so that he can afford to steal her from his father…
Before the arrival of Takashi Miike, no director was ever so completely unconcerned with adhering to his audience’s expectations than Kinji Fukasaku, (it seems fitting that Miike lovingly remade Graveyard of Honor in 2002) and his films are often jolting in their willingness to veer from high drama to comedy to a bizarre surrealistic zaniness, and astonishing in how often, and how well, it worked. On the surface, the plot reads like a 50’s Douglas Sirk melodrama, and often plays like one. And a very good one at that, as the acting and direction of the many scenes of quiet reflective family drama that form the core of this crazy quilt concoction, are superb, with standout performances from stage star Ozawa as Kyohei, and Ayako Hosho as his quietly bitter wife, who has a past every bit as destructive as her husband’s present. Ryuki, a larger than life figure, serves as much as a catalyst for the reconnection (however hurtful and chaotic) of Kyohei’s family as she does as femme fatale, and the knowing dialogue and introspection of these scenes leaves us unsuspecting prey for… Sudden crimson-tinted scenes of S&M, murder and assorted sexual mayhem (Ryuko has lead a flashback-ready life), not to mention a sexy, sultry heroine played with an absolutely straight face by a Man who, in a throaty but distinctly feminine warble, delivers the numerous and delirious Marlene Dietrich-meets-Carmen Miranda musical numbers which punctuate Mansion with clocklike regularity. As in Lizard, Mansion’s characters unquestioningly accept Murayama/Ryuko as a woman, nor is there even a hint of ironic homosexual undertone in the telling of its story. While Fukasaku mast have understood the frisson this casting would cause with international audiences, the presence of this mainstream star in a female role has direct roots in traditional Noh and Kabuki theater, whose spookily beautiful heroines (often played by established male actors) are reflected in Ryuko’s otherworldly persona. Murayami’s performance as a woman who is, despite her preposterously unrepentant treachery, truly acting out of an unswerving belief in the possibility of true love is, (in contrast to the rest of the cast), a theatrical, stylized, force of nature tour-de-force that demands to be, and is, accepted on its own terms. But it is Ozawa’s complex and powerful Kyohei who draws all the threads together as the family patriarch; who even in cuckoldry, maintains his dignity, strength, and love for his unruly family, which is rapidly disintegrating at Ryuko’s hands, and provides Mansion, in the midst of all its gleeful insanity, with moments of near tragic dimension.
Despite the fact that Fukasaku adopted a distinctly different visual look and directorial tone for each of his primary groups of films, there are unmistakable undercurrents that nonetheless make all of his major works the distinct and recognizable work of a genuine auteur. One element, also derived from Noh drama, is the vast cast of colorful, beautifully realized, unpredictable and memorable characters that populate each of his films (a characteristic shared also by the Toei Yakuza cycle). Another is Fukasaku’s deeply moral refusal to judge his characters, encouraging us to like even the most unlikable of them beyond the point that we can dismiss them, therefore forcing us to confront what they say about us. Key also is Fukasaku’s imbuing of each film with a different, but always emotional and gripping visual beauty that weaves all their seemingly disparate parts into the deeply memorable films that form the life work of this highly original and affecting filmmaker; who is, just now finally being properly recognized for his most unusual and irreplaceable contribution to world film: works like Battle Royale, Graveyard of Honor, and Black Rose Mansion, that arouse, amuse, outrage, and move us, with their unmistakable humanity.
All this and Green Slime too… that’s Fukasaku.