Akihiro Maruyama in drag as the glamorous Black Lizard
Screenshot: Spectacle Theater (Vimeo)

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With the animated film Sherlock Gnomes hitting theaters Friday, we’re looking back on other interpretations of the famous sleuth from Baker Street.


Black Lizard (1968)

Proper Victorian gentleman Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have been shocked by Black Lizard, future Battle Royale director Kinji Fukasaku’s 1968 high-camp crime caper that reinterprets the dance between Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, as an erotically charged game of cat and mouse between a glamorous jewel thief played by celebrated female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama and a dashing private eye played by Seven Samurai’s Isao Kimura. Or maybe not, given the evidence for Doyle’s liberal stance on homosexuality. But regardless of Doyle’s moral objections (or lack thereof), he may very well not have recognized his most famous creation several cross-cultural interpretations in.

First, Edogawa Ranpo (say it quickly out loud), the early-20th-century novelist who introduced a number of Western mystery tropes to Japanese literature, presented his native country with its own Sherlock in the form of Kogoro Akechi, an eccentric, cerebral master detective and judo expert clearly inspired by Holmes. (Akechi even has his own version of the Baker Street Irregulars, known as the Boy Detectives Club.) Then gay Japanese literary icon—and, it should be noted, hardcore fascist—Yukio Mishima adapted one of Rampo’s Akechi stories into a play called The Black Lizard, infusing it with the anarchic irreverence that was trending worldwide in the 1960s. Mishima cast one of his discoveries (and rumored lover), Akihiro Maruyama, as the title character. Maruyama’s serpentine performance enhances the character’s enigmatic aura, a sly wink to the gender ambiguity of the actor who plays her. Seductive and sociopathic, she’s a sophisticated queen of crime with a subterranean hideout worthy of a Bond villain and a deep personal connection to diamonds, which she loves for their hard, soulless brilliance.

The resulting film version—which, at Mishima’s insistence, also stars Maruyama in the lead female role—is equally inspired by the lurid psychedelic excess of the late ’60s and the stiff formalism of kabuki theater. The plot is reminiscent of one of your campier James Bond adventures or a Shaw Brothers fantasy-action hybrid, as Black Lizard plots to kidnap heiress Sanae Iwase (the appropriately Kewpie-like Kikko Matsuoka) and turn her into one of the living “dolls” imprisoned in her decadent Rococo lair. It’s the hypermasculine Akechi’s mission to stop her—although he’ll have to get past her army of devoted “slaves” decked out in purple satin suits first.

The back-and-forth between Akechi and Black Lizard is full of meta-commentary on the fluidity of identity, as characters transform themselves into other people through the use of masks, wigs, makeup, voice recordings, and even embedding themselves into pieces of furniture (an odd fixation of Ranpo’s that also appears in his story “The Human Chair”). Black Lizard’s wild mixture of winking subversion, dizzying camerawork, and cartoonish characters shares its playful spirit with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, released almost 10 years later, and its garish aesthetic obsession with the grotesqueries of romance with the much more recent The Love Witch. Fans of both will discover a fresh and rarely seen side of Japanese genre cinema with this film. In Black Lizard’s world, nothing is more romantic than a jewel heist, and the motorcycles spout bright, sherbet-colored exhaust.

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Availability: Black Lizard has never been officially released on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S., and the VHS release has long since gone out of print. However, the complete film is available on YouTube, albeit in a low-quality transfer. Fukasaku and Maruyama’s follow-up, an unrelated melodrama called Black Rose Mansion, is readily available on DVD.