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Black Rose Mansion

Black Rose Mansion
American Cinematheque / Chimera Entertainment / Vitagraph
1969 / Color / 2.35:1 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 min. / Street Date February 25, 2003 / $24.99
Starring Akihiro Maruyama, Eitaro Ozawa, Takashiro Tamura, Ko Nishimura
Cinematography Ko Kawamata
Production Designer Masao Kumagi
Film Editor Kinji Fukasaku
Original Music Hajime Kaburagi
Written by Kiro Matsuda and Kinji Fukasaku
Produced by Akira Oda
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV

Some 15 years ago, a long-forgotten Japanese thriller called Black Lizard (Kurotokage, 1968) was revived in America. Based on a story by Rampo Edogawa and a play adaptation by Yukio Mishima, Black Lizard was a self-consciously campy, "baroquely psychedelic" (as the DVD�s jacket describes it) crime melodrama with a famous female impersonator starring as a glamorous jewel thief. The picture became a minor cult item on the art house circuit and, later, on videotape. It was perhaps the first film of its kind to find an audience in America � certainly it was one of the very few examples of Asian camp ever seen in the west. Patrons of foreign cinema, weaned on the solemnity of Bergman and Tarkovsky, had never seen anything remotely like it, but virtually everyone who saw it embraced its earnest silliness. It was as if it took a 20-year-old Japanese movie to bridge the gap between John Waters and Pedro Almodovar.

Word soon spread of a sequel, called Black Rose Mansion (Kurobara no yakata, 1969), and for years fans of Black Lizard eagerly awaited the release of this follow-up. Regrettably, not only does the sequel live up to its reputation as inferior, it's spectacularly awful. That said, fans of the first film will probably want to see it anyway, and the DVD offers some extras that almost make up for the feature's excruciating lifelessness.


At a private men's club called Black Rose Mansion, glamorous, mysterious singer Ryuko (Akihiro Maryama) is worshipped by almost everyone, including the club's millionaire owner (Eitaro Ozawa), his estranged son (Masakazu Tamura), and varied ex- and would-be lovers.

The DVD's jacket credits the film as being "based on a play by Yukio Mishima," but this is misleading. Mishima is not credited on the film itself, and director Kinji Fukasaku admits during an on-camera interview (included as a special feature) that the infamous writer made no contribution at all to the finished film. Though he doesn't say so directly, Fukasaku implies that by 1969 Mishima was so out of his mind (and immersed in the creation of his private army) that the once acclaimed writer wasn't capable of much of anything, much less a coherent film script. More surprising, though, is that Fukasaku and co-writer Hiro Matsuda didn't turn to the work of Rampo Edogawa for another story along the lines of Black Lizard. Fukasaku blames, none-too-convincingly, changing management at Shochiku Studios for the shift away from the Mabuse-esque thrills of the first film to the dreary gothic melodrama of its successor.

Whatever the reason, Black Rose Mansion is alarmingly ill-conceived. It plays like it was thrown together in a great hurry by people who didn't understand the first film's strengths. It's virtually plotless, and most of the action (if one is to call it that) is confined to a single set, the Black Rose Mansion itself. The bright, '60s a-Go-Go colors of the first film are eschewed in favor of blacks, dark wallpaper, and gobs of fake marble, all of which give the impression of a cramped mausoleum. Even the few exterior shots offer little relief, with most of the landscape a dirty brown. Fukasaku seems to be trying to compensate for all this by using color filters (mostly reds) for the many flashback scenes, and he frequently breaks up the general monotony by using freeze frames, still images, subliminal-style cutting and other cinematic devices used to better effect in his "Battles without Honor and Humanity" films of the 1970s. Similarly, Fukasaku tries to inject some energy with little set pieces like the colorful title design, a brief nightmare montage and little explosions of the director's trademark violence. Generally though, even Fukasaku can't hide the film�s rushed look (particularly during the singularly weak, ineptly-shot motorboat climax), rendering Black Rose Mansion no more a showcase for its director than for its star.

Maruyama especially has his hands tied playing a staid, enigmatic figure we never learn anything about, who does little but react curtly to all the men dropping at her feet. Other than watching helplessly as men fight for her attentions, Maruyama's Ryuko has nothing to do but passively stand there looking glamorous. (In both pictures, there's no suggestion that Maruyama's character is anything other than a real woman.) The key to Black Lizard's success was the electrifying relationship between Maruyama's master criminal and her arch-rival, a detective well played by Seven Samurai's Isao Kimura. They are turned-on, mainly, by their increasingly feverish game of cat-and-mouse, and a mutual love of and obsession with crime. Though most of the cast and crew from Black Lizard returned for Black Rose Mansion, Kimura has been replaced by Eitaro Ozawa, who has little to do but gaze longingly at his would-be mistress. In short, Maruyama has no meaningful interaction with anyone. Junya Usami and Kikko Matsuoka, who played the wealthy jeweler and his daughter in Black Lizard, have inconsequential roles here.

Where Black Lizard was unique in the American film scene of 15 years ago, Black Rose Mansion, all these years later, is awfully weak stuff compared even with the other titles in Vitagraph's own catalog. It's neither as daring or original as Koji Wakamatsu's genuinely subversive Go! Go! Second-Time Virgin (also 1969), or as goofily disarming as Yasuharu Hasebe�s Black Tight Killers (1966). Black Rose Mansion is one of those films you'd think couldn't miss, and when it's over you can't imagine how it could possibly have failed so miserably.

The picture transfer is up to the standards of the company's earlier releases, though the image is a bit on the grainy side. The removable subtitles � not burned-in like some of Vitagraph�s earlier releases � are clear and concise. Though the liner notes/insert offers little in the way of production information, the subtitles helpfully identify virtually the entire cast and crew.

At a time when "English Mono" is frequently listed as a "Special Feature," the packaging forBlack Rose Mansion is, by comparison, much too modest. It makes no mention of the fact that the film has been anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions, or that it includes a half-dozen other trailers (for other Vitagraph releases, along with one for the main attraction), and a short profile of the Egyptian Theater. The aforementioned interview with Fukasaku runs about 20 minutes and goes into considerable detail on both this and Black Lizard. As the DVD was produced in conjunction with the American Cinematheque, a short, entertaining featurette is included on the Cinematheque's home, the former Mann's Egyptian Theatre. Excerpted from the PBS series Visiting . . . with Huell Howser, the eight-minute program gives a nice overview of this Hollywood landmark with footage both before and after its 1996 restoration.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Black Rose Mansion rates:
Movie: Mediocre
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Kini Fukasaku interview, Egyptian theater short subject, trailers
Packaging: Keep case case
Reviewed: April 1, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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