Before there was “Tora, Tora, Tora” (1970) and Battle Royale (2000), there was “Black Rose Mansion,” a 1969 film by director Kinji Fukasaku that introduced the world to transsexuality. Starring famed female impersonator, Akihiro Maruyama, the film pushes the late 1960’s technical capabilities of the Japanese studios all the while exposing the harsh and violent world hidden within the Japanese social system. As the follow up to the cult classic “Black Lizard,” “Black Rose Mansion” is shrouded in mystery and a perverse devotion. Yet, like so many sequels, it fails to deliver in its dissimilarity to the first and should be shelved as a lifeless, pointless spectacle.
The narrative begins when a wealthy businessman named Kyohei creates a private hideaway for his personal hobbies. Specifically, he converts his father’s old villa into a plush nightclub for men, a place where he can escape from his troubled family life. In an effort to attract more clientele, he solicits the services of famed transsexual lounge singer, Ryuko, a mysterious woman with a penchant for carrying a black rose and leaving those she encounters in a loving trance. “I knew she was the beautiful sunset before the storm,” says Kyohei of the femme fatale at the beginning of the film. But little did he know about the size of the storm.
Immediately, with Ryuko’s hypnotic love songs, the Black Rose Mansion picks up business – some good, some bad. Of most significance, her arrival attracts a number of former suitors, many of whom still cling to her and pledge their allegiance to her. And when she rejects their proposals, they turn homicidal, committing suicide, engaging in fatal knife fights, and racing onto the streets looking to self-destruct. But despite all of the attention and hoopla, no one seems to be dismayed. In particular, Kyohei, who easily dismisses the events only to become infatuated himself. Some time later, he asks her to become his mistress; however, the arrangement is short-lived as Kyohei’s prodigal son, Wataru, appears and falls in love with Ryuko. As family tensions surmount, Ryuko threatens to leave the mansion and disappear without a trace, down the path of the broken heart and black rose.
In January of 2003, maverick Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku passed away after a short bout with prostate cancer. Known for depicting the cruel and violent underground world of the yakuza, Fukasaku’s films are now being restored and reintroduced into the mainstream after a long history in cult film status. “Black Rose Mansion,” in particular, arrives as the sequel to the 1968 noir classic “Black Lizard,” where famed female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama starred as a master criminal playing cat and mouse with detective Isao Kimura. Throughout the first installment, Maruyama slowly begins to lose her power as she falls in love with her pursuer.
But in “Black Rose Mansion,” this chemistry does not exist nor do the same characters. There is no continuity or resemblance to the previous film whatsoever. There is no sexual tension. Instead, hypnotic songstress Ryuko is unemotional and empty. She has no motivation, no logic, and no reasoning. She exists merely as an icon to be worshipped by countless suitors willing to die for her. And when approached by one of these lovers, her reaction is downgraded to a straight-faced “I don’t know you.” Even after they’ve killed themselves. Equally devoid of any character development is Kyohei, the millionaire playboy whose purpose in life is simply to gawk at Ryuko. We see countless scenes of his stone-faced stare, cigarette in hand.
The overall cinematography is adequate. With dark shadows and tones, the landscape heightens the suspense. And the freeze frame images and stills are worth noting. However, to contrast the difference between what’s real and what’s a memory or dream, Fukasaku employs a variety of monochromatic colors – reds, yellows, and greens. From the very beginning of the film, we are squinting threw the red hue to see what’s going on. It’s like watching the film entrance of Ryuko through night vision goggles. This technique is obviously one of the shortcomings in Japanese technology at the time. While it’s helpful in pointing out the flashback sequences, the overall result is a blotchy and obscured eyesore.
“Black Rose Mansion” succeeds at being a mystery, but it lacks the clarity and drama of “Black Lizard.” There are many inconsequential scenes and undeveloped characters, the story is unfulfilling and one dimensional, and the technical aspect lacks clarity at times. Though it does have an eclectic musical score and workable cinematics, the film exists solely on the notion of intrigue. Throughout the film, you want to know if Ryuko’s rose will turn red, you want to know why all of the suitors are willing to die for her, and you want to know what will become of her future relationships – all questions that require a fulfilling story to resolve. Ironically, Kyohei tells Ryuko: “Without you, the mansion is like an exhibition of mummies” – an appropriate description of a film that is all wrapped up in layers with nothing to show.
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