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Kinji Fukasaku collection

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Black Rose Mansion
cast: Akihiro Miwa, Eitarô Ozawa, Masakazu Tamura, Ayako Hosho, and Kô Nishimura

director: Kinji Fukasaku

90 minutes (15) 1968
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Black Rose mansion is a private men's club managed as a hobby by the wealthy Kyohei, a middle-aged businessman. He recounts how the enigmatic and alluring singer Ryuko (Akihiro Maruyama) arrived one evening. She brings with her the angst of many admirers, both old and new, including that of the millionaire's estranged son Warataru - as well as the rueful Kyohei himself.

Director Kenji Fukasaku is still best known to western audiences for his final completed feature, the nihilistic and striking Battle Royale. But back home the director had a reputation over his career for a fine run of yakuza movies, such as Battles Without Honour And Humanity (aka: Jingi naki tatakai, 1973), Graveyard Of Honour (aka: Jingi no hakaba, 1975), and Yakuza Graveyard (aka: Yakuza no hakaba: Kuchinashi no hana) a good clutch of which have appeared in the UK on DVD. During 1968-9 however, and before he made the bulk of these successful gangster films, Fukasaku stepped away from his usual studio Tohei to work on some different projects in quick decision. From this time dates the independent crime drama Blackmail Is My Business, an oddball space piece The Green Slime, as well as Black Lizard and then finally Black Rose Mansion (aka: Kuro bara no yakata).

The last two formed a deliberate pairing, Fukasaku's style creating in both an atmospheric blend of art house and exploitation. Black Rose Mansion, in particular, has a claustrophobic and melancholic air of its own, which relates it to cinema maudit. And while Black Lizard was a film version of a Yukio Mishima stage adaptation of Edogawa Rampo's flamboyant piece, pitting a master detective against a cross dressing jewel thief, Black Rose Mansion is also about a thief - but one who steals the love and self respect of those men who encounter her. Both films also feature the vaguely camp and sexually ambivalent figure of Akihiro Maruyama, better known by the stage name of her alter ego Akihiro Miwa. These two films represent his only two starring roles, although in recent years he has provided part of the voice talent for Princess Mononoke (1997). As a female he makes for a striking figure, tall and graceful, even if not (although this could be a cultural thing) conventionally beautiful as a woman.

Part vamp, part siren, part cross-dressing seductress, Miwa plays his part straight in Black Rose Mansion, leading to the question of whether the audience is supposed to 'know' his real sex and, if so, what dimension this brings to the erotic side of the film. One assumes that the original audiences did know, which adds to the peculiarity of it all. In the hothouse of the eponymous club, where there is little or no other competition for male admiration, the effect engendered is rather as if straight-faced Danny La Rue had been cast to appear in Gilda. (Allegedly the director had some problems in motivating some male co stars to act as required with the male star.) Besides the club in which Ryuko finds herself so besieged by suitors, the singer also carries a black rose of her own. A symbol for her heart, she alleges it will change to red, but only when she finds 'real love'. Its also an apt symbol for the confusions of the central role for a perfect black rose, we're told, does not exist and so like the impossible flower she holds, the character of Ryuko asks the audience to see one thing and believe in another. A second, less natural black rose is given by Warataru to help patch things up with his mother, although at the end kept out of the world in its glass case, this remains on object of curiosity than inviting a romantic blooming.

Although naturally absent from the black flowers themselves, red is a colour which plays an important part elsewhere in the visual scheme of the film: whether in the blood spilt by Ryuko's doomed lovers, or the foreboding and passion it brings when the screen is tinted so strikingly at appropriate moments. Black Rose Mansion may owe something to the psychedelia of the 1960s, especially in the rock 'n' roll night club in which the brooding Waraturu often finds himself, but the use of colour is more suffocating than in Black Lizard. In the striking opening, for instance, as the singer arrives, the "calm sunset before the storm to come" at least as noted by Kyohei, who has stopped off by the quay on the way home from work. Here the whole long scene is drenched in a warm red, as if the whole world had turned to passion - or blood.

Critics have compared the "Mabuse-esque thrills" of Black Lizard to the "dreary gothic melodrama" of its successor, and certainly the earlier title is more dramatic, having stronger material to work from. Black Rose Mansion also suffers from a degree of cheapness - notably in some of the action sequences, even if such moments - usually rashness on the part of the singer's lovers - do not lay at the heart of a film more about the hypnotic call of Ryoku's alluring 'madness'. But the Fukasaku was good enough an artist to raise most material above the ordinary and the director with his co writer Hiru Matsuda (responsible too for the cult Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion, 1971) between them make an interesting job of it, creating an original script rich in atmosphere, a portrait of men dazzled by an unfathomable creature with odd fascination and presence for audiences 40 years on.

That's not to say Black Rose Mansion is not without its longueurs; the static nature of some of its scenes, whilst suggesting just how much Ryoku's admirers are immobilised by the new arrival (with some irony Kyohei tells Ryoko that, without her, the mansion is "like a museum of mummys") do at times drag. The narrator seems too acquiescent to events, hardly to be expected from a rich and powerful man so quickly fallen into infatuation. For a film made so quickly to capitalise on a previous success, the acting is acceptable while the director helps things along as much as he can with some imaginative editing techniques like freeze frame, rapid cutting as well as the aforementioned filter work. Although the later title, at least, is not essential Fukasaku the novelties of both Black Lizard and Black Rose Mansion make them worth seeking out.

The DVD presents the film in a clean widescreen print, the faded colours of which adds to the atmosphere. Disc extras are limited to a trailer and chapter stops, although I understand that the region one disc, as so often the case is more generous, adding an interview with the director. Besides a presumed single issue the film is also available in the UK as part of the 'Fukasaku collection' - which, bizarrely, does not include Black Lizard, the single most appropriate coupling.

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