Friday, July 4, 2008

REVIEW: Black Rose Mansion - Kinji Fukasaku (1969)

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

The first thing we learn in Kinji Fukasaku's 1969 film "Black Rose Mansion" is that a beautiful sunset is always followed by a terrible storm. At this point we meet the beautiful Ryuko who not only turns the head of every man she meets, but also keeps it firmly focused on her at all times. The men who come to see her sing at a private club become completely infatuated with her.

There's a few clues early on in the film that let you know you are in for a stylized and slightly surreal treat: 1) the opening scenes are completely filmed through a red-orange filter to simulate a sunset, 2) the private club where Ryuko sings is a gorgeous set filled with gothic-like touches and 3) the object of all these men's desires is actually played by a man - specifically female impersonator Akihiro Miwa. That last detail is never mentioned as part of the plot though. In fact Ryuko is treated in all manners as a woman throughout the film - despite the very manly crooning voice she uses during all of her torch style songs at the club as well as some very distinctive manly traits. But the trick works - Miwa's performance, the makeup and the stunning gowns all come together into a believable character who might actually inspire the kind of obsessive love that we begin to see play out. But even as she accepts their flirtations, she tells them "I like to play make-believe". Ryuko also carries a black rose at all times in the hope that it will turn bright red to indicate when she has found her own true love.

It's not only the long time patrons of the club that are ensnared though. Her ex-lovers begin to show up and cause trouble at which point Kyohei, the owner of the club, takes her as his lover and his son Wataru becomes addicted to her as well. The story proceeds to unfold in typical melodramatic style as we learn of the past histories of some of the characters and their previous and current affairs. Fukasaku piles on the mirroring story elements - the club owner's bed-ridden wife and her previous dalliance that directly led to tragic events, Wataru's old love that he suddenly left has married his brother and on and on. Along with the style of the film, this makes for a fun first two thirds of the film...

But once we focus on the Wataru/Ryuko relationship, it essentially starts moving to the previously foreshadowed conclusion. It's still well done and not without merit, but it ends up being somewhere between a pure fantastic tale and a character study of obsession - with neither being particularly strong. "Manji", "In The Realm Of The Senses" and even "Blind Beast" are other Japanese films that cover off similar ground in the obsessive love arena and tackle the subject more thoroughly.

But Fukasaku is never boring (his framing of his actors alone is worth it to see how he balances them off each other) and Miwa is something of a revelation here. He also teamed up with Fukasaku in the previous year's "Black Lizard" as a female jewel thief.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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