Black Rose Mansion
review by Gregory Avery, 16 May 2003

"I don't know you," Ryuko says to the various men who throw themselves at her feet in Black Rose Mansion. Of course, she knows them: Ryuko is the classic femme fatale, a woman who, whether she wants to or not, need only step into a room and mesmerize everyone on the spot. Men take one look at her and just can't help themselves. They'll do anything for her -- spend all their money, kill other men. Yet, Ryuko brushes them away, apparently heartless, yet, as one character observes, that only adds to the "enchanting mystery" of her.

The Black Rose Mansion in Black Rose Mansion is owned by the aging, wealthy businessman Mr. Sakou (Eitaro Ozawa), who has used it to set up a private club and salon (so that, he cryptically says at the beginning, he can pursue his hobbies). One evening, he drops in and there's Ryuko, invited by one of the other club members, and Sakou becomes, if not consumed by desire, at least distracted by it. He continues to be so despite all the warning signs that follow. A stern-looking man (Ko Nishimura) shows up and, claiming to be Ryuko's husband, alternately demands and begs of her to come back to him. Another, younger man (Yusuke Kawazu) arrives on another night -- he's become pitifully dissipated and spent after seeing Ryuko perform in a club in Yokohama, singing a song about the "rose rumba." A third, more vicious man (Ryohei Uchida) arrives on another night still -- he met Ryuko in a gambling den in Kobe, and whips out a knife which he's going to use on someone, only he gets himself killed instead. "This thing called love.... It could be called insanity," says a police inspector who arrives at the scene of the slaying.

Black Rose Mansion, with its stylized settings (the club is a mélange of Western-style furniture, marbled columns, and art-nouveau, with designs copied from the work of Alphonse Mucha), scenes suddenly bathed in vivid color, and odd symbolic touches (Ryuko almost always carries a black rose, an artificiality that she nonetheless believes will turn red, and come alive, when she encounters true love), was directed by Kinji Fukasaku, and I can safely say that I haven't seen anything like it. (The film has recently premiered in the U.S., in a splendid DVD edition, on video, and will also be screened at the American Cinematheque, in Los Angeles, on May 18, as part of a tribute to Fukasaku.) Exception: Black Lizard, a crime/espionage drama that Fukasaku did in 1968, a year before Black Rose, and which did not appear in the U.S. until the late Eighties, at which time it caused a stir. ("Lysergic" was one of the adjectives used to describe it.) The Japanese author Yukio Mishima made an appearance in Black Lizard (as a "living statue" -- the female lead strokes his forearm and exclaims on how "downy" it is), and he's said to have possibly had some input in "Black Rose Mansion." (A Mishima stand-in turns up as one of the characters, a brash writer who attempts – miserably -- to make a pass at Ryuko in French.) It wouldn't surprise me, since the film contains plenty of Mishima's "tortured by roses" conception of love, in which beauty and pain become interchangeable, even indistinguishable, and those who love are doomed to suffer for it. Sakou's wife, for instance, is housebound -- an accident left her immobilized, but it was an accident that occurred when she was leaving her husband for another man. Sakou spends more money on renovating the Black Rose Mansion for Ryuko, just when his younger son, Wataru (Tamura Masakazu), shows up. A brooding loner and ne'r-do-well who sees his parents only when he needs to cadge money off of them, Wataru becomes smitten with Ryuko only to become tormented by the fact that he's falling in love with the woman who has just become his father's mistress. Trying to find a way out, Wataru only gets deeper into trouble, eventually leading to incidents involving gunfire and a boat that plows right into the side of a freighter. As Sakou observes at both the beginning and end of the picture -- recalling when he saw her arrive, by boar, coming out of the crimson light of a setting sun -- Ryuko was the beautiful sunset that preceded a storm.

Ryuko is played by Akihiro Maruyama, who also played the wicked female lead in Black Lizard. Maruyama is a professional onagata, an actor who, in the tradition of the Japanese theatre, must flawlessly and methodically create the illusion of being a woman in order to play the female roles in classic Japanese stage drama. Ryuko is aloof, taunting, always in control, and Maruyama plays Ryuko's emotions with just the slightest shift of register. The aim is to create a character so heavy with mystery that fascination becomes inevitable---nobody knows where Ryuko comes from, who she really is, and we, in the audience, never really find out, either. And, oddly, the film succeeds in that respect -- "oddly" because, even on a second or even third look, you feel like you're only just beginning to pick up on what's going on in "Black Rose Mansion," from the scene (flashback, or delusion?) where we see Ryuko happily thrashing her husband with an archery bow (while the husband describes how ecstatically in love he was with her), to the moment where Sakou telephones Wataru to say that he's going to be out of town for a few days, so Wataru is welcome to "play" with Ryuko while he's gone.

After completing this picture, Kinji Fukasaku would go on to replace Akira Kurosawa in directing the Japanese sequences of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), after which he would direct a gangster drama set in post-World War Two Japan, Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), which was so successful that Fukasaku was pressed into directing five sequels to it. In 1999, after fifty-nine films, Fukasaku directed Battle Royale, which became a phenomenon in Japan, played successfully in Europe and the U.K., and still has not received a theatrical distribution in the U.S., despite the fact that the film is unequivocally an anti-violence statement. (Fukasaku was directing a sequel to Battle Royale when he passed away earlier this year; his son, Kenta, is completing the film). There may be something a bit too prickly in the film for many U.S. audiences, who for the most part like their pictures cut and dried. Black Rose Mansion has a strangely subversive, yet complicit, feel to it -- you feel as if you're being lead into strange territory, places you've never been before, but you trust where the film is taking you, and, in the end, in exchange for your attention, the film does not violate your trust. Like Ryuko, it is exotic, orchidaceous, and tantalizing.

Directed by:
Kinji Fukasaku

Akihiro Maruyama
Eitaro Ozawa
Ayako Hosha
Ko Nishimura
Yusuke Kawazu
Ryohei Uchida
Tamura Masakazu

Written by:
Hiroo Matsuda
Kinji Fukasaku

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.






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