Black Kiss [Shinkuronishiti] is one of those films I really liked when I first watched it, over the years though it has become a big blur. So much in fact that I didn't even remember the main outline of the plot, let alone any of the interesting details that made it into a personal favorite of mine. After rewatching (and still loving) Tezuka's Hakuchi not too long ago, and with his new film (hopefully) coming up next year, I figured it was time to do some catching up. Quite unsure of what to expect, I gave Black Kiss another go and wasn't disappointed in the least.
Even though Macoto Tezuka's oeuvre looks quite impressive, his relationship with cinema feels somewhat troubled. He never got into a regular flow of releasing films, neither is there much consistency or sense to be found in what he puts out. His films are also notoriously difficult to come by in the West, with several of his feature film projects simply out of reach if you can't speak Japanese. It's a big mystery to me, as the few films that did make it over here were received quite favorably. One can only hope distributors will end up realizing the error of their ways, though I'm not holding my breath.
Black Kiss is a serial killer/police investigation flick set in the world of fashion models. It's certainly not the most exciting premise, it might've even been some leftover script from the 90s that Tezuka had still lying around (this type of film was quite popular back then), but it is littered with peculiar details that set it apart from many others in the genre. The murders in particular are way crazier and stylish than usually the case, the killer too is somewhat of an oddball figure. It's these elements that add the necessary spice and turn Black Kiss into one of the better serial killer films I've seen.
Asuka is a young model, trying to find her way into a business that doesn't really care for the wellbeing of its primary income source. She ends up staying with Kasumi, a seasoned model who paid her dues a long time ago. While the two don't really get along at first, they slowly start to appreciate each other's company. Asuka is unaware of Kasumi's dark past though, as death has followed her around ever since she moved from the US to Japan. When people around Kasumi keep dying, it becomes clear that Asuka might be the killer's next victim.
Macoto Tezuka is the son of famous mangaka Osamu Tezuka, so it's no real surprise the man has inherited his eye for visual flair. Though the film would definitely benefit from an HD restoration, the framing and use of color are both very nice, so is Tezuka's peculiar use of jump cuts. But his biggest strength lies with the styling of the characters (and the murders). They give the film a certain larger than life appeal that differentiates it from its peer, providing the kind of striking images that linger long after the film has finished.
The soundtrack is not quite as straightforward. Tezuka picks his moments to let the music speak and when he does Black Kiss really benefits from it. Some weird, creepy, cut up electronic-based tracks underscore the darker moments of the film and create a very uncomfortable atmosphere. Outside these moments though, the score is considerably less present and resides more in the background. It's a shame the score isn't used to its full potential, though it's also nice to see a director attempting something different for a change. The potential was clearly there to do even better.
Tezuka brings back Reika Hashimoto. It's weird that Hashimoto never made more of her acting career, as her performances never go unnoticed. She does well here too, holding her own together with Kaori Kawamura and next to more seasoned actors like Masanobu Andô, Shunsuke Matsuoka and Joe Odagiri. It's not really a film that's very demanding of its actors, also not a film that is going to win anyone big acting prizes, but the cast is on point, and they all manage to bring something unique to their characters.
Black Kiss follows a pretty traditional plot structure, which is probably its biggest weakness. It opens with a bang and the finale is quite spectacular as well, but Tezuka struggles with the middle part of the film. There's quite a bit of plot to wade through and while necessary, it doesn't make for the most riveting cinema. The plot itself isn't all that special and it's hardly the main attraction of the film. I guess some trimming here and there might've helped with the pacing issues, but it's just a relatively small and contained part of Black Kiss that suffers from these problems.
People who love a good serial killer flick, especially the weirder kind, will find a great film in Black Kiss. Tezuka's attention to wacky details makes all the difference, turning a moody and creepy thriller into a sprawling, surprising mystery that culminates into a memorable finale. Solid performances, fine cinematography and a noteworthy score all add to the fun, it's just a shame the film faces some pacing issues halfway through. Macoto Tezuka proves himself a very capable director though, I'm really looking forward to his latest film now.