Black Kiss Review

Asuka (Reika Hashimoto) has recently arrived in Tokyo to pursue her modelling career, and while she’s become familiar with some of the local models she finds herself sharing so very little in common with them. Feeling somewhat alienated and with little cash to her name she’s uncertain as to how far she’ll go in this city. As good fortune would have it though she’s pointed in the direction of former model Kasumi (Kaori Kawamura), who in contrast to Asuka is a hardened, laid back and street-wise gal who only looks out for no.1. Kasumi decides to let Asuka stay at her apartment for one night, but she quickly develops a fondness for the young woman which soon sees Asuka’s luck turn around.

One evening, however, Asuka witnesses a murder from an apartment across the street. When the police arrive, led by Shirasaki (Shunsuke Matsuoka) they discover a male victim spread out on a bed with voodoo markings carved into his remaining flesh. The unusual, yet precision-based killing, which has left no traces of evidence in a room locked from the inside, leads investigators to believe that perhaps there are mystical forces at play. But the murders soon escalate, each one more bizarre and horrific than the last, and the only clue to each is a calling card which displays the kiss of black lipstick. As the bodies begin to pile up it soon becomes clear that each victim has in one way or another been linked to Kasumi - and it wouldn‘t be the first time given her past boyfriends’ untimely deaths - which have since earned her the nickname “The Devil“. Asuka may just be in more trouble than she knows; she even has her own stalker! (Masanobu Ando).


Within the first ten minutes of Black Kiss a few things are apparent - Makoto Tezka adores Hitchcock, 70s Italian horror and Japanese exploitation, with his rain-soaked sleazy streets paving the way for an assortment of healthy and direct references. There’s little subtlety at all in issuing sly nods toward some of Hitchcock’s quintessential thrillers: The Bats Motel and its staged shower sequence, or the Vertigo Nightclub and voyeuristic Rear Window set-up. This certainly raises a smile and gives us the impression of a film-lover paying much respect to a true master, all the while Tezka adopting a thriving colour scheme to shape his own film’s grisly undertones and highlight the workings of the Red-Light District. With the help of cinematographer Shirao Kushiro, Tezka additionally pays homage to auteurs such as Dario Argento and Norifumi Suzuki, directors whose own style it could be said is inimitable. However, Tezka does a remarkably good job of re-creating such well established tones with stark green washes, deep reds (fnarr) and piss-yellow hues; his lighting and compositions being the key toward Black Kiss’s overall success as a feast for the eyes.

Shot in High Definition, it wouldn’t ordinarily be an easy thing to achieve; the lack of real grit in the source materials for instance tends to leave an almost too pristine and clinical looking palette that doesn’t quite bare the same sting as the Giallo genre did, and yet it doesn’t really lose its integral film-like qualities either. At times Black Kiss feels considerably raw - almost pseudo-documentary in parts - and its editing a tad non-linear, what with some sudden inter-cutting. It leaves few precious moments for its audience to feel safe, with an intriguing atmosphere that shrouds a convoluted narrative.

Although Black Kiss’s visual influences are indeed broad, it’s the aforementioned narrative which sees Tezka lend more of his personal touch. The script evolved from a short story of his written ten years prior about an occult detective (Clive Barker anyone?) being drawn into a mysterious case. The film was originally labelled “Synchronicity”, a title as spoken by the director to literally translate as “Meaningful Coincidences”. It’s perhaps more apt, then, that the working title holds more value than the hipper sounding one we ended up with. While Tezka has spoken of developing the mystery of his psychological film and how each character correlates to another, he doesn’t readily talk about the seemingly evident social undertones that permeate it.

I personally find Black Kiss to be a deeply cynical production. Sure it works as a heightened thriller that keeps us on our toes every step of the way, but it harbours an unmistakable mean streak as it tends to often revisit Japan’s superficiality in relation to choice sectors of the entertainment industry. Right from the film’s opening scenes young girls are being plucked off the street to be made into “stars”, while aspiring models are being exploited by smooth operators in fancy restaurants who are simply after a quick fuck. Soon afterward, as we’re taken behind the scenes of a fashion shoot, we bare witness to some cruel jibes aimed in the direction of Reika Hashimoto’s naïve out-of-towner, reminding us of an upper-class cut-throat industry, which - here it suggests - goes hand in hand with that of the seedier underbelly of society. Tezka thus sets up a side-plot focusing on the innocent Asuka struggling to get by in the big, harsh city, who in many ways isn’t a great deal unlike the equally shunned Kasumi with her jaded past. This then plays on some of the ideas explored in an earlier feature of his: Hakuchi [The Innocent] (also featuring the director’s fave Hashimoto). His themes of isolation, dejection and loneliness tie in well with the larger scheme of things and create lead characters who have an appreciated amount of depth; this can indeed be considered a strong tale of friendship as much as anything else given the way it plays on chance encounters altering the course of someone’s life. Moreover, each time I sit down to this the more I seem to pick out even the intricate murders as being an unspoken gesture in themselves. If looking at how Masanobu Ando’s stalker/photographer is handled, for instance, it’s almost as if the overtly imaginative killings are speaking out against a pretentious art world: mutilated bodies are tied with neat ribbons and nicely packaged; dolled up to look like shop mannequins, or intricately stripped apart as they lay on silk sheets, revealing their internal organs like they were the work of a proud sculpture. Certainly not dismissive by any means, it only goes to add an extra layer to Tezka’s evidently ambiguous script.

At 133 minutes in length though, Black Kiss is perhaps unnecessarily overlong. The story has all the makings of a solid TV drama, what with the director cramming in so many ideas. To be fair he handles things quite well, even if it might not be an entirely smooth ride. Not only is Tezka dealing with all of the above mentioned but he’s additionally trying to create a tense mystery thriller by throwing in an investigative angle involving local detectives. Forthwith he sets up a slew of red-herrings and quite literally every character is a suspect; some of these work wonders in frustrating the viewer, while others can be irritating if simply because the director is pointing fingers for the sake of it but like a good episode of Morse it keeps us guessing right until the end, by which point the machinations of the plot start to get a little out of hand.
Spoilers for the duration of this paragraph.
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While it’s conclusion makes sense it does go against a lateral way of thinking. Considering the extensive build-up and a somewhat grounded sense of reality it becomes a stretch to buy into the film’s unfathomable and mystical reveal of the killer, which ties in to earlier scenes detailing ritualistic voodoo: an abnormally agile professional killer who dresses as a gimp! Sure enough Tezka cheats us real good and you can even sense that he’s feeling pretty happy with himself. Yet I’m not particularly annoyed with him, he does give us a good run for our money and I’m all too happy to suspend some disbelief given that overall he’s managed to create an intriguing tale that does indeed present a little substance along with its style.



The DVD


A/V

I knew when I first heard of Black Kiss’s UK release over a year ago (which was originally licensed by the now defunct Terra) that it would have to be pretty darn special to beat what was currently on the market. I consider the Japanese transfer to be one of the best in my collection. While it’s bothered by a spot of edge enhancement and aliasing it still exhibits a wonderful amount of detail and offers a fine colour balance which allows it to show off the HD footage as best as DVD can do. In contrast 4Digital Asia’s transfer is pretty darn poor, despite presenting it at the very least in anamorphic 1.78:1. A standards conversion, this immediately struggles with ghosting effects, which look pretty shocking on an LCD television. And as a result of said conversion things do get worse. Black Kiss isn’t exactly a bright and breezy looking film; it’s dark and depressing, taking place almost exclusively at night time with very few daylight encounters. Interiors are likewise fairly gloomy and although the aforementioned colour scheme offers some interesting tones they’re still meant to come across as an ominous way of depicting certain entertainment districts. It’s imperative, then, that all of these elements are handled as best as possible in order to capture the ideal atmosphere, but this UK offering falls short across the board. The most immediate problems after the NTSC-PAL job is that the image is far too soft and dark, the latter eliminating finer shadow detail on black levels and leaving little definition in faces. The UK release also has a nasty amount of compression artefacts which are mainly distracting on moving shots, though still evident even on the grabs I’ve provided, as is edge enhancement and the slight cropping to left and right of frame. Below are some comparisons between the Japanese R2 release of a few years back and the brand new UK release.

The top image is R2 Japanese, bottom 4Digital Asia UK. You can also click on the images to view the full size capture.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge


Note that I couldn’t quite capture the shot perfectly here on account of the ghosting, but nonetheless the differences in detail is very noticeable. I’d direct you the coats upon which few buttons are evident.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The Japanese DD 2.0 track is much better. A faithful reproduction of the Japanese DVD audio, its dialogue come across clearly, while the environmental effects do well to elicit a suitable atmosphere. Rain pattering on walkways, for instance, provides the sensation of being there, while Kan Takagi’s understated score is given enough room to be unsettling on occasion.

Likewise the optional English subtitles are perfectly fine, offering a sound translation with a well-timed and suitably sized font.

Extras

All bonus features have optional English subtitles.

First off is the Original Japanese Trailer (1.28), followed by Deleted Scenes (9.42) comprising of five short scenes. The likes of ‘Aika’s Photo Shoot’ and ‘Joker’s DJ Performance’ are merely padding, while ‘Kimura’s Secret’ is simply an extension of the opening restaurant seduction encounter. Of any real worth is ‘Kasumi and Asuka’ which sees Kasumi’s beloved tortoise die, prompting her to reveal more of her past to Asuka; ‘Mysterious Box’ acts as a later extension to this scene.

Mystery Behind Black Kiss with Director Macoto Tezka (14.00) sees the director talk about how the film came to be; how he specifically wanted to make a genre film and worked from his own writings which were done years prior. He tells of why he decided to change the title of the film and goes into more detail when talking about creating his characters and filling the world of Black Kiss with lots of symbolism, most of which can be seen in set and design props, but also tie in with certain players. There’s a little focus on the way he chose to direct, citing an obvious influence in Hitchcock, while also touching upon original script and the great amount of improvisation coming from the cast in addition to his preferred method of keeping certain developments a secret from them. Finally he goes into Storyboard details and capturing the right look for the feature.

Truth Behind Black Kiss with Director Macoto Tezka (9.23) is for those who find themselves still confused after seeing the film. Tezka explains the motives behind the killings and reveals the perpetrator. He talks in detail about his reasoning, though his argument for the murderer is a bit much to swallow. I don’t think anything he says can really make that any more believable. But really, this doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already figure out in the movie; only by not paying an ounce of attention toward the film will this come in handy.

Special Effects (3.21) takes a look at some of the film’s composite work; filling in background details with the help of green-screen and CGI. These are silent with the exception of the film’s main theme playing over the top.

Main Cast Interviews (16.02)

Kaori Kawamura talks in length about her experiences working on the film, which at the time of this interview was still in the editing phase. She speaks of the demands in playing the role of Kasumi and how in some instances she could relate to her character. Speaking as a musician she already has a firm grasp of the industry she belongs to and she touches upon the contrast between the music and film scene. Her overall outlook is very down to earth and pleasant, clearly showing much fondness toward her work and the director with an attitude that’s not to be deterred by anything or anyone. Reika Hashimoto chats about joining the director again since her work on Hakuchi. She gets more into the script side of things, saying which parts immediately grabbed her attention, while also stressing that she’s generally a bit of a scaredy cat. She mentions overcoming nerves and settling into her first major role and also picking up certain skills to her performance, such as the Flamenco dancing. Finally Shinsuke Matsuoka offers a new take on things, talking about how the cast and crew basically just did what they wanted, given there were no stand-ins and screen tests.

Finally we have a selection of 4Digital Asia Trailers for available and upcoming titles.


Overall


Black Kiss is a film that becomes richer on repeated viewings. Once you get past Macoto Tezka’s unusual sense of storytelling and get over the slightly oddball finale there’s plenty more to find within. This is a lengthy picture for certain but it’s almost impossible to shy away from. Tezka really gets under the skin of his creations as he goes about setting up an intriguing tale of serial murders, intertwined with familial hostility, whilst a somewhat nihilistic social commentary which preys on the shallow nature of our world envelops an overall surreal atmosphere.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
4 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

Last updated: 31/05/2018 03:53:53

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