In a wild stylistic fusion of giallo thrillers, “Pink” sex movies and kitschy manga horror, Black Kiss kicks off with a dizzying sequence that pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Dario Argento and Brian De Palma.. After partying at a nightclub called Vertigo, sleazy film producer Kimura (Shinzen Okada) lures model Mayumi (Sawako) back to the Bat’s Motel (as in Bates Motel, geddit?) for a night of lengthy, athletic sex. Stepping out to brag with his yakuza pals, he returns to find Mayumi has vanished, save for a severed finger lying in the bathtub. Whereupon, Kimura is subdued and slashed to death by a shapely assailant in black leather panties.
Thirty-six hours earlier, Asuka (Reika Hashimoto), a struggling model and dancer who is new to Tokyo, has no place to stay. At the suggestion of a dubious friend, she moves into an apartment with half-American, punk chick Kasumi Crane (Kaori Kawamura), whom the other models nickname “The Devil” (“If you live with her, you die”). Troubled Kasumi proves less than friendly at first and prone to suicidal cartwheels along the rooftop ledge, but when she steps out for the night Asuka is spooked by scary phone calls and an obsessive photographer, Tatsuo (Masanobu Ando) lurking in hall. Then she spies a horrific murder happening in the motel next door and glimpses the female killer with distinctive, bobbed hair. Worse, the killer sees Asuka too. Asuka calls the police and detectives arrive to find Kimura meticulously disembowelled, with glittery, colourful voodoo symbols carved into his skin and five red roses lain upon his head. Also baffling is the presence of chicken’s blood and the question of how the killer escaped a locked room.
The grouchy cops loathe the young, successful models, so idealistic Detective Yusuke (Shunsuke Matsuoka) - who remembers Kasumi from her modelling days under the name “Lucy” - takes up the case. Aided by a weird expert on occult-related crime, he develops a theory that this is but the latest in a series of deaths related to a psycho-cult, involving a self-styled “murder artiste” called Black Kiss. Sure enough, a series of packages reach the police containing victims’ remains remodelled into kitschy, cuddly toys, alongside a white card signed with a black lipstick imprint. Meanwhile, paparazzi photographs of the crime scene threaten Asuka’s career, until Kasumi intervenes. A warm friendship blossoms between the two, until Asuka finds a photograph of Kasumi with Mari (Angie), her former roommate, who looks exactly like the killer…
After that incredibly sensual opening scene - a concerto of craning cameras, killer’s P.O.V. shots, surreal sound effects and delirious candy-coloured lighting, all intercut with a flamenco dance number (!) - the pace slackens somewhat with several logic loopholes and soap opera subplots that don’t always coalesce. Storytelling was never the strong point for Makoto Tezuka, son of legendary anime auteur Osamu Tezuka, whose previous films like Monster Heaven (1990) and The Bottom of the Swamp (1995) are works of gory bewilderment. Nevertheless, Black Kiss is his strongest effort and features an interesting, fractured narrative wherein different characters get to play detective and find vital clues.
While the plot steals several nightmarish twists from Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Deep Red (1975) and especially De Palma’s Sisters (1972), and riffs rather too blatantly on Seven (1995) (when a severed torso decorated with flowers and jewellery proves feebly alive), the twisted fairytale elements like the victims turned into pretty dolls and “lovable” plush toys are pure horror manga, and there are nods to the “erotic-grotesque” literature of Edogawa Rampo. Some critics have taken issue with its tendency to swap genres every few minutes, but long-time aficionados of Far Eastern cinema will be used to that and the lapse into teen melodrama does at least deepen the bond between Asuka and Kasumi. Performances are on the whole pretty bland, but Kaori Kawamura proves strong as the self-destructive, yet vulnerable punk chick.
The stalk and slash ending, with everyone on the run from the slinky, cat-suited killer able to leap from building to building, is nicely handled but the resolution is a real head-scratcher and deeply unsatisfying. Sadly chock full of holes, this remains intermittently inspired and worth a look for its bizarre verve.