By Harris Dang
In the month of August, we at In Their Own League are focusing on Women in Action; female-led films in the action genre. For my contribution, this retrospective will be focusing on the Japanese cult classic franchise of “Stray Cat Rock” (1970 – 1971) ; consisting of five films with a very simple yet enticing premise.
All films feature infectiously catchy songs of the 70’s; psychedelic visuals and stylistic flourishes reminiscent of the 60’s, a gritty low-budget guerrilla filmmaking aesthetic and rebellious young women who do not take any crap in their problematic circumstances and stand up to their own personal oppression and having fun while they’re doing it.
It is very hard to believe that it has been 50 years since the birth of the franchise and yet its themes of youthful rebellion and protest against injustice still shines brightly today. Let’s dig into the five films and get groovy with it!
STRAY CAT ROCK: DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS (1970)
Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
“Delinquent Girl Boss” is the first entry of the franchise as well as the first one to be directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, who is best known for his work in Roman Porno (short for Romantic Pornography) films in the mid 70’s. At the time of his hiring, he was known for making yakuza films and was granted a directorial role by Nikkatsu studios to make a youth-oriented film, which became “Delinquent Girl Boss”.
“All films feature infectiously catchy songs of the 70’s; psychedelic visuals and stylistic flourishes reminiscent of the 60’s, a gritty low-budget guerrilla filmmaking aesthetic and rebellious young women who do not take any crap.”
Set in Shinjuku, Tokyo, the film starts off with the introduction of Ako (played by popular pop singer Akiko Wada), a rough-and tough biker who comes across a woman named Mei (Meiko Kaji) and gives her a ride to her destination. What Ako does not know is that Mei is the part of a female biker gang The Stray Cats. Ako oversees The Stray Cats brawling over another gang and she saves them; becoming a de facto leader in the process.
Then the plot kicks in when Mei’s boyfriend Michio (Koji Wada) tries to join the criminal organization called The Seiyu Group, which the opposing gang that The Stray Cats fought happens to be a part of. But in order to prove his loyalty, he asks his old friend/popular boxer, Kelly (Ken Sanders) to take a dive in a boxing match so the Group can win money resulting from the loss. But Kelly wins the fight, which causes a tumultuous chain of events that only knife fights and bike chases can solve.
Since the budget for the film was meager, Hasebe was granted complete creative freedom by Nikkatsu studios, which resulted in a vivid, flourished and surreal experience in what could have been a typical crime story. The unorthodox costume design consists of all the tight pants, leather jackets and gigantic sunglasses that come off as endearing, stylistic, funny and in enhancement of the psychedelic feel of the film. The musical choices (which were said to be protest songs added in by Hasebe) and score by Kunihiko Suzuki all add to the feel as well as the frenetic pacing, with contributions by Yosui Inoue (credited as Andre Candre), The Mops and even Wada herself.
The cinematography by Muneo Ueda is both disorienting (with plentiful uses of dutch angles, God’s eye, crash zooms, split-screens etc.) and tactile as it vividly shows all the excitement and youthful enthusiasm the female characters experience like the scenes in the nightclub and during scenes where the camera is mounted on the bike, focusing on Wada’s face as she rides through the Tokyo night road.
There is one notable chase sequence which involves Wada, Kaji and Tatsuya Fuji (the main antagonist) riding motorcycles and buggies through the streets of Shinjuku as well as on bridges and finally in the tunnels of Shinjuku station. Considering the low-budget filmmaking restrictions and the fact that the filmmakers had no permission or clearances to film in those areas, this was incredibly ballsy stuff.
The female leads are stellar in their performances, bringing much-needed presence and charisma to their characters. Wada, with her grizzled husky voice, is believable and fun as Ako as she brings morale to the Stray Cats to fight the Seiyu Group. A pre-fame Kaji (who is best known for her work in The Sasori Series as well as her musical contributions) is refreshingly exuberant as Mei; although her iconic glare intermittently shows up in the film, which will delight many of her fans.
What is funny about the film is the portrayal of gender lines. The main female characters here are seen as truthful, jubilant and resilient (even with the lone female antagonist Toshie, played by Mari Koiso) while the main male characters (Michio and Kelly) are seen as tortured, lovelorn and desperate; conveying a facade of false manliness which is a minor yet welcome addition to subverting genre tropes in what is essentially an exploitation entry. But of course, there has to be an over-the-top male villain and Tatsuya Fuji fits the bill to a T with all the expected maniacal laughter.
Speaking of exploitation, the film is surprisingly chaste in that it features little to no nudity (a woman, played by Yuka Kemari, is lying on the bed naked, with only her posterior on display in a wide shot) and there are no direct or even implicit references to sexual violence. The only sexually explicit moment of violence that is exploitative is when a woman (played by Yuka Ohashi) is tortured by a blowtorch all over her cleavage by Toshie.
Overall, “Delinquent Girl Boss” is a fantastic first entry in the “Stray Cat Rock” franchise and this reviewer hopes to see more of this type of groovy fun in the next four entries.
STRAY CAT ROCK: WILD JUMBO (1970)
Director: Toshiya Fujita
“Wild Jumbo” marks the first entry in the Stray Cat Rock franchise from director Toshiya Fujita, who is best known for directing the “Lady Snowblood” films (1973 – 1974) led by Meiko Kaji; prime examples in the revenge genre that acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is a huge admirer of. As expected, the film is a sequel in name only and features returning actors from the first film in a completely new story.
The film starts off with a gang of rowdy youths (Meiko Kaji, Takeo Chii, Tatsuya Fuji, Yusuke Natsu and Soichiro Maeno) driving around and living in the moment. During their energetic escapades, they bump into another car and kidnap the female driver Asako (Bunjaku Han) by shooting out her tires. While it is only for the sake of fun, they let her go but the ironclad effect of Stockholm Syndrome kicks in as the driver falls in love with one of the gang members, Taki.
“What is funny about the film is the portrayal of gender lines. The main female characters here are seen as truthful, jubilant and resilient…while the main male characters (Michio and Kelly) are seen as tortured, lovelorn and desperate.”
The two start dating but something interesting comes up when Asako tells Taki that she is the mistress of a leader of a religious organization called the Seikyo Society. The revelation gives Taki an idea and devises a plan to rob the organization by stealing all their proceeds from donations from other entities which could result up to 30 million yen.
It is quite evident that “Wild Jumbo” is a considerably different entry in comparison to “Delinquent Girl Boss”. The tone is a lot more light-hearted, the violence is toned down and the crime plot is marginalized. Even the presence of Akiko Wada is relegated to a special appearance, despite the fact that her screentime consists of spliced footage from “Delinquent Girl Boss”. But does “Wild Jumbo” succeed on its own terms?
Let’s dig into the groovy positives. Kaji makes the most out of her role of C-Ko in the second half of the film as she dives into the action enthusiastically. Ditto to the returning Han, who delights as the enigmatic and alluring Asako — a highlight of hers involves her belittling of Taki which involves her highlighting the difference between men and women. Fuji also makes a return appearance but this time, he plays a protagonist despite the fact that his performance has not changed one iota since his villainous turn in “Delinquent Girl Boss”; complete with maniacal laughter.
The unconventional stylistic flourishes are still plentiful, with new techniques in the pot such as the use of inverted colours, undercranking and freeze frames. Although the film never reaches the level of surrealism of the first film, the style adds to the credence of the laid-back freewheeling tone of the story, which is essentially a youth film — complete with comical moments where the characters stand up to the authorities — for the first two thirds and a heist film in the last third. The same goes for the soundtrack as well, which is still infectiously catchy alongside the returning songs from Wada.
As for the negatives, the film lacks a driving force for the characters as well as the audience to care for what happens in the story. The motivations for robbing the religious organization and clumsily stated (essentially in a sentence stating that they are bad) and the plot only truly starts at the 50-minute mark, which leaves a half an hour left for all the pieces to come together.
The action scenes are enjoyable when they show up — most of them occur in the climax — but they lack the same impact, especially in comparison to the buggy chase in Delinquent Girl Boss and when the film reaches its conclusion, it unfortunately satisfies too little and too late.
“Wild Jumbo” is a minor step down from “Delinquent Girl Boss” but it does hint that the filmmakers are willing to take the franchise to new directions and hopefully with the next three films, they will reach that untapped potential.
STRAY CAT ROCK: SEX HUNTER (1970)
Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
After the mildly disappointing youth drama/heist film hybrid of “Wild Jumbo”, director Hasebe returns for the third entry of the “Stray Cat Rock” franchise, “Sex Hunter”. But in the unwritten rule of sequels — even if they are in name only — expectations say that sequels are usually inferior repeats of the original. With most of the original creative team in check, will “Sex Hunter” overcome those expectations and deliver not only an entertaining film in its own right but also an experience that marks a step up in innovation?
The film begins with the conflict of two gangs, which are the titular Stray Cats led by Mako (Meiko Kaji, in her best performance in the franchise so far) and the Eagles led by Baron (Tatsuya Fuji, returning to villain duty). The two for the most part operate in peace due to the fact that Baron pines for Mako as the two meet up at drug parties and mingle. But Mako is looking for more when Baron has an unexplained reticence in being intimate with her.
One night in a serendipitous fashion, she meets with Kazuma (Rikiya Yasuoka, compelling), a mixed-race drifter and the two manage to spark a connection. But Kazuma has his mind focused on his quest to find his long-lost sister that prevents him from truly connecting to Mako.
But the conflict truly kicks in when Mari — a member of the Stray Cats — rejects the advances of Susumu (Jiro Okazaki, believably conflicted) — a member of the Eagles and Baron’s right-hand man – to stay with his racially mixed (half Japanese, half Black) boyfriend Ichiro (Ken Sanders in a small role, last seen in “Delinquent Girl Boss”).
One would think that it would set Susumu off in a fit of anger but surprisingly it is Baron that is offended due to a backstory revelation that involved his sister being raped by mixed-race people; who Baron offensively refers to them as “half-breeds”. It is from then on that he vows to kill off all of the racially mixed population, which brings the Stray Cats and Kazuma into a whirlwind of immense magnitude.
“Sex Hunter” is considered by many to be the best of the series and it is not hard to see why. Although Bunjaku Han and Akiko Wada are completely absent, the film has most the positives of the original film (Kaji, Fuji, the nostalgic and psychedelic feel, solid action scenes, stellar cinematography, the crumbling of male masculinity etc.) and it manages to diverge from the formula enough to stand on its own two legs and not be a cardboard cutout of the first film.
Firstly, it gives actress Kaji a full leading role and she sinks her teeth into what is essentially a morally murky character. Conflicted with her sense of duty for her “sisters” in the Stray Cats, her yearning of finding a better half and her affinity for satiating her self-destructive behaviour as a cry for help, Kaji brings the utmost conviction to her role, making her believable and yet never acting above the material; all while donning a black wide-brimmed hat, which she wears with effortless cool, and even at one point in the movie breaking into song.
Secondly, writer/director Hasebe (under the pseudonym Takashi Fujii) and co-writer Atsushi Yamatoya lend the story a dramatic through-line that provides the characters backbone in their actions and their drama, which is the thread of racism and nationality.
While that may not sound much in an exploitation film such as “Sex Hunter”, there are many allusions to it that provide much spice to the storytelling i.e. the casting of Yasuoka and Sanders (who are both mixed-race), the presence of the female-led pop group Golden Half (whom all feature women who are mixed-race, hence their moniker), the antagonists drive American jeeps and the majority of the third act is set on a US army base.
Not to mention that one of the settings that the characters go to (the Mama Blues jazz bar) is populated with people of mixed-race, it is also shot in 4:3 aspect ratio (to either convey a sense of comfortable familiarity or enclosure) but it also seems to be referencing moments from the French New Wave i.e. Agnes Varda‘s “La Pointe Courte” (1955).
Thirdly, the film lives up to its exploitation edge — even if the title “Sex Hunter” makes little to no sense — and gives the drama and action a much-needed punch. But it is still very mild in terms of sexual violence and never reaches the levels of Hasebe’s later 1970’s exploitation work i.e. “Rape!”, “Assault! Jack the Ripper” and “Rape! 13th Hour”.
There are scenes that occur where it could have broken any sense of moral decency i.e. there is a scene where Baron sets up a so-called party where he hires foreigners to party with the Stray Cat gang as a truce, but it is set up as a trap donned in Baron’s own words, “a rape party”. But thankfully, those scenes are quickly averted before they begin and feature little to no nudity.
Add a deliberately ambiguous and powerful climax to the mix and you got what is the best entry in the “Stray Cat Rock” franchise so far.
STRAY CAT ROCK: MACHINE ANIMAL (1970)
Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Writer/director Hasebe returns for last time with “Machine Animal”. Just like his last entry, “Sex Hunter”, the title of “Machine Animal” makes absolutely no sense with the story it sets out to portray. But unlike the last entry, “Machine Animal” sets out to be different from its predecessors by mixing the requisite ingredients with a new thematic spin. Will “Machine Animal” live up to the quality of “Sex Hunter” and provide both bad-ass fun as well as food for thought?
The film starts off with the Stray Cats in their usual hijinks: robbing people, fighting other gang members and looking dope while doing it. But things strike the eye of Maya (Meiko Kaji, remarkably cool and stylish as ever), the leader of the gang when she sees three men, led by Nobo (Tatsuya Fuji) trying to deal drugs (500 units of LSD in a crackerjack box) in her territory.
After a mix-up in terms of motives and misunderstandings, it is later revealed that the men are selling their drug supply in order to move out of the country since they are army deserters. It is then that Maya has a change of heart and decides to help them. Unfortunately there are others out there that want the drugs and unsurprisingly, they are not willing to pay for them; including a paraplegic mob boss played by the returning Bunjaku Han (who glares like the best of them).
After the brutal drama of “Sex Hunter”, “Machine Animal” is the most compassionate of all the entries thus far. The violence is surprisingly minimal and the exploitation is slim to nil. But the obvious change to mark that direction is that Fuji plays a lead protagonist and he displays remarkable nuance and humanity to the character of Nobo (which is short for the word Nobody), a laid-back, emotionally inert army deserter who stands by his ideals of friendship and brotherhood.
The change in theme from racism to freedom is a good change in storytelling as it recalls a period of the 70’s when people came under hard times over the Vietnam War. Through that change, characters are almost remarkably positive in their actions (Maya seems to help out Nobo due to her relation to Nobo’s conflict in being stuck in life’s exigent circumstances) in helping out the army runaways; especially when one compares Machine Animal to the other franchise entries. Unlike the racist attacks in “Sex Hunter”, the lone American character Charlie (Toshiya Yamano) is welcomed to open arms by the Stray Cats by being invited to go to bowling alleys and to have fun in acid parties.
Speaking of parties, the mixture of crime plots, psychedelic visuals and groovy music is still prevalent but the film is a lighter affair and it is more influenced by fancies of goofy humour. The funniest gag in the film (involving product placement) is where Maya and the Stray Cats are attacking the antagonists and all of a sudden — during mid-chase — Maya shouts out “We need Hondas!” and they literally go to a Honda dealership, ride motorcycles out of there, finish the chase, come right back to the dealership and return the motorcycles in mint condition.
But like “Sex Hunter”, the actions come at a price and without going into spoiler territory, the paths that writer/director Hasebe tell his story takes the inevitable route but thankfully he makes the audience care in the plight of his characters and for a film in the exploitation genre, his efforts are surely felt.
Overall, “Machine Animal” is a great change of pace for Hasebe that proves even after four films, the franchise never falls into the trap of repeating itself for a quick buck. Let’s hope that the final entry finishes the series on a high note.
STRAY CAT ROCK: BEAT ’71 (1971)
Director: Toshiya Fujita
This is the end, people! Director Toshiya Fujita returns after “Wild Jumbo” with the final entry in the “Stray Cat Rock” franchise, “Beat ’71”. While this reviewer did express mild disappointment with Fujita’s first entry, it is best to go in with an open mind and hope it finishes the groovy franchise on a high note. After all, the positivity of “Machine Animal” is still warm and fresh in this reviewer’s mind so let’s dig in!
Like “Wild Jumbo”, the film diverts away from the wild bikers of Hasebe’s entries and follows a group of hippies, led by Yoshitaro (Yoshio Harada). The film starts off with Furiko (Meiko Kaji) on a motorcycle joyride with her boyfriend Ryumei (Takeo Chii) until they are attacked by a motorcycle gang, led by Eiji Go. The fight comes to a tragic end when Ryumei kill one of the members but is taken away by his politician father (Yoshio Inaba), leaving Furiko taking the blame and being sent to prison for murder.
Two months later, Furiko escapes from prison with the intention of reuniting with Ryumei while Yoshitaro (including the hippies) meet with Furiko halfway for support. But Ryumei’s father controls Ryumei (his real name is Takaaki) by trying to turn him away from the freewheeling lifestyle and turning him into a businessman; and he is not willing to let the hippies near his son without a fight.
“Beat ’71” may not reach the brutal heights of “Sex Hunter” but it follows up beautifully with “Machine Animal” effectively and provides a satisfying finale for the series. Fujita’s direction is still much it was in “Wild Jumbo” — less serious tone, brighter colour scheme, plenty of scenes involving young people frolicking and softer music choices — but the interspersing of youthful vitality and crime plot storytelling is much better handled and it is much more seamless in what it tries to achieve thematically; a portrait of Japanese youth in the 70’s.
From the contrasts of lively young people and conservative adults in higher-up roles (as shown in the relationship between Ryumei and his father) to the impulses young people yearn and attain to over the needs of others (exemplified by Furiko’s love for Ryumei and a bizarre death scene involving a pneumatic drill) and the future of youth in the future (portrayed with utmost poignancy by a final shot involving a child), Fujita manages to make a symbolically powerful yet commercially entertaining piece of work.
“The female leads are stellar in their performances, bringing much-needed presence and charisma to their characters.”
That is not to say that the film forgoes the violence and surrealism that director Hasebe revels in. Director Fujita peppers the story with moments of fight scenes and chase sequences; including a nightmarish sequence when Ryumei is being beaten up by a man with a shinai and having his hair cut.
As for its surrealism, The Mops make a return with their brand of music (despite not being set in a nightclub) and Fujita includes humourous touches that hint that the film is essentially a cowboy Western i.e a moment where Fuji’s character starts a motorcycle and sounds of a horse galloping can be heard. The film even ends in a Wild West theme park with what is the most action-packed sequence of the franchise; jam-packed with plenty of pyrotechnics and gunfire.
But there are some debits that prevent the film from becoming one of the best entries. Kaji does not appear in the film all that much — most of her screentime is in a prison — despite playing a character of utmost importance. The establishment of the romance between Furiko and Ryumei is quite rushed, hence when it reaches its conclusion, it is not as emotionally stirring as it intends to be. Those expecting returning performers like Rikiya Yasuoka and Bunjaku Han will be disappointed as they are relegated to cameo roles.
Overall, “Beat ’71” is an entertaining and fitting ending for the “Stray Cat Rock” franchise that captures the brimming energy and folly of youth that provides a fun compliment to Hasebe’s hard-edged direction.