|Japanese star Meiko Kaji is often associated with two franchises from the early nineteen-seventies, the Female Prisoner Scorpion quartet from Toei she led, and the immediately earlier Stray Cat Rock series from Nikkatsu, of which she made one more entry. This began as the answer to a group of films at a rival studio that was inspired by Roger Corman's international biker flick hit The Wild Angels, which went on to spawn the diverse likes of America's Easy Rider, Britain's Psychomania and Australia's Stone among many others. But in the first of the Japanese films, a distaff version of the male biker movie called Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss, it was not Kaji who rode the motorcycle, that was South Korean-Japanese singer Akiko Wada, the husky-voiced, relatively tall celebrity who made a few movies across her career.
Wada was really the star, but she didn't hang around for the rest of the run as Meiko was the breakout. Soon to make international waves as Lady Snowblood, this opener was a domestic success and set her on a path to action speciality, her delicate, pretty features in contrast to the brutality the scripts saw her get up to. In this one, her gang gets mixed up with an organisation of extreme nationalists patterned after the infamous writer Yukio Mishima's antics - he would commit ritual suicide the year this was released, and as far as this was concerned, he would not be missed. There was also boxing as Meiko's weak boyfriend is part of a syndicate set to profit if their man takes a dive, but he doesn't, and nightclub scenes where Akiko got to croon as Kaji looked on approvingly.
For the next in the series, it was all change plotwise, in light of what had befallen Kaji's character in the first film, so she played someone different here, as she would in each of the instalments. For about half the running time, the memorably named Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo was barely a crime film at all, and certainly featured no elephants, resembling more of a goof with a lot more intentional humour. Here our leading lady was part of a gang of boys of which she was the sole girl member, and they liked to arse around in a nifty little jeep until their leader takes a liking to a different girl who they notice horse riding sometimes. He wants to get to know her better, so obviously her cohorts shoot out one of her tyres as she drives along the coast - what else?
Anyway, after this meet cute she proves hard to get, but then decides she wants their help in stealing millions of yen from a religious group known as Seikyo, which Kaji's gang start to pose as a faction of to grease the social rails: for example, they get away with ludicrous moves like mooning an entire beach from the back of that roving jeep because the cops there believe they are some of the Seikyo mob (though why would that excuse these antics is not delved into). Eventually, after much pussyfooting around which is not unenjoyable in an occasionally violent hang out movie kind of way, we get to the heist, and how much do you want to bet that crime will not pay in this instance? You would be correct in that assumption, and we are left to consider the plight of wasted youth.
Something a lot less “"fun" was next, as at least you could describe the previous entries as escapist, but Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, while it contained the lurid absurdity of the series, was preoccupied with racist violence, that was, violence by the Japanese against non-Japanese. This time Kaji was a girl gang leader named Mako who was at odds with a male gang named The Eagles (nothing to do with the AOR country rock behemoths) who wanted to victimise anyone in Tokyo they found who was not a "pure" Japanese, so what they termed a half-breed, that was, mixed race, was a strict no-no for these maniacs. Time and again they would claim to be committing these acts of intimidation to protect "their" women, as if women could only fall in love with their own race (or even have fun).
Rikiya Yasuoka was the man who drew most of the bigots' ire, as he ignores their threats that he should leave because he is seeking his long-lost sister and has no intention on giving up on her. Mako is sympathetic to him, because she has a grudge against the leader of The Eagles, who himself has an easily guessable secret he shares with his main antagonist. Featuring Mako saving her girls from gang rape in a tense scene, and more of those nifty jeeps, this one left an uneasy feeling when although you could tell it was coming down hard against racism, it didn't half relish depicting the attacks against minorities, and do it fairly often, too. The finale was memorably ridiculous, however, set at an airfield where there's a showdown between whoever is left standing, bafflingly resolved.
This franchise was nothing if not critical of its Japanese homeland, and so it was in the fourth, Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal, which tangentially took on the then-current Vietnam War (or the American War, as the Vietnamese would call it) when its main character was a deserter from the US Army. He has in his possession a stash of LSD pills, and though GIs in that conflict were more likely to be heroin users, the LSD was perhaps more identifiable with the United States as a drug of choice as its use would inform much of the pop culture from there. At least, that's what we were told, though overstimulation led to the infamous acid casualties who didn't create anything very much once they had succumbed to its effects. No danger of that here, as LSD pills were popped like Smarties.
So if the effects of acid were not exactly realistically portrayed here, not as realistic as the racism in the previous outing at any rate, you did get some social conscience to contend with in often surprising fashion, was the case with these movies. Incredibly, Machine Animal was the fourth entry in that run in one year - 1970 - with one more to go, demonstrating the factory production line of these, and also how it was admirable they sustained at least some degree of quality control, mostly by keeping costs down with plenty of location shooting. Meiko was another girl gang leader, pitted against another male gang, who are both coveting the stash, and although she had survived the previous film, the grim endings were by now their stock in trade and did not disappoint this time.
Now, three of the series had been directed by Yasuharu Hasabe, but the two slight anomalies were helmed by Toshiya Fujita: Wild Jumbo and this finale, Stray Cat Rock: Beat '71, which were thematically similar in that they were more about hippies aimlessly filling their days until they found a sense of purpose that would lead to a violent last act. Kaji played one of those young folks who were pitted against the older generation when her boyfriend was forced to murder a goon when they are ambushed by men from his rich politician father. The boyfriend is spirited away unconscious over the shoulder of his callous parent and Meiko is left to be framed for the death of the goon. She promptly escapes from a maximum security stockade and goes on the (leisurely) warpath.
There was a definite laidback mood to the Fujita efforts, curious when you consider he directed Kaji's most now-famous vehicles, the Lady Snowblood pair, tonally pretty far from the more eccentric stylings he applied here. For instance, the gang begin to shed members which includes a scene where one of them dies of the ecstasy of trying out a pneumatic drill borrowed from a road mender, which must be a demise unique in the history of cinema. There was also a child among their number who the film was reluctant to kill off in quite the same cavalier manner as the adults, even as the climax featured a bloodsoaked end point for almost everyone as lit sticks of dynamite were explosively used against the militia of the corrupt corporate statesman. All in all, a fitting conclusion to a franchise that was always keen to say something about its young characters and audience but was at times confused as to what that should be. And though she does not appear in the last much, Meiko Kaji was the constant across them all, tough, hard as nails in fact, yet oddly feminine with it.
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