Sounds & Images
Nikkatsu is the oldest of Japan’s major film studios. Shochiku may pride itself on its longevity, celebrating its centennial in 2005 with much ado, but it was only a theatre production company when Nikkatsu began producing films in 1912 under its full name of Nippon Katsudo Shashin. During World War II Nikkatsu was obliged to combine forces with Shinko Kinema and Daito to form Daiei, in a government-ordained merger of the nation’s film producers that was intended to facilitate the medium’s use for propaganda purposes and to optimise use of rare base materials like film stock. In the wake of the war, Nikkatsu separated from Daiei, keeping its nationwide theatrical network, but losing all its production facilities. It restarted its activities by distributing foreign films, which proved so successful that the company was soon able to open new studios and recommence in-house film production in 1953.
Nikkatsu and the five other majors (Toho, Shochiku, Daiei, plus post-war newcomers Shintoho and Toei) effectively formed the entire Japanese film industry in the peak decades that followed the war. The structure of six major studios received its first blow in 1962, however, with the bankruptcy of Shintoho. Only four years after Japan’s all-time record cinema attendance (1.1 billion spectators in 1958), the spectre of television was truly starting to loom over the film industry. After ignoring the problem for several more years, by the dawn of the 1970s prospects were becoming increasingly dire. Toho halted production in 1970. Daiei did likewise in 1971.
Nikkatsu responded by reducing budgets and minimizing schedules, but giving its filmmakers more creative freedom in return. Many of the studio’s leading stars, including its biggest moneyspinner Yujiro Ishihara, and directors went freelance. In the films that remained, almost anything went, including killing off your heroes. The quotient of violence and sex was upped, in hopes that forbidden fruit would lure audiences back into the theaters. From 1968 onward, around the same time that Hollywood’s output took a similar gritty turn with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Nikkatsu’s signature action films become rougher, harder-edged. A new generation of directors (Yasuharu Hasebe, Toshiya Fujita, Yukihiro Sawada) and stars (Tetsuya Watari, Meiko Kaji, Tatsuya Fuji, Yoshio Harada) came to the fore.
These developments culminated in the ‘Nikkatsu New Action’ genre. The differences with the previous decade’s action film was immediately apparent: no more clean-cut heroes out to fight for justice, instead the screen ran wild with delinquents looking for kicks and stirring up trouble, all the while wearing the latest fashions and driving jeeps and motorcycles. The films still retained the old borderless flavour, but instead of deriving from foreign films, the locations were real-life settings like Yokosuka, the site of a large American naval base and a town where foreigners were a regular sight on the streets and in the bars and nightclubs. These were times of civil protests, with the U.S. military presence a common target for demonstrations. For all their eagerness to entertain base instincts, New Action films were among the most socially attuned that Nikkatsu had ever churned out.
A flagship of the New Action line was the Stray Cat Rock (Nora Neko Rokku) series, five films released throughout 1970 and early 1971, all of which starred Meiko Kaji and Tatsuya Fuji (who would later gain international notoriety for starring in Nagisa Oshima’s controversial diptych In the Realm of the Senses / Ai no Koriida and In the Realm of Passion / Ai no Borei). Each of the films had a different storyline and different characters, but the one thing that united them was that they all dealt with delinquents, street gangs and bikers kicking up a storm in the streets of contemporary urban Japan.
The anti-authoritarian tone and contemporary setting fit Meiko Kaji well. It was director Yasuharu Hasebe – who helmed three of the five episodes, including the first, Delinquent Girl Boss: Stray Cat Rock (Onna Bancho: Nora Neko Rokku) – who spotted Kaji’s potential, allowing the sassy woman who usually strut around the Nikkatsu lot in tight jeans and leather boots to play characters that weren’t very far removed from her real-life persona. With Nikkatsu having deals with some of Tokyo’s largest department stores for their costume supplies, Kaji and the no less fashion-conscious Hasebe would go out on the town before the shooting of each film to select her wardrobe. Meiko Kaji had emerged from kimonos and puppy fat; the transformation was now truly complete.
In the first film, though, Kaji had to share the screen with pop singer Akiko Wada, who plays a lone biker who comes to Kaji’s aid after the latter’s all-girl gang gets into a scrape with a group of bikers led by Tatsuya Fuji. The film was co-produced by Wada’s talent agency Hori Pro, a partnership unthinkable in the heydays of the studios, but no longer sacrilegious in these days of dwindling box office figures. The singer’s presence is an obvious attempt to appeal to a demographic, a strategy that characterises the entire series: pop idols and bands appear either as themselves or playing supporting characters, and musical interludes are frequent.
Wada’s presence lent the film a peculiar, sexually ambiguous atmosphere. With her short hair, denim suit, tall stature and deep, almost masculine voice, she formed an uncharacteristically androgynous presence among the longhaired sex kittens that played Kaji’s wildcats. Hasebe played up this angle by including shots of her hugging various members of Kaji’s gang, suggesting that her relation to the girls might be more than that of the traditional ‘big sister’.
Sexual undercurrent aside, Hasebe directed the film with a real funky flair, all split screens, fish-eye lenses, jump cuts and close-ups of spinning tires and smoking tail pipes. Akiko Wada performs a few tracks on a nightclub stage, as do real-life bands The Mops and The Ox. Backgrounds are filled with construction sites and half-finished office towers, revealing a megalopolis in the making while at the same time giving the film the borderless quality that formed the Nikkatsu signature. The screenplay incorporated such ripped-from-the-headlines issues as corruption, the abuse of power, and the position of ethnic minorities (a subplot about a halfbreed boxer named Kenny foreshadows the plot of the third episode, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter). Amidst it all, Kaji and Fuji race their bikes and dune buggies through subway stations and across pedestrian overpasses, much to the astonishment of obviously uninformed bystanders.
Delinquent Girl Boss was released on a double bill with Shameless School (Harenchi Gakuen, 1970), which also starred Akiko Wada, and went on to achieve a large enough success to warrant turning it into a series. The first film’s restless energy set the tone for the episodes that followed. Wada has little more than a cameo in the second film, Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo (Nora Neko Rokku: Wairudo Janbo), in a single scene that seems like an outtake from the first entry, and the focus this time is on a quintet of young layabouts, including Kaji, Fuji and The Ox vocalist Yusuke Natsu, who seem to live for having a good time and pulling pranks on unsuspecting pedestrians. They hook up with a pretty rich girl (Bunjaku Han, one of several actors to appear in multiple episodes) who gets them involved in a heist that eventually pits the gang of friends against the police in a climactic gunfight.
Episodic and far less tightly structured than its predecessor, Wild Jumbo carries the stamp of its director Toshiya Fujita, a former actor who favoured improvisation and giving his cast plenty of elbowroom. This results in plenty of infectious silliness, such as the scene where the group goes camping by the beach (yes boys, this is your chance to see Meiko in a bikini) or when Kaji races their jeep through the surf while, in the back seat, the boys pull down their swimming trunks to moon the sunbathing daytrippers. These scenes are again shot wild and Fujita delights in his close-ups of flabbergasted swimmers.
There are no bikers and little juvenile delinquency to be found in episode two, but it is obvious that Kaji and her fellow cast members were having a blast making the film. Not all of Wild Jumbo was devised off-the-cuff, though. The beach scenes are a spun-out parody of the taiyozoku or ‘sun tribe’ youth movies that helped propel Yujiro Ishihara to stardom fifteen years earlier. The gang even interrupt the shooting of exactly such a film by running wildly into the frame while a dolly-mounted camera records a dramatic fight scene.
All hi-jinks aside, much like its predecessor, Wild Jumbo turns suddenly and quite relentlessly grim in the final fifteen minutes. When the guns come out (a hidden stash of WWII weapons, in this case), things get ugly. This dark undercurrent is present in each of the five films, whose protagonists usually don’t make it to the closing credits alive, Kaji included. This darkness is most pervasive in part three, Sex Hunter, the best of the bunch and also the one to openly deal with the sensitive social issues that the other entries only hint at.
Similar to Delinquent Girl Boss, Sex Hunter’s storyline concerns the rivalry between the all-female gang the Alleycats, led by the sultry Mako (Kaji), and the brazen young men who form the Eagles, headed by the ultra-cool Baron (Fuji). When Alleycat Mari turns down the advances of Eagle Susumu (Jiro Okazaki) in favour of her half-black boyfriend Ichiro, Baron’s memories of his sister’s rape by a group of halfbreeds spurs on the Eagles to rid the town of its mixed-race population. When a young stranger named Kazuma (rock singer Rikiya Yasuoka) wanders by in search of his estranged sister, Mako takes a fancy to him, none to the liking of Baron, who goes in hot pursuit as soon as he realises the stranger is also a halfbreed.
Smartly scripted by Atsushi Yamatoya, famed for penning Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, Sex Hunter makes a particular point of race relations and questions of nationality, refusing to draw a clear line to indicate which ethnicity is ‘good’ and which is ‘bad’. The film suggests that mixing the colours might well be a way to build a slightly better world, condemning the domination of one group over another (and by extension of one culture over another, as the pernicious presence of American cultural ephemera attests). Indicative in this regard are the frequent appearances of the all-girl pop group Golden Half, who during seventies scored hit after hit and whose five members were all offspring of Japanese mothers and foreign fathers, their mixed heritage and exotic looks forming their main sales point.
The film marks the return of Yasuharu Hasebe, who delivers one of the most stylish movies of his career. Visually, it has a Sergio Leone-like flair to it, achieving a heightened, stylised reality that turns the deserted fields and military installations of Yokosuka into the close cousins of Leone’s dusty desert towns. The abundant close-ups ooze cool – those of Tatsuya Fuji virtually causing room temperature to drop several degrees.
But it’s Meiko Kaji who steals the show. Directly from the opening scene, she sashays into the frame in a black-and-white get-up and wordlessly defies her male adversaries. This is the film that sees the birth of Kaji cool, delivering the blueprint for the outlaw persona of Sasori and Lady Snowblood that she would forever remain associated with. Nikkatsu’s New Action films, and the Stray Cat Rock series in particular, unmistakably signalled a change in the way women were portrayed on cinema screens, going on to have large influence not only Kaji’s further career, but also on the wider popular cinema of the 1970s. Toei’s Pinky Violence line and Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno would in all likelihood not have been the same without them, as both revolve entirely around female stars, with the men often reduced to the simple role of sex partners.
Where race relations dominate the proceedings of the third, drugs form the premise for the fourth film, Machine Animal (note the consistent use of catchy but nonsensical English titles). Kaji plays a girl gang leader once more, with Fuji this time portraying a small-time dope dealer whose supply of LSD highly intrigues the delinquent ladies. Fuji and his two partners, one of whom is a twitchy American G.I. who has gone AWOL and is pursued by the military police, are more than happy to party down, leading to a drug-taking scene reminiscent of Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967): surreal camera tricks, lots of distorted noise on the soundtrack, and a cast trying to act all weird and woozy. The local bikers (this time led by Eiji Go, younger brother of Nikkatsu action icon Joe Shishido) will have none of these trespassers, though, and the war is on, with Kaji choosing Fuji’s side against her former ally.
Mixing plot elements from the first and third films, Machine Animal may not be the most original entry, it is certainly not worse than the previous installments. It retains all the usual ingredients, which can’t be said of the fifth and final episode, Beat’71 (Boso Shudan ’71 a.k.a. Crazy Riders ’71), in which Kaji has little more than a supporting role and lead duties are shared between Fuji and series newcomer Yoshio Harada. The film opens with Ruriko (Kaji) and her boyfriend Ryumei (Takeo Chii, also a familiar face from previous episodes) frolicking around in the dunes, until a biker gang (led by Eiji Go once again) appears and roughs them both up, taking the boyfriend with them. Before succumbing, however, Ryumei fatally stabs one of the hoodlums (a cameo by Sex Hunter’s Rikiya Yasuoka). The bloody knife is placed in the hand of the unconscious Ruriko and she is sent to jail for murder. Two months later she escapes and goes in search of her boyfriend, finding him transformed into the playboy son of a rich yakuza boss. She is captured by the father’s biker minions and locked up in a cellar. Meanwhile, Ruriko’s old gang have formed a hippy commune in Shinjuku. When they find out what has happened to her, they hop on their bicycles (including a five-person tandem) and start a sit-in in front of the yakuza HQ, demanding her release. The Mops, Japanese carbon copies of Magical Mystery-era Beatles, show up to perform their hit tune Iijanaika (‘Ain’t it good?’), which becomes the hippies’ rallying song when the confrontation turns grimmer.
The social commitment of earlier entries has become a gentle form of demagoguery in Beat’71, with the peace-loving hippies standing up to the rich and powerful, only to be treated to violence at the hands of ruffians. Typical is the scene in which Ryumei’s father single-handedly cuts off his son’s unkempt long hair, forcing the young man to conform to his law.
Not surprisingly, knowing that it was directed by Wild Jumbo’s Toshiya Fujita, there is a generous amount of improv and comedy, though the absence of Meiko Kaji from large parts of the narrative is sorely noticeable. Nevertheless, the ending is one of the most shocking and sombre in the series, with literally every character shedding their mortal coils in violent fashion.
All things considered, the Stray Cat Rock series managed to remain relatively free from the law of diminishing returns: Sex Hunter is undeniably the best of the bunch, but the other four are all roughly on the same level, even if the differences in approach between Hasebe and Fujita are evident. The tight schedules on which these films were shot (two weeks each) may not have allowed for much luxury, it does give them a spunky energy that has stood the test the time quite well. This rapid pace of production also explains how Meiko Kaji managed to make an additional fifteen films in those two years of 1970 and ’71, including two other films with directors Fujita and Hasebe: Shinjuku Outlaw: Kick Out the Jams (Shinjuku Autoro: Buttobase) and Bloody Feud (Ryuketsu no Koso) respectively.
What the series also managed to do was change Meiko Kaji’s outlook on her own profession. Up to then, she had regarded acting as a hobby, a temporary thing that she could walk out on as soon as her interest would begin to wear thin. But the fraternal, breezy atmosphere on the sets with both directors as well as diversity of the characters she played across the five films – and her performances do run from sprightly to icy – convinced her that there was a goal worth pursuing in acting. (She wasn’t the only one: both Tatsuya Fuji and Yoshio Harada have since grown into two of Japan’s most respected screen actors.)
Were it not for the Stray Cat Rock films, then, 1971 might well have marked the actress’s early retirement. That same year, Nikkatsu, in a last-ditch attempt to save its own hide, dissolved all running contracts with its actors, directors and production staff. The decision had been made to scale down production even further and to produce only softcore pornography. The move caused a mass walkout of talent, as few established stars and filmmakers wished to be associated with skinflicks or were prepared to labour under gruelling conditions trying to shoot feature films on one-week schedules. Though a handful of oldtimers stayed on – including, saliently enough, Hasebe and Fujita – Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno line-up heralded the end of an era.