Saturday, April 30, 2016

Review: Stray Cat Rock: 5 Disc Set

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet

Stray Cat Rock: 5 Disc Set
Hori Productions / Nikkatsu
Arrow Films / MVD Visual

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (aka Nora-neko rokku: Onna banchô)
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
81 minutes, 1970 / 2015
Rumour is that Roger Corman based his motorcycle films on this one, though there is also a strong indication that DGB was influenced by the likes of Riot on Sunset Strip (1967). However, I question that, considering he directed The Wild Angles in 1966, four years before this one. The mixture of topical music artists and the independent crime/drug genres are blended seamlessly, with one of the main characters being the throaty Ako played by pop star Akiko Wadda. She stands nearly a head taller than most of the rest of the female cast.

Mei (Meiko Kaji), who would become the star of the rest of the series, is the leader of a bunch of tough women called the Stray Cats (or Alleycats, depending on your translation). She dresses what you might imagine Peggy Lipton wearing on “The Mod Squad,” (1968-73) or Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974), such as a loose fitting brown suede pants suit. In other fashions, there are a lot of multi-colored sunglass lenses, including blue, yellow and tan. Speaking of which, I ask this as an honest cultural question, as I simply don’t know. Do gangsters or motorcycle riders tend to wear tan pants in Japan? Or is it supposed to reflect the uniformed worn by the film’s crime syndicate? More on that later, but, ah, makes me wonder…

The exception in this crowd is Ako, who dresses in leather as she drives a motorcycle, yet she still joins up with the group. I’m not sure if the title refers to her or Mei, honestly, but then again, I’m more concerned about the story in general than any specific thing like that. When one is watching a foreign film, especially from an Asian country, you have to accept that the translation into English is not going to be exactly accurate, so you go with the action.

A right wing nationalist syndicate comes into town (they dress like soldiers), and joins up with a male motorcycle gang since their leader of the hog riders is the brother of the crime group capo. The Don, as it were, looked familiar and then I realized it is Tadao Nakamaru: he played Shephard Wong, in What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966). As in most Japanese gangster films, they are up to no good. For example, they try to buy off a boxer to throw a fight, but thanks to Ako egging him on, as well as Mei’s boyfriend being the one who convinced him to throw it in the first place, he KOs the opponent. This leads to trouble since the syndicate lost a lot of smackeroos, so they take it out on the b/f.

Hitting him with Aikido sticks, the women come in and rescue him, and now the syndicate is after the ladies, as well. One of the vehicles the syndicate drives, a Fellow Buggy, has an Ohio plate, perhaps a nod towards Kent State University, which was still fresh on the news? Okay, I won’t talk about that the plate is from 1961, especially since on the back are two plates, from Florida and another from Texas. Perhaps they were predicting the bushwhacking Bush brothers’ 2000 election. A bigger question is why would a vehicle belonging to a nationalistic Japanese gang have US plates?

Music has a much to do with the film, mostly indirectly. For example, there is a Lot of jazzy sax playing over the action, like many cool movies did in the States in early-to-mid-1960s to indicate toughness, sexiness or socially Outsider action. Also Akiko gets to sing a couple of numbers, one from a club’s stage, and the other in a more musical film way, singing about how “girls are girls.” Another band at the club, which is nowhere near as raucous as the Chocolate Watchband, is called Ox; no, there wasn’t any sign of John Entwistle.

And in the realm of the senses of stream of consciousness, here are some quick thoughts: there is a chase scene in here, through subways and over walkways, and I must say it’s one of the more silly ones I’ve seen , though not anywhere near as purposefully bizarre as The Blues Brothers (1980). The Ako character is very butch, but this is 1970, so in one scene they have her drooling over pretty dresses in a storefront window; gender politics, indeed. The ending, especially the final shots, is right out of an Alan Ladd Western.

Overall, it was very ’60-‘70s Corman, or more accurately reminded me of Jack Hill’s Pit Stop (1969), though not as gritty nor noir. It was a good ride, and a fine place to start on the quintuple series.

Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo (aka Nora-neko rokku: Wairudo janbo)
Directed by Toshiya Fujita
84 minutes, 1970 / 2015
Five minutes into this second in the series, and I can already see four commonalities. First, there is, of course, Meiko Kaji; second is disenfranchised youth at a crossroads; third a Buggy, though different from the first film, and; fourth is an almost immediate Coke product placement (in both films, pop singer Akiko Wadda plays a female motorcycle rider; in this one it’s a cameo, where she drinks a bottle at the beginning).

The gaggle group of early 20-year-old-or-so are poor and call themselves the Pelican Club, and share a room in a poor, industrial part of the city; the junk yards and debris is another element in common with the first film. Even though they like jazz, as evidenced by the album covers that cover the walls of their second-floor shack, they are less likeable than the Alleycats. They think nothing of driving dangerously with an overcrowded Buggy cab, or shooting out the tires and kidnapping the driver of a mysterious religious group (a stand in for the right wing nationals in the first film).

At the core of the film is social inequity, however. Our poor shackrats have a serious rivalry going with a group of rich kids. They run each other off the road, or go to their abodes and wreck it. The rich kids are pricks, no doubt, as is often portrayed in films from his era, but so are the poor ones, and it’s hard to take either side (at the time, most likely, the viewer would probably identify with whichever social strata s/he was in).

One of the Pelicans is a gun nut, and finds a treasure trove of two handguns and machine gun from World War II hidden in a school yard (oy), and the machos of the group go try out their new toys (to keep their heads expanding, as Lene Lovich may have said). One of them, the hot headed one, dresses loosely like Clint Eastwood in his Spaghetti Western mode.

And then one of the crew, who falls for the equally mysterious driver, starts dressing smartly, and moves all the Pelicans to a resort beach to train them for... Well, I ain’t gonna tell ya, you’ll have to see it.

This one is a bit more imaginative as far as theatrics go, with fancy (for that time) graphics, artistic editing in little pieces, and even some “Pow” kind of overlay, like in the Batman series (1966). However, this one moves at a much slower pace than the first, possibly because it is hard to identify with these young’uns. They’re sort of like a mild version of the groups from Lady in a Cage (1964) or especially Hot Rods to Hell (1967). When all hell breaks loose by the end, even then it is more the music that makes one feel any emotion than the action.

Though I wasn’t crazy about this one, it does fit in well for the canon of youth out of control genre that was popular from the beginning of rock and roll, right up until the early 1970s (arguably brought back again for 1995’s Kids, if not 1979’s Rock and Roll High School). It is okay for a laugh, as is much of the genre, and it fit somewhat comfortably into the formula. That being said, I envisioned a different ending, so in that way it made me happy.

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (aka Nora-neko rokku: Sekkusu hantaa)
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
85 minutes, 1970 / 2015

While we once again are introduced to a variation of the female Alleycats girl gang in opposition to the male Eagles group, this film tackles the social schema of race relations. Taking place in Yokosuka, there a U.S. Naval base is located there since post-WWII, and especially because both China and Russia are right around the corner (“I can see Russia from my house!” said Tina posing as Sarah). The end result was a lot of mixed race Japanese with both Caucasian and Black American fathers. These offspring were treated about as well as Blacks were treated in the Deep South in the 1950s, seen as unpure.

As we meet the two gangs, they both start out somewhat on the same team, with Mako (Mieko Kaji) leading the ‘Cats, and Baron (Tatsuya Fuji, who would star in In the Realm of the Senses in just six years) heading the uber-macho Eagles. Despite some co-mingling (i.e., sex) and sharing of drugs (hash and pot, from what I could see), one of the ‘Cats turns down advances from an Eagle because she is in love with one of the Japanese / Black sires. This infuriates the birdbrain because (a) her love interest is mixed, and especially (b) it isn’t him.

The poor guy is beaten to a pulp by the Eagles, and he is defended by Kazuma (Rikiya Yasuoka, d. 2012), another mixed-race guy in one of the worst fight scenes I’ve seen in a while. I don’t think I’m giving anything away in that the filmmaker is obviously setting up Mako to become a love interest with him.

Baron and crew decide to war against the “half-breeds” because he doesn’t want them touching “his women.” But you also know that there will be hell to pay with Mako and crew. As the leader of the ‘Cats, this is by far the coolest Kaji has looked to date with long, flowing pants and wide-brim hat (again, reminiscent of Pam Grier, who apparently was the model for what is “cool” in this films). Of course, in a perverse sense of irony, the guys all drive around in U.S. jeeps.

Yeah, the Eagles are definitely winners in the gene pool, not only picking on people, as gangs are wont to do, but it’s always the entire group of a dozen guys picking on a single one. No balls at all, but typical of the mentality of these kinds of films.

But as much as this film is about race, it’s also about gender, with the men being possessive of the women, dealing in human trafficking to the “Harrys” (Westerners and Europeans), and assuming all women are “bitches” (again, taken from the language presented). But obviously, they underestimate our dear Alleycats. And you know it is going to lead to a showdown at the ol’ corral.

While this feels like the most complete of the films so far in the series, it is also a very unsatisfying ending for me. I was expecting more of it than some posturing macho stupidity. There was so much more that could have been done to make it complete, but this was 1970, not 2016; if this were made now, after a span of 45 years of ever-stronger women, this certainly would (and should) have a more meaningful ending.

One last comment is that, thinking collectively again, there are some elements that these three films had in common: first, women who drive motorcycles (the only one that does not stand in all five, as the last one women are on bicycles, but I jump ahead); second, a vehicle driving down steps; and third, lots of Coca-Cola placements. Sure, there’s a Pepsi sign in there too, but it’s mostly Coke. The last is music. Lots of then-modern music with an acid rock or blues touch. For live sounds, there is the girl pop group Golden Half, made of equally Eastern and Western members, all singing in Japanese. Nice touch considering the divide between cultures in the rest of the story.

Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal (aka Nora-neko rokku: Mashin animaru)
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
82 minutes, 1970 / 2015

With her wide-brimmed Clint-Eastward-No-Name cowboy hat hanging over her back, Maya (Meiko Kaji) is the head of the Yokohama girl gang to whom we are introduced even before the credits, revenging a near rape the night before by a group of foreign sailors.

Joining them is another male gang, the Dragons, and they take off, only to stop and harass two guys from out of town who are apparently having car trouble. You feel sorry for these two as maroons until we learn that they are actually good guys trying to sell 500 hits of LSD to pay for a boat to get an American ‘Nam deserter buddy (as well as themselves) on a boat and outta Japan to Sweden. And that is where the clash of the male gangs begins, with our ladies in the middle.

How do the ‘Cats get involved? First, by stealing the car with the hits, and then becoming sympathetic to their cause. Then it’s them against the bad boy Dragons, led by the sidecar riding Jerry Lewis (sans funny) looking Sakura (Eiji Go). No one seems to be able to hold on to the drugs very long as it either gets lost, stolen, taken, or sold out from under. Then there is the real head of the Dragon gang, a purple-obsessed and wheelchair bound woman named Yuri (Bunjaku Han; d. 2002). Will she take the sisterly side of the women in the gang? Will the bi-gender-segregated gangs sort it out? Will the drug sellers and “deserter” get on their boat?

Well, it’s Japanese cinema, the Game of Thrones of its time, and you never know who is going to live and die. I will tell you, however, despite the lack of Coke logos (though Honda is prominently mentioned), there is the inevitable scooter chase through the back alleys, ship yards and factories (as well as restaurants). My, how cell phones would have changed these stories.

Over jazzy music that reminds me, again, of Hot Rods to Hell and other youth exploitation films from the period play over scenes of people running around, or in Easy Rider (1969) mode of montages of the gangs riding cycles, cut with weird editing, like the screen split horizontally to show concurrent actions, or wiping across. This is both imaginative (even if borrowed) and in the pre-digital days, not an overly easy process.

There is also a lot of music in this film; with so many scenes taking place in a nightclub, it gives the audience a chance to see some live groups and singers lip syncing their songs, and even a character or breaks into a song at an emotional point, as does the angst-lyrics number by Kaji as she philosophies with the LSD dealer, Nobo (Tatsuya Fuji; his name is shortened from “Nobody”). He and his friends also want to escape to the West from the ennui that has set in on post-WWII semi-occupied Japan.

The language (translation) of the film is interesting, with lots of uses of the term “chicks” and “rednecks,” and other terms that were then hip/now outdated. How accurate it is done, again, I’m not sure. I mean, there could be a Japanese slang term for women that would make no sense translated directly; after all, would Japanese terminology understand that “a tomato” at one time was a slang term for females? My guess is the translation from the film is more Western cultural than literal.

But there is also a political aspect to this one, too. With the Viet Nam war coming around the bend to a conclusion in just a few years, and the pressure on by the counterculture, the topic was – er – topical and hot. Various characters have definite opinions on deserters, even if it was by the Yanks, who were also coming to an end of their occupation of Japan.

This film, like many of the others, has obviously been influenced by both the realities of post-wartime occupation and possibly the Italian Cinema of Realism, because typically in this genre of film, you never know who is going to live or die, and there doesn’t necessarily need to be a happy ending.

Stray Cat Rock: Beat ‘71 (aka Nora-neko rokku: Bôsô shudan ‘71)
Directed by Toshiya Fujita
87 minutes, 1970 / 2015

As the 1970s progressed, even though in its early stages, the psychedelic counterculture and the cinema that reflected it started appearing outside the borders of the contiguous United States. This would also affect the releases of other countries, including the conclusion of this series.

The hair is getting longer, and while drugs are more discussed in in the previous film, with brief scenes of people indulging, here it is a bit more prevalent. There is also quite a bit more of the straight cultural hegemonic world meeting the equivalent of Japanese hippies in a different clash of cultures, rather than Japanese vs. foreigners (Yanks, etc.) in the earlier releases. Also added is an element of classism, with our hippie troupe against the corporate entity mayor, and his loyal townsfolk (though I wonder if it’s more loyal to the power, than the person, i.e., keeping the status quo).

While on a romp in the city of Shinjuku with her boyfriend, Furiko (Meiko Kaji) and Takaaki (nicknamed Ryumei; Takeo Chii) are beset upon by a male biker gang, led by President (once again, Eiji Go), and in the melee, the boyfriend stabs one of the bikers. He’s taken away by a very straight capo, Ryumei’s father, who is the corrupt Mayor of a rural town. Of course, Furiko is set up for the murder and is sent to prison, where she escapes with her sister two months later (though it’s not explained why the sister was there). From the looks of the fence, escaping from a women’s maximum security prison isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, like presented in films like The Big Bird Cage (1972). Throughout the film, the police’s presence is, to say the least, minimal, and usually laughable.

For me, it was interesting watching their version of cool-meets-uncool, a general theme in much of the Roger Corman-esque catalog at the time, such as The Trip (1967). For example, a straight reporter interviews and photographs our hippie anti-heroes in an abandoned VW bus, and he is played for laughs and derision, rather than the counterculture subjects that are meant to attract the audience demographic.

Though aiming for the youth crowd, there is actually less music than in the previous four films. There is a MOR band playing in a club at some point, and Kaji sings a mournful number acapella in a cell, but there is one near-metal group that appears on the back of a flatbed truck for some unexplained reason for one scene. They are called the Mops in the story, though actually they are played by the Spiders, who sing in English.

Our protagonists are not your stereotypical hippies, though, full of sunshine and loving peace. These guys and gals are not afraid to fight, or use knives and guns, as they are ready to use force to get what they want, be it Furiko or vengence.

Furiko’s group, for once, is not segregated by sex, but an equal number of men and women. However Gender politics definitely have a hand; although the sexual revolution was in full force, Feminism was in its nascent stages in the West, but hardly as much in the East. As the earlier films showed, women could be strong and in charge, but usually only if it involved other women (other than occasional bursts of violence against Westerners). Here, we get to see the male leader of Furiko’s hippie group, Piranha (Yoshio Harada) say about rescuing Furiko, “The men will think it over tonight. Then we’ll decide.” Also, during an orgy scene put on for the reporter and his photographer, the women get nude and the men wear shorts. Woof.

But getting back to the story, Ryumei, who has renounced his hippie ways for the corporate entity of his father, is none too pleased to see the escaped convict Furiko show up in his town of Kurumi. While rejecting her, she gets kidnapped by the motorcycle gang that attacked them in the first place, taking her to be locked in a barred cell at the mayor’s palatial estate (of course, every mayor’s estate needs to have a caged cell in the basement, donchaknow). While the series has moved away from the tried-and-true motorcycle gang genre, it still has a prominent place in this story, I’m assuming for consistency sake.

I found it amusing that the hippie group (would it be fair to call them “gang” considering some of their actions?) hide out at an old deserved mine area (ghost town) where, as is explained in the story, Westerns are filmed – probably that is actually true – and you know at some point there’ll be a shoot-out. Is it a spoiler alert when it seems so obvious? Don’t worry, I won’t comment on the fallout, but again, being the gritty ‘70s, with the Viet Nam war still raging just a few hundred miles away and the Cold War around the corner, not to mention the complete commercialization (again, lots of Coke, and even the name “Ryumei” is a product brand that sells fancy tea sets, cups, and high-end tea itself) and industrialization of Japan reaching point of no return, things are going to be dire. The hippie lifestyle was viewed as a direction of “No Future” before the Sex Pistols, so expectations were low and there was negativity worldwide just beneath the day-go surface.
Meiko Kaji


As for extras, there are mostly the trailers. However, what I found most interesting was a three-part program called ”Testimony of Outlaws: Faces of the ‘70s,” a Japanese documentary averaging 30 minutes apiece, one focusing on director Yasuharu Hasebe, and one apiece on actors Tatsuya Fuji and Yoshio Harada, all of whom talk about their collaboration on this series.

Yeah, this is an extremely enjoyable set of films, and I am happy to have finally had the opportunity to see them, after hearing about them all these years. They are also available in Blu-Ray, so you know the images are crisp. Whether you are a fan of Japanese cinema (though I would say more “crime drama” than “Samurai saga period piece” genres), that period of angst-driven culture shock, or even as a film historian, there is a lot to mull over. Besides, mostly they are entertaining stories, even with some of the dated politics writ large.

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