An introduction to the Stray Cat Rock films

Following the surprise success of Roger Corman’s 1966 biker movie The Wild Angels with Japanese audiences, Toei studios made the smart move to try and cash in on its popularity with their own example of the genre. Delinquent Boss was also a hit and spawned no less than sixteen sequels, four of which were released as soon as the following year.

Rival studio Nikkatsu wanted a piece of this pie and so they promptly commissioned a biker film from screenwriter Shuichi Nagahara and director Yasuharu Hasebe, both of whom had recently made their debuts with reasonably strong and, perhaps most importantly, low budget genre pictures – 3 Seconds to Explosion and Black Tight Killers respectively.

Though the origins of their project were about following in the footsteps of other filmmakers, Nikkatsu’s biker films would be different. Theirs would be about a female biker gang.

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss engages with the decision to put women front and centre straight away as Ako (Akiko Wada), is confronted and insulted by the leader of a male biker gang. He is, amusingly, driving a rather silly looking Daihatsu Fellow Buggy. Ako angrily storms off and bumps into the buckskin-clad Mei (Meiko Kaji) who is en route to meet up with her own, and all-female gang.

As they arrive with the gang, so do a rival mob of females and also the guys from the beginning. We learn that the other girl gang have enlisted the guys as back-up, prompting Mei to shout out in disgust “You called men for help!”

For all the often unfortunate elements that have come to define these films and their gender representations, there is a strong spine that runs through them all of women being tough and looking after themselves.

Ako, who becomes the leader of Mei’s gang, is tall, tomboyish and very gruff voiced and really stands out from the crowd. Unfortunately, Wada couldn’t manage a great deal of range in her performance and comes up short in some of the more emotional scenes.

Besides being an attempt to hitch Nikkatsu’s biker gang to a bandwagon, Delinquent Girl Boss was reputedly also intended as a vehicle for Wada, to foster her appeal with a younger audience and building upon her recent success as a singer. The film even features a performance by Wada and ‘Group Sounds’ band The Mops of her song Boy & Girl.

Whilst Hasabe may have been five films deep into his career when he made Delinquent Girl Boss, it still seems that he’s finding his feet. This is particularly clear in respect of his camera placement. It seems clear that he wanted to experiment, though it’s hard to think f a single attempt to “try something new” that actually works.

Hasabe’s scattershot approach sees a lot of techniques coming into play, and rarely the same one twice. It’s easy to imagine he got a lot out of this, but it’s not so great for the viewer. One particularly absurd example fetures two characters talking in the street but depicted in split screen, each half dissolved slightly into the other. It looks pretty daft and serves no real purpose whatsoever.

Something that does help Delinquent Girl Boss stand out from the crowd is its storyline, which is more engaging than in the typical Japanese girl gang feature. Hasabe and co. did manage to pace it well, and kept all of the various strands spinning along throughout.

Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo

Delinquent Girl Boss was a hit so Nikkatsu quickly put a sort-of-sequel into development; there’s not a great deal of continuity in the Stray Cat Rock films.

Meiko Kaji’s character is back with the new name C-Ko, and a new gang. Sadly, she’s still not front and centre – despite her impressive turn in the first film – and for Wild Jumbo she was sidelined in favour of the male characters. Thankfully, this is something that was rectified in subsequent instalments.

The film begins with another buggy and with C-Ko hanging out with a group of three guys. They lark about, have a race and dance together to the funky, jazz-infused and rather goofy theme from Hiroki Tamaki. The definite shift in tone from the first film is already obvious.

Delinquent Girl Boss was somewhat anarchic at times but also a pretty sombre affair, filled with tragic character arcs. For Wild Jumbo director Toshiya Fujita went off in a completely different direction, filling the film with zany antics and broad humour.

But this isn’t really a girl gang movie – or “sukeban” picture, as they became known – and it certainly doesn’t qualify as a biker film either. Fujita is instead telling a story of low-level criminal youths, ripping people off and getting up to mischief. Sometimes, it feels like a throwback to the sun tribe, or taiyo zoku, films that were incredibly popular in the mid to late fifties.

There’s even an incredibly lengthy section in which all of the main characters decamp to the beach. This is allegedly something to do with the beach being a ‘training camp’for the gang before they commit a heist, but I think it probably has more to do with getting young, nearly naked flesh on the screen, and allowing Fujita to indulge in more frivolous fun.

At least the sequence ultimately lead somewhere, and the robbery and its aftermath prove to be pretty gripping stuff, well executed by Fujita. Nonetheless, his wicked sense of humour still dominates, including one excellent moment in which the camera pans from a picture of Charles Bronson to our moustached male lead; and the final shot of the film – pun intended – is delivered in a very blackly comic manner.

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter

Almost certainly the best known of all Stray Cat Rock films in the West, thanks to its long standing availability on DVD in America, the third instalment, Sex Hunter, would also appear to be the best movie this series had to offer.

Meiko Kaji is back, this time as a character named Mako, and she has her own gang. They are in competition with a male gang called The Eagles, who are headed by Baron (Tatsuya Fuji), a charismatic but ruthless leader who Mako is romantically involved with.

At least, this is until a mixed race stranger named Kazuma (Rikiya Yasuoka) arrives and upsets the applecart. Mako takes a shine to him and decides to help him look for his missing sister. Baron has a rather bigoted stance on mixed race folk, however, and so it becomes clear that he and Kazuma will ultimately battle it out.

The backdrop of battles over ethnicity makes Sex Hunter immediately far more interesting than either of the first two films. Japan was going through a very difficult period in the post war years, and right through into the seventies, both coming to terms with the past and attempting to define what kind of country it was going to become. The American occupation of Japan left a definite mark on many cities and their inhabitants.

Director Yasuharu Hasabe, returning to the series less than a year after he made the first instalment, makes good use of these themes, and establishes a struggle between two viewpoints: the more progressive girl gang and the much more regressive Eagles. That Mako is clearly the hero of the film and the Baron the villain should leave you in no doubt about where Hasabe’s own politics lie.

With Sex Hunter, Hasabe dramatically toned down the experimentations that were evident in the first film, and while he still opted for expressive and sometimes slightly excessive camerawork, the film is all the better for his relative restraint.

That’s not to say that Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter is anything like a sedate affair. It’s filled with outrageous costume design, violence and sex, and scored with more jazz infused rock and catchy Group Sounds. The on-screen band this time around are Golden Half, an all-girl group that were very popular in Japan at the time. The group’s hook was that all five members were mixed race, with Japanese mothers and fathers of a variety of races.

Hasabe’s second stab at the Stray Cat Rock was his best effort and Meiko Kaji was finally given a chance to shine. She even donned her large black hat, which soon become her signature style. The film begins with Kaji looking up and directly into the camera, her piercing eyes emerging from beneath the brim of the hat; it also ends with a reverse of this. Kaji’s eyes linger in the mind, and it’s the intensity she first got to display here that would soon become expected.

Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal

The star of Machine Animal is Meiko Kaji again, and while she’s been renamed once more, this time as Maya, she’s playing playing a very similar character to in Sex Hunter.

The film opens with Maya and her gang cornering two white guys, presumably American, who had attempted to rape them the previous night. It’s a bold opening that has been played rather casually by Hasabe – here making his final stab at Stray Cat Rock. This opening scene once that again reaffirms the series’ usual, underlying focus on female power.

As in previous entires there is a male gang at odds with our heroines but interestingly, this time their leader – who is not actually seen until late in the film – is a woman named Yuri, played by series regular Bunjaku Han. So, on both the good and bad sides we have women sitting at the top of the pile. That’s not so too shabby for a 1970s Japanese exploitation pic, really.

Hasabe’s commitment to more left-leaning ideas doesn’t stop with gender politics as the film’s plot surrounds three guys attempting to sell 500 LSD pills – a lot of Japanese filmmakers in the seventies seemed clueless about drugs – in order to buy passage to Sweden.

One of these guys is a Vietnam deserter and supposed to be American but he’s played by the quite obviously Asian Toshiya Yamano who speaks English rather awkwardly and with a Japanese accent. Hasabe treats the plight of the deserter and the questionable decisions of the film’s protagonists with a great deal of sympathy.

At this time, America still in the middle of the Vietnam war, but the voices of protest were growing ever louder. Students in Japan were protesting the war, left wing revolutionaries The Red Army Faction had recently highjacked a Japan Airlines plane, and there was a great deal of unrest following the renewal of the ANPO treaty.

Aside from its references to Vietnam, Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal doesn’t highlight any of these issues but the film was released at what was a radical moment in Japanese left-wing politics and Hasabe seemed to be clearly aligning this youth movie with the cause.

Thankfully, Hasabe has done a fair job balancing the somewhat heavier themes and some slightly melancholic plot beats with the more fun elements of Stray Cat Rock. There’s yet another club, and this one is a definite upgrade on the previous. Go-go girls enthusiastically dance about scaffolding above a stage while we’re treated to more psych-rock, jazz and group sounds.

Performers in The Astro Club include Tomoko Ota and Sawamaura Kazuko, and off stage we also get to hear performances from enka singer Michi Aoyoma and from Kaji herself. It wouldn’t be too much of a push to describe Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal as a musical, particularly when Kaji’s character bursts into song outside of any realistic context.

Unfortunately, Machine Animal really suffers from slapdash filmmaking, particularly some very weak editing.  Cuts come far too early or late, and there’s a number of close-up cutaways that seem to have no reason whatsoever.

There’s also some more split-screen shenanigans, both horizontally and vertically, that don’t really work. At least they are sparingly used and the bulk of Hasabe’s camerawork is reasonably assured here, more in line with Sex Hunter and his later work. Still, I did get the impression that he was being hampered somewhat by the budget and schedule.

The script also feels a little rushed. Despite Machine Animal’s short running time there is a fair amount of repetition, and a drugs stash and hostages exchange hands multiple times. it’s down to the strong performances of Kaji and Tatsuya Fuji, this time playing a good guy, that things stay interesting.

Hasabe would not return for the final Stray Cat Rock film but in 1972 he did make Naked Seven, an informal sequel to the films but also, and perhaps more notably, a ‘Roman porno’ parody of The Seven Samurai.

Stray Cat Rock: Beat ’71

Toshiya Fujita returned to direct the final instalment of the series, Stray Cat Rock: Beat ’71, and in closing the book, he also delivered a timely blow to the hippie idealism of the sixties.

Beat ’71 opens with our primary characters all living on a commune, with a child of unknown parentage. Following an incident with a rather snazzily dressed gang, led by Eiji Go, Meiko Kaji’s new character Furiko ends up in jail after being wrongly accused of killing one of their number.

The murder was actually committed by Furiko’s boyfriend, played by Takeo Chii. He then goes on to be swallowed up by a Yakuza operation and begins to dress and act more like a square.

In the meantime, Furiko’s old ‘gang’ spend a lot of time hanging out, taking drugs and riding a tandem. In one particularly amusing scene they even play up their hippie credentials, taking money from a journalist in return for a juicy story and photos of hippies ‘freaking out.’

Unlike some of the in earlier films, there are several less forced scenes with hippies here and, when the characters aren’t dialling things up for the journalist, they come across as pretty natural.

Kaji is relegated to being a supporting character in Beat ’71, and is even offscreen for a great deal of time when she is locked up, not just once, but twice. Her second incarceration provides the catalyst for many of the most dramatic scenes, as the hippies travel to a small town named Kurumi in order to try and break her out and to battle the yakuza boss and her former boyfriend.

Fujita and writers Hideichi Nagahara and Tatsuya Asai use these later sequences to take a swipe at privilege and corruption. It also seems especially prescient that they have the hippies hide out in an abandoned house in Kurumi given the fate of many Japanese Red Army members shortly after the film was released.

Of all of the Stray Cat Rock films, Beat ’71 is definitely one of the most formally traditional, with Fujita keeping most of the camerawork and editing reasonably sensible. The plot does meander about a bit but it’s never as wild as some of the other instalments. The only non sequitur will in fact be very welcome for fans of the series, as The Mops suddenly appear on a flatbed truck, play a song and then drive off shouting for everyone to buy their record.

Without giving away too much about the end of Beat ’71 I will say that it is probably one of the bleakest endings in the Stray Cat Rock series, and brings to mind, at least thematically, the ending of Easy Rider. Rather fitting, perhaps, for a series that was kickstarted by another of Peter Fonda‘s biker movies.

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