History: Nikkatsu, Japan, and the Studio System
With the exception of Toho, Nikkatsu is perhaps the most renowned, important of all classic Japanese film studios. Founded in 1912, its also one of the earliest and oldest. Producing primarily realist cinema during the early years, World War II’s immense effect on not only the country but also the film industry saw the studio transform in major ways. The destruction and disillusionment that followed the war ushered in an era of darker, more violent cinema, and, by the mid-to late 50s, Nikkatsu films started to reflect directly on the influence of American and French New Wave Cinema. In filmmakers like Seijun Suzuki’s and Takashi Nomura’s stylized crime dramas, the sensibilities and morality of past Japanese films faded and a new generation favoring anti-heroes emerged. Whether the change in attitude had a direct correlation is left to be said, but ticket sales were at an all time high, and the Japanese film industry was stronger ever.
However, a major threat loomed over Japan and, by the 1960s. everything would change. The threat in question was nothing like what shocked the country in the previous decade and a half. It wasn’t a threat of war or natural disaster, like the earthquake of 1923 that wreaked havoc on Tokyo and nearly leveled its film industry. No, it something seemingly innocuous but entirely devastating; it was television. After the implementation of televisions into everyday Japanese life, a severe blow was struck to the studio system. While some companies stopped production temporarily and others folded, Nikkatsu strived to survive. For his website Midnighteye.com —a site dedicated to solely to writings on Japanese cinema — Tom Mes described Nikkatsu’s role, “Nikkatsu responded [to the troubles brought on by the introduction of Television] by reducing budgets and minimizing schedules, but giving its filmmakers more creative freedom in return…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.” This ushered in a new era of exploitation cinema, producing some of the country’s best, most lavish, and transgressive cinema to date.
One of the most important filmmakers to cut their teeth in this decade was Yasuharu Hasebe. After his debut, a spy-spoof film called Black Tight Killers, Hasebe crafted two films that, while strikingly different, would form the basis for the style of cinema that would dominate the Stray Cat series. The film, which have both also been given a lavish Blu-ray treatment by Arrow Video, are the 1967’s stark, black and white yakuza-noir Massacare Gun and, his follow up, 1968’s bombastic, colorful Retaliation. While very different in tone of voice, both films do share plenty of thematic and stylistic similarities. First, there is Hasebe’s near-obsessive fixation with cynicism, which places his films in conversation with the counter-cultural and New Hollywood cinema. Second, and perhaps most important, Hasebe’s unique use of music (Jazz being key, but psychedelic rock will creep in with the 1970s) becomes a defining feature of both films. Ramped up to eleven, these tendencies form more than just the basis for 1970 and 1971’s five installments of Stray Cat Rock films, they become the personification of a culture awry, fueled on music, sex, and drugs.
Stray Cats and Girl Bosses: The Birth of a Style and Movement
Following Arakure (Roughneck) and Kôiki bôryoku: ryuuketsu no shima (Bloody Territories) , Hasebe embarked on the first of what would be a five-film series (three of which Hasebe would personally direct), Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss. At the point of filming, Nikkatsu was in dire times. Money was tight — to say the least — and they were looking for ways to cross-brand their films. This led them to a collaboration with Hori Productions, a talent agency in Japan who would provide Hasebe with the series’ first star, pop signer Akiko Wada. Standing in Wada’s shadow, however, was the face that would go on to not only brand the series but also become a major Japanese star Meiko Kaji.
But, we are getting ahead of ourselves…
Delinquent Girl Boss sets the mold for the series. None of these films are particularly plot intensive; in fact they are almost the opposite. Plot only forms the loose skeleton that enables the characters, pushing them into situations that typically end horribly for all parties involved. Delinquent Girl Boss follows an all-female gang who adopt the tall and androgynous Ako (Wada) as their defacto leader when they are pitted against the tyrannical Seiyu Group. While Kaji is the name that resonates loudest from the series, the first installment is very much Wada’s film. Hasabe effectively utilizes Wada’s physicality to the film’s benefit, ramping up undeveloped notions of sexual tension amongst group members. Wada handles the performance surprisingly well for an untrained actor but admittedly isn’t as charismatic as some of Kaji’s subsequent roles.
Stylistically, Girl Boss is a marvel, something that can be said of all the films in this series. Modern viewers will see in it a lot of influence that eventually worked its way into the films of Quentin Tarantino but, for its time, Girl Boss was strikingly unique. It’s an unfiltered, stylistic explosion of colors, titles screens, super-impositions, off beat camera movements, and musical breaks. As already discussed, music is a crucial aspect to Hasebe’s work. The gang lairs or backstreet apartments of conventional crime films are replaced with rock clubs. The dark, dingy lsd dens become a thematic sanctuary for the displaced youth. Their importance in the films cannot be stressed enough, and Hasebe never lets us forget that.Nikkatsu was quick to follow up on the success of Girl Boss, by hiring Toshiya Fujita to helm the second installment, Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo. Fujita at the time was still fresh in the industry and three years away from producing the film that would solidify his place in Japanese cinema history, Lady Snowblood. To his credit, Fujita takes the framework supplied by Hasebe and does his best to provide a worthy successor but the film does fall short of that goal. Wild Jumbo is imbued by a vivid style, but the babbling heist-film narrative and jagged humor leaves a lot to be desired. The biggest offense in the film is Fujita’s choice to divert the series away from its core interest in girl gangs to primarily male characters or at least towards a central focus on the male characters, which alone makes it more of a business-as-usual film than Hasebe’s original. At its worst, Wild Jumbo is a lesser effort made in Hasebe’s image but its short runtime, strong performances, and attractive cinematography makes it an enjoyable watch. These films can easily be criticized for appearing aimless, but this criticism would be shortsighted. The loose plotting and haphazard visual nature is essential to Hasebe’s core message. What should be noted is that, while these films often end in the implosion of its central characters, Stray Cat Rock is not an overt-moralizing critique of youth in revolt. Stray Cat Rock champions rebellion, and does so not by creating a fictional reality where the youth win but in cutting away from convention at every turn. In this light, Stray Cat Rock recognizes the real challenges that counter-culturalism was up against. The visual style acts as a metaphor for the characters, its a rejection of good form, a rejection of classicism. Keeping in mind that these films come two and three years after the worldwide failures of the ‘68 , the defeatist attitude is more cynicism than it is undermining. The hip youthful characters are never able to rise above their opposition almost always presented as quasi-fascist representations of adulthood, but their very existence (even their failures) are worthy of praise and honor.
Shot on or near ex-American army bases, these films cannot be separated from the post-war world in which they were shot. While there are clear ties to their fascist past, the films seem more rooted in problems at the helm of late ‘60s, early ‘70s Japan. Many have cited the third installment, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, as not only Hasebe’s finest contribution but also the best in the entire series. This reviewer would argue that the original, due to the stronger emphasis placed on female strength and individuality equals (if not bests) Sex Hunter, but there is an important reason why the prevailing belief should be strongly considered. Of all the films, Sex Hunter appears to pack the strongest message.In Sex Hunter, Kaji leads yet another all-female gang, this time, however, pitted against a nationalist, racist gang called The Eagles. The film’s explicit preoccupation with a very real issue plaguing Japan (racism against of what the characters in the film refer to as “half breeds,” or half Japanese citizens) does set it above some of the more esoteric message-films of the series, but it is not without its problems. Principally, while Kaji’s performance is breathtaking — the best of the entire series —, the film muddles the dichotomy between the polarized gangs with the inclusion a somewhat uneven love story involving Kaji’s Mako and Tatsuya Fuji’s Baron, the brazen leader of the Eagles. It does add a layer of depth to both Mako and Baron’s characterizations but, in what seems like an attempt to ratchet up the sexual imagery, does reduce some of the effect of the film’s message. Finally, unrelated to the former complaint, the film’s violent denouement feels excessive and unnecessary — amongst a great deal of otherwise manageable excess. If Sex Hunter is the high watermark for the series, Hasebe’s follow up, and final addition to the series, Machine Animal marks a noticeable decline. Perhaps it is a reflection of the extremely short production times (Hasebe and his fellow filmmakers were given two weeks to finish each film) or it is possible that by the third film Hasebe grew tired of the format he created; either way you look at it, Machine Animal doesn’t carry with it the same energy that his prior films had. It’s a good film but one that feels to be more going along with the motions than striving for innovation. The series’ conclusion, — only a year following the release of Girl Boss — Beat ’71, sees the return of Fujita but, again, is more of an anonymous film than anything else. Less fatigued by the series, Fujita’s work here is potentially more lively than Hasebe’s final attempt, but his relegating of Kaji to bit player is questionable. Just as their work on Hasebe’s Massacre Gun and Retaliation, Arrow has presented the Stray Cat Rock series in phenomenal form. Perhaps there could be more supplemental features in tow, but what is here goes a long way. Most important, however, the transfers on all five films look stunning. The grit and grain is left fully intact, leaving a faithful representation of the picture quality of the time. There is something about the look of the color photography of Japanese cinema of this time that is spectacular. This package really brings out the character of Hasebe’s and Fujita’s vision.
Perhaps the series drags on longer than it has to, but there still isn’t a truly bad inclusion in this package. In just two short years, Nikkatsu delivered a slate of five films that would go on to define the next decade for the studio. When Stray Cat Rock’s style of sexualized violence proved potentially too tame for Nikkatsu’s competition (principally Toei’s Pinky Violence films), the studio ramped up the sexuality and gave birth to their series of Roman Porno movies. Without Hasebe’s work it is hard to say what the studio’s later output would look like. Hasebe stayed on with Nikkatsu, producing a few more notable titles for the studio including Assault! Jack the Ripper, but nothing that is quite as revolutionary as his work here. In the end, Stray Cat Rock has left an indelible mark on the history of cinema. They do more than legitimize exploitation cinema, they make a case for its very need to exist. The rambunctious style and ability to cut loose the shackles of ‘proper form,’ granted Hasebe the same breath of freedom that was apparent in the French New Wave — without any of the pretension of that era. Everything about Stray Cat Rock screams rebellion. Be it in Hasebe’s obsession with off road vehicles (a coy metaphor for straying from our paved paths in life?), it’s strong and sexually free female characters, on-screen violence, or destruction of conventional character types, Stray Cat Rock is every bit as important as it is entertaining. With each subsequent release, Arrow Films and Video prove their importance and they remain one of the few boutique labels championing these kinds of film. With the release of Battles Without Honor and Humanity on the rise, all we can say is that with Arrow the best has yet to come.
Stray Cat Rock is available on Blu-ray via a limited 2000-unit release via Arrow Films and Video.