Stray Cat Rock Collection Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
As Japan’s Nikkatsu studios continued their transition from period films to contemporary yakuza dramas (on the way to the more purely exploitative pinku eiga pictures), they also released a series of urban youth and crime adventures. These films were the Japanese film industry’s delayed answer to Hollywood’s juvenile delinquent scare movies, biker flicks, hippie-exploitation, and other (usually low-budget) counterculture cash-ins. American culture had influenced the disillusioned youth of post-WWII Japan, because, well, it was more or less an edict of the terms of surrender. Unlike their teenage counterparts in the States, who enjoyed one of the most prosperous and milquetoast periods in their country’s history, the Japanese way of life was mired in political upheaval, which led to poverty, crime, and cultural disassociation. These films, represented here in Arrow Video’s Stray Cat Rock collection, were dismissed as rowdy and salacious B-pictures for decades, but may have been a more appropriate measure of Japanese society at the time than universally celebrated ‘serious’ arthouse movies and samurai cinema.
Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (1970)
A girl gang goes up against a criminal organization, the Seiyu Group, following a fixed boxing match – blood is shed and friendships are tested. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Director Yasuharu Hasebe was fresh off a series of rough & tumble yakuza flicks for Nikkatsu – including Massacre Gun (1967) and Retaliation (1968) – when he directed the first of the Stray Cat Rock series, Delinquent Girl Boss (aka: Alleycat Rock: Female Boss and Female Juvenile Delinquent Leader: Alleycat Rock). Hideichi Nagahara’s screenplay is typically convoluted yakuza/juvenile delinquent, in that it’s predictable, yet hard to follow, at least where plotlines and characters are meant to converge. But the narrative shortcomings are mostly inconsequential given the film’s insistently overbearing style. Plot (and for that matter, dialogue) is secondary to the visual playfulness. Hasebe (who obscured much of Retaliation’s action by shooting through and/or around props and set decoration) employs a cadre of tricks, such as subliminal flashing images, creatively over-stuffed widescreen framing, oppressively high and low angles, deep focus, and split-screen effects to create a fully immersive, ground-level look at the life of disaffected youth in post-WWII Japan. The tonal shifts between impish hijinks, genuinely startling violence (surprisingly little of it is left to our imaginations), and existential melodrama are likely enough to put off casual viewers, but these, coupled with gratuitous scenes of pop star/lead Akiko Wada (and others) performing rock music, give it a unique flair that sets the series off on the right foot.
Burgeoning superstar Meiko Kaji was cast here in a simple supporting role under top-billed Wada (in an interview with Chris D. for Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film [I.B. Tauris, 2005]), Hasebe verifies that the series was made as a vehicle for Wada’s musical career), but an incredible screen presence propelled her into the lead role for follow-up entries in the Stray Cat series. Despite Kaji’s lasting influence and unmistakable charisma, seeing Delinquent Girl Boss does make me wish that Wada had pursued a longer acting career, because her androgynous and cool performances is mesmerizing.
According to the booklet included with this collection, all five films were scanned from original preserved film elements at Nikkatsu Studios. Arrow warns that cases of the image appearing overly dark and/or coarse are inherent in the original theatrical footage and characteristic of the films’ low budgets and quick filming style. Delinquent Girl Boss is a good measure of all of the movies in this set, though I will be briefly covering all five. It is presented in 2.35:1, 1080p HD video. There is minor, but consistent print damage fluttering throughout the print. Most of these are small white flecks or tiny black scratches, along with a few noticeably torn frames. There is no point at which these artifacts become overbearing. Grain structure can be a bit fuzzy as are the details in the busier compositions, but these seem to be in keeping with other cheapo Japanese flicks of the time. Sure enough, it is the darkness that the booklet warns us about that becomes the biggest hindrance to clarity. Some of Arrow’s other Japanese releases, specifically earlier UK-only Blu-rays, like the Lady Snowblood series double-feature, were a little unbalanced in terms of gamma levels. The good news here is that black levels appear accurate and deep without pooling or crushing. The palette is vibrant throughout, including bright street shots that bounce with vivid advertising and lewdly neon interiors.
The LPCM Mono 1.0 soundtrack is also indicative of the quality of all five films. There are obvious limitations in what the filmmakers were able to do with their sound design – especially during the scenes shot on noisy city street locations – but the overall effect is plenty rich and clean. Performances are consistent in terms of volume, incidental effects are expectedly thin, and the occasional stylized sounds (the boxer’s P.O.V. as he reels from a punch, for example) don’t show many signs of high-end distortion. Kunihiko Suzuki’s jazzy score and a handful of rock/pop performances reveal a lot of aural depth and range as well.
Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo (1970)
Kaji and the gang return to get involved in the kidnapping and robbery of a religious organization. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
The second film in the series was directed by Toshiya Fujita, who would also direct Kaji in her career-defining role as Yuki Kashima/ Lady Snowblood – the title character of both Lady Snowblood (1973) and Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974). Wild Jumbo is a goofier, more comedic film that was released only three months after its predecessor. Fujita and Shuichi Nagahara’s screenplay continues the tradition of over-complicating simple and familiar genre tropes, but is more thoughtfully structured. The story is easier to follow, in part because so much time is spent on goofy beach shenanigans (like mooning tourists, scuba diving, and ruining a movie shoot), though, again, plotting is secondary to image and mood. Fujita follows Hasebe’s lead by using eye-popping cinematic tricks (usually still frames and iris effects) as well as handheld camera work. Despite being a bit more of a classic filmmaker overall, he outdoes his predecessor’s multi-media antics when a driving battle with a rival gang is spliced with still frames from a comic book.
Wild Jumbo is more light-hearted and tends to celebrate the satirical wit of the youth counterculture that rarely softens the cruelty of the criminal lifestyle. The ‘good guys’ remain good, because their crimes are relatively harmless, compared to the brutality of the first film, but they still murder people and the ending is incredibly bleak. The more consistent tone makes for an easier, though not always more entertaining viewing experience. What’s really missing here is the girl gang angle. Kaji gives a more confident performance, but is grouped with ruffian males and is lost as a token female that mostly laughs at the boys’ antics. On top of that, Bunjaku Han gets significantly more screen time and character development as the central love interest (it is at least an endearing romantic subplot).
Wild Jumbo is presented in 2.45:1, 1080p HD and follows the lead set by Delinquent Girl Boss. Fujita and cinematographer Shôhei Andô shot a lot of the film outdoors, which causes inconsistent light and clarity levels. Print damage is more prevalent this time, specifically at the beginning and end of reels (these are obviously marked by ‘cigarette burns’), but dynamic range is higher and element separation is better, especially during the incredibly dark night scenes. The colors are only as strong as the footage allows, so daylight scenes tend to be a bit washed-out. Well-lit interiors remain quite vivid, however. This LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack is more damaged than its predecessor, but only select sections of the film have issues with pops and cracks. Effects work is evenly distributed and mostly clean, despite minor noise reduction effects that cause abnormalities during some dialogue-heavy scenes. Yoshio Saito’s score is a unique and catchy mix of rock, pop, jazz, and even country. The music doesn’t play as prevalent of a role this time, probably because Akiko Wada only appears in a bit part to sing one song. Kaji sings one of two central themes at the onset of the third act, in what would become a long tradition of her singing her own theme songs.
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970)
Kaji’s girl gang goes up against The Eagles, a group committing acts of violence against ‘half-breeds’ in Tokyo. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Hasebe returned for the third Stray Cat Rock film, the salaciously titled Sex Hunter, and put the series back on a darker exploitation track. Everything he started in Delinquent Girl Boss is turned up to eleven – more evocative close-ups (framing is sometimes compacted from 2.55 to 1.33 to intensify the effect), more garish colors, more extreme angles, more flash-frame editing, more musical breaks, and more violence. Multiple gang-rape scenes (mostly implied) and an extended scene of teens getting stoned are added for extra grit. The laughs and sun-baked beach fun of Wild Jumbo is replaced with brutality and darkened alleyways. Even the gratuitous cutaways to Golden Half, the girl pop-rock group that appears in hopes of selling records (a trope Tarantino referenced in Kill Bill: Volume One), have a creepy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls quality that fits this crueler model. It seems like a watershed moment between the director’s already violent yakuza flicks and the much more shocking Pink (pinku eiga) and Roman Porno movies.
The script, co-written by Hasebe and Atsushi Yamatoya, gets immediately down to business. Kaji is reintroduced as the black hat-wearing leader of an all-girl gang, putting her at the top of the cast for the first time in the series. She is delegated to the sidelines for the first act, but her presence looms heavily as a real threat to the male villains. As the cause for revenge is established, she excels as a more central character and the fierce protector of her clan. Of course, the writers can’t help but line the plot with extraneous subplots and side characters (one, played by Rikiya Yasuoka, becomes a romantic lead in the third act without much warning), but the stricter focus and solid storyline (with a real social message about racism in Japanese youth culture) make Sex Hunter the best of the Stray Cat series – maybe even the best Japanese girl-gang movie, period. While her gory jidaigeki are still superior, it’s even in the running for best contemporary-set Meiko Kaji movie, even.
“You can’t hurt me, I bought you a cool leather jacket.”
“I ripped it.”
“I bought you expensive perfume…”
“I smashed the bottle.”
Sex Hunter is presented in super-wide 2.50:1 (as mentioned above, sometimes the frame shrinks to 1.33:1), 1080p HD. The image has a slight edge over the previous two transfers in terms of print condition. There are fewer artifacts and grain structure is relatively consistent. Hasebe and cinematographer Muneo Ueda dial back a bit on the rough-and-tumble for this round. Their more studious approach leads to more dynamic lighting schemes, which means that the prevailing darkness and occasionally soft focus doesn’t tend to lessen the clarity. The extensive and garish color palette is incredibly vibrant and the hues are quite consistent, though there are some occasional issues with reds bleeding. The LPCM 2.0 soundtrack is another of the collection’s better and cleaner mixes. Dialogue and effects are uniform in terms of volume and there are very few instances of distortion. Hajime Kaburagi’s music revisits the sultry blues and jazz of the first film. The saxophone and horn motifs practically drip from the speakers, setting a sticky, sexy, yet uncomfortable musical tone that fits the dark and bawdy imagery perfectly.
Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal (1970)
Gang rivalry is goes psychedelic when two gangs pursuing the same LSD pushers looking to move a big score. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Hasebe’s final entry in the series, Machine Animal, is more or less a direct sequel to Sex Hunter. At least Kaji is playing essentially the same character (the names are technically different – Maya vs. Mako), even if some of her comrades are not. In fact, it’s a little confusing to watch these all in a row and see any repeat performances. But I digress. Machine Animal maintains the girl-gang aesthetic that was lost briefly in Wild Jumbo, making it clear that Hasebe’s entries represent their own thematically similar mini-trilogy. The tone here is lighter than Sex Hunter and Nikkatsu appears to have demanded the inclusion of even more pop-rock musical breaks, but Hasebe and writer Ryûzô Nakanishi take it all in stride and ensure that it fits the mould. Nakanishi’s script is possibly the most streamlined of the series, despite the burden of mandated drug trip and go-go club sequences. The characters and their actions are well-defined and the plot is easy to track, even when not particularly funny B-plot adventures threaten to derail the narrative.
Machine Animal isn’t as arresting or memorable as Sex Hunter, but Hasebe’s direction is at its peak. This is a slightly more restrained effort in terms of tightened action and drama, but the director still takes advantage of his complete bag of tricks, especially when LSD usage gives him the excuse to really push the hallucinatory imagery. During the most overt of these trippy sequences, harmless images of the stoned JD’s goofing off is spliced with blood-soaked versions of the same shots. He also blocks out sections of the widescreen frame into odd little squares to shift focus during the opening credits, accentuates exposition heavy scenes with crossfades, and creates a kaleidoscopic effect by changes the color gels between cuts during the go-go club sequences.
Machine Animal is also presented in a super-wide 2.50:1, 1080p video (it might even be 2.55:1 at some points) and meets the basic standards of the collection. Print damage is pretty minimal and grain is relatively even, though there are increases in artifacts during process shots (split-screens in particular) and at the ends of reels. Hasebe and cinematographer Yoshihiro Yamazaki alternate between expressively lit night scenes, scorched sunlight exteriors, and the incredibly colourful go-go club interiors. The neon lighting schemes are quite brilliant, despite slight bleeding rearing its head again. Details are not lost in darkness and the textures not smoothed over by soft focus are quite sharp. Of all the LPCM mono soundtracks, this one might be the most lively. It is, at least, the most consistently loud of the five. As mentioned above, there are more musical performances and they are matched by scene after scene of blaring motorcycle engines. Effects and music are very nicely layered for a single-channel track, including soft and subtle variations on Akihiko Takashima’s often aggressive, flute-infused bebop/go-go score.
Stray Cat Rock: Beat ’71 (1971)
A young woman is framed and sent to prison by her boyfriend’s father. With the help of some hippies, she strives to be reunited with her lost love. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
As Hasebe departed the series, Fujita returned for the last film, Beat ‘71. He brought with him more of the comedic and light-hearted celebration of post-war youth that served him during Wild Jumbo. Sure enough, this feels a lot more like a direct sequel to Fujita’s other series anomaly, which is a-okay, assuming that the audience isn’t expecting more of Hasebe’s sneering wit or Kaji in another badass leader role. Tatsuya Asai and Hideichi Nagahara’s script gives her a lot to work with – she begins the film as a childish hippie type, but quickly toughens-up after being framed for murder. Unfortunately, she spends the bulk of the movie glowering from behind the bars of a yakuza-made cell, only a few (on-screen) minutes after escaping from prison.
Machine Animal saw an increase in musical breaks, but Beat ‘71 is the most blatant act of hippie-baiting in the entire Stray Cat pentalogy. The narrative is a slapdash blending of Kaji’s fugitive/revenge drama and the flower child family’s comedic shenanigans, which are amusingly garish in their representation of hippie culture (they live in a painted school bus, sniff glue, steal provisions, and put on a sex show for a pervy reporter). The dynamic can be pretty boring, especially when the hippie storyline stalls with lame running gags and listless dialogue, but there is an anarchic quality that sort of works. It’s difficult to anticipate the plot points (the second act is effectively a spaghetti western – complete with a period street set and horses) or differentiate between which events are supposed to be funny and which are supposed to be tragic. In comparison, Wild Jumbo’s bleakest moments are pushed to the climax, while, here, they constantly interrupt the silly road trip movie Fujita seems to be interested in making (don’t worry, the ending is still a huge downer).
Beat ‘71 returns the aspect ratio to 2.45:1 and is, of course, also presented in 1080p HD. This is another stronger transfer, including tight details, accurate grain, and surprisingly clean elemental separation. Fujita and cinematographer Kenji Hagiwara shoot the bulk of the film outdoors under sunny skies and mostly avoid the litany of gelled lighting schemes seen in the other films. This often limits the vividness of the palette, though the colorful costumes and ridiculously painted hippie bus offer a wider range of hues. The darker scenes are rarely muddy and gamma levels appear deep enough. Print damage is minimal with the exception of some chemical discoloration. The LPCM mono 2.0 soundtrack is understated. There are still a number of noisy motorcycle chases, but even the pauses for singing are softer this time around with the exception of a particularly goofy appearance from The Mops, a rock quintet that pops-up in a truck bed to show their support for the protagonists. Hiroki Tamaki’s lovable folk-meets-go-go-meets-spaghetti-western music sounds quite rich the few times it is used.
Interview with Yasuharu Hasebe (28:40, SD, disc two) – An in-depth archive interview with the director of Delinquent Girl Boss, Sex Hunter, and Machine Animal.
Interview with Tatsuya Fuji (30:00, SD, disc two) – An even longer archival discussion with the male star of all five movies (he’s still sporting his trademarked mustache).
Interview with Yoshio Harada (33:10, SD, disc two) – The longest of the archive interviews with one of the stars of Beat ‘71, who brings a scrapbook with him.
Trailers for Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal, and Beat ‘71