Stray Cat Rock Blu-ray Review: Motorcycle Girl Gangs and Hippy Crime Sprees

Five loosely connected Japanese exploitation movies capture the spirit, and looseness of their age.
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On an interview on this disc, director Yasuharu Hasebe talks about how ephemeral the movies he made were. “I expected it to last a week,” he says about one of the three movies he made on this box set. They were not made with posterity in mind, but were very much of their time and in their time.

This is true of any movie, of course - however carefully constructed or intentionally contrived, a movie cannot help but be made in the time when it is made and by the people who make it. And there are movements and trends throughout all popular culture that indelibly mark the products of that period.

Stray Cat Rock, a collection of five thematically and temporally connected movies, are as '70s as all get out. Deliberately so, these cheap and quickly made films (from the interviews on disk, it would seem that two to three weeks was the average production time) were intended to capture the zeitgeist of the international and Japanese counter-culture.

Three of the films were directed by Hasebe, who before this specialized in mostly gangster movies (including Retaliation) and later made pinku erotic films. His three movies here, Delinquent Girl Boss, Sex Hunter, and Machine Animal are all about girl gangs led by Lady Snowblood herself, Meiko Kaji. The second and fifth entries of the series, Wild Jumbo and Beat ’71, are directed by Toshiya Fujita (also the director of the Lady Snowblood movies) and while there's criminal doings, they spend most of their time on hippy-style communes.

Communes, hippies, drug deals, criminal heists, musical sequences, kidnappings, LSD freakouts. These five films keep one foot in cheap action-movie territory, the other in late-'60s, early-'70s counter-cultural filmmaking, up to and including complete bummer endings for each film (think Easy Rider as a spiritual touchstone). They also all have the feel of stock-company productions - besides stars Meiko Kaji and Tatsuya Fuji (probably most famous in the U.S. for his role in the sexually explicit In the Realm of the Senses) each film contains many of the same players, often in similar roles from film to film, though never playing the exact same characters. All five were made and released quickly, the first movie coming out in May 1970, the fifth and final film released in January 1971.

Delinquent Girl Boss, the first movie, is the prototype for the series at large. It stars singer Akiko Wada as an androgynous biker who helps out Mei (Meiko Kaji) when her gang is threatened by another girl gang. There’s also a weird right-wing group that wants to fix a boxing match who come gunning for Mei and Akiko when their encouragement makes the boxer refuse to take a fall. There’s fighting and lots of people die.

But the plot is barely the attraction here - these movies are more fun for the scenes they create then how those scenes hang together. Delinquent Girl Boss has long music numbers, with several Japanese bands popular at the time. Meiko Kaji has a song in just about every one of these movies, and the number Akiko Wada sings here is used in two movies. Wada, a half-Korean half-Japanese soul singer, at 5’ 8.5” was unusually tall for a Japanese girl, which led to her being cast as a tough, manly biker.

Wild Jumbo is a ramshackle film where a loose group of friends (not quite a gang, in the traditional sense) tries to pull off a heist against a rich religious cult. This movie has an unusual "meet cute," where the gang brings together one of their members and the lovely rich woman he has a crush on by shooting the tires of her car out and then semi-kidnapping her to their garage. She is the mistress to the leader of the cult, and knows when they're going to be moving a lot of cash from a donation drive. They plan a heist, which involves a lot of training on the beach, and longs scenes of goofing around.

Sex Hunter and Machine Animal are both girl-gang movies, with similar plots: some outsider comes to town that Meiko Kaji's gang (after a while) take a liking to, much to the chagrin of the boy gang riding around town. In Sex Hunter, it's a half-Japanese man looking for his sister. In Machine Animal, it's a couple of guys from the country (and their "American" friend Charlie, an Army deserter played by a Japanese actor who speaks very little, heavily accented English) who have 500 "LSD pills" which they need to sell to get Charlie out of the country.

Beat '71 follows a hippy commune as they try to rescue one of their members (recently escaped from jail for a murder she did not commit) from being imprisoned in her ex-boyfriends' father's estate. At one point Japanese psychedelic band The Mops (who were also in Delinquent Girl Boss) show up out of nowhere, plays their hit single "Iijanaika", and then disappear.

All these movies are characterized with a looseness, a sense of being made on the fly and not bothering with more than a take or two - not to say the filmmaking is sloppy. It's professional Japanese-studio filmmaking, but it has a speed and energy from being made quickly, for a youth movement that might have been dwindling even as the films were being produced. And for all the hippy joy on display, these are all violent movies, designed to show recklessness and desperation. There's not a happy ending in the bunch - though even that is part of the romantic nihilism of a youth movement, dying gloriously if uselessly in defiance.

Even with the cheap effects (and likely shot on cheap film stock) it's interesting to see these movies in HD on Blu-ray. All five films have been placed on two Blu-ray discs - each movie runs about 80 to 85 minutes long - and it's rare to see movies like this (low budget, cheaply made exploitation fare) in this quality a presentation. These are the kind of movies you used to catch playing on a cheap local station, where they showed a terrible-looking print, giving the impression that these things had to look bad when they were released. They do not - while they're not sparkling masterpieces of the cinematographer's art, they're full of fun camera work and editing. Sure, these movies are ephemera - quickly made to be watched and forgotten, with just enough art to linger in the back of the mind. These were movies of their time made for their time - but in this blockbuster era where the most astonishingly complex and expensive cinematic miracles are actually pretty boring, it's amazing how arresting a bunch of cute Japanese girls on Hondas can be.

Also included on the disc are three lengthy (about 30 minutes a piece) conversations with director Yasuharu Hasebe and actors Tatsuya Fuji and Yoshio Harada. The interviews are fun and informative, and while they're the only on-disc extra besides trailers for each movie they provide a lot of context and background for the film's productions.

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