Book Review: Unchained Melody: The Films of Meiko Kaji by Tom Mes

A loving, informative reading on the films of a Japanese icon.
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You first notice the long, straight black hair.  Then you see her body: thin, straight, erect.  You look past the blade in her hand and gaze into those eyes.  Those haunting, cold, beautiful, deadly eyes.  This is Meiko Kaji, she’s a fanboy fantasy. A cult Japanese film star beloved by genre fans everywhere and muse to Quentin Tarantino.  She starred in nearly 100 films in her long career but she’s best known for her role as the assassin in Lady Snowblood, the murderious Sasori from the Female Convict 701: Scorpion series and a rebel in the Stray Cat Rock films.

With Unchained Melody: The Films of Meiko Kaji writer Tom Mes spends a great many pages discussing those films but also discusses her early roles before she became the great genre icon, her later years in television, and there’s also a chapter on her alternate life as a singer. At just nine chapters and over a slim 155 pages, it still packs quite a punch.  Less a biography than an annotated filmography, Unchained Melody breaks down her career more or less chronologically and discusses the majority of her movies and television appearances.  Loaded with full color photographs, it also features a full filmography, discography, and a break down of which of her films are available on Blu-ray.

Meiko began her career in the mid-'60s and spent her first several films playing more traditional roles and good girls, but her own defiant nature quickly got her labeled as  difficult.  This normally would have made it impossible for the actress to find new roles but lucky for her (and for us) Japanese film was venturing more into genre territory and she landed the lead role in the loosely connected gangster flicks known collectively as Stray Cat Rock.

When Nikkatsu moved into the pink film business in 1971, Meiko moved to Toei and made the first of four films in the Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion series.  Two years later, she became Lady Snowblood and her star was solidified.  From there she made several films for director Kinji Fukasaku including roles in his Battles Without Honor and Humanity series.  Never one to be pigeonholed in one type for long, Meiko took a variety of different films and television roles even though it meant her star power began to dim.

Mes, who co-founded and edited the now defunct Midnight Eye website on Japanese cinema and has written other books on celebrated Japanese icons such as Takashi Miike and Shinya Tsukamoto, writes in a clear and informative style.  He’s both a scholar and a fan and both come out in these pages.  He shows a critical eye for the films and yet can’t seem to help but praise Meiko at every turn.

The fact that Lady Snowblood was a huge inspiration on Tarantino’s Kill Bill films no doubt led many of fan to many more films of Meiko Kaji.  I am one of those people.  Arrow has released several of her films before and now they’ve brought it all together with Unchained Melody.  It makes a great companion piece to those films (and many more) and an excellent addition to any film fan’s library.

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