Going back a few decades into Japanese delirium, Stray Cat Rock contains all five films in Nikkatsu’s series, an off-the-cuff cocktail of the fermenting youth scene stirred with various genre tropes and shaken with violence. Tightly packed into fewer than 90 minutes, each movie’s ramshackle action is interspersed with musical numbers set in nightclubs. All the films were made in 1970, with the final installment coming out in January 1971, so watching them all together feels like a concentrated if distorted funhouse-dispatch from the era’s social unrest.
With no continuing characters or plotlines, the films are unrelated except by style, themes, and stars: mainly Meiko Kaji forming the tough-girl image she’d perfect in Lady Snowblood and Female Convict Scorpion. Stray Cat Rock is less essential than those but has the same appeal.
They’re “rebel youth” movies in which gangs of mini-skirted girls and bikers in black or paisley engage in rumbles, threats, and kidnappings (everyone knowing everyone’s hideout) until bodies drop in the slow motion of high melodrama. Most are directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, who combines themes of social anger with a restless, reckless, handheld aesthetic that feels ahead of its time. He loads self-conscious camera tricks across the wide screen for no better reason than to catch our eye with a mod sense of youth and movement, and it’s all that’s necessary.
The first entry, Delinquent Girl Boss, focuses on a tall, androgynous female cyclist (Akiko Wada) who looks and sounds like a female impersonator (this is a plus). A pop star, Wada at one point bursts into a ballad as the movie temporarily mimics a “real” musical, while the plot involves the boxing world and fascist group reminiscent of Yukio Mishima. Kaji’s secondary role as the “girl boss” attracted enough attention to move her into the increasingly stylish starring role for the other films. Wada has a cameo in the second film before moving on down the road; she could have carried her own bad-ass series.
The highlight is the loopy, energetic third film, Sex Hunter (all the titles are meaningless), which foregrounds the racial themes into an op-art eyeful that gracefully goes nowhere. As in the other entries, all this very un-Japanese misbehavior is implicitly or explicitly laid at the feet of the US military and other western influence in terms of fashion, music (and movies), drugs, and mixed-race “misfit” characters (a loaded trope in the culture). In this film, the sympathy is squarely on the doomed biracial figures. All scenes in their hangout abruptly narrow from widescreen to standard ratio.
The next movie, Machine Animal, features a character identified as a white American G.I. deserting from Vietnam, although he’s obviously a Japanese actor speaking English in a bad accent. Series co-star Tatsuya Fuji plays a straight role instead of a languid gang boss, but he still has an awkward thing going with Kaji’s character. In a possible nod to Easy Rider, he and his buddies are trying to sell a cache of LSD so they can skip to Norway. Kaji gets to croon a ballad.
The most nihilistic entries entries are the two not directed by Hasebe, but youth movie specialist Toshiya Fujita (Lady Snowblood ). He made the second film, Wild Jumbo, a more standard heist-gone-wrong plot, and the final entry, Beat 71, which pits rather badass “hippies” (“We abhor violence!” sneers Fuji) against clean-cut conservative corruption. This has the most confrontational politics and the oddest humor, with a literally explosive climax in an “old west” town. Something was definitely in the water.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo (two Blu-rays, three DVDs) offers thorough interviews with Hasebe, Fuji, and another actor, while Jasper Sharp’s smart liner notes explain the history of Nikkatsu Studio in Japan’s social context.