During the 1970s, Japan’s Nikkatsu Studio became famous, and yes most likely infamous, as the number one home for sleazy sexploitation, violent pink films, and just softcore porn in general. Although hardly the stuff of highbrow cocktail party conversations, the thoroughly exploitive nature of the Nikkatsu films doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of boldness and innovation thrown into the mix, resulting in more than a few highly enjoyable and daring films. Yeah, there was a lot of crap, but there’s always a lot of crap, and usually even the crap had something about it that was so bonkers and just not right that you couldn’t help but nod your head in its direction. In other words, where as Europe during the 1970s was constantly making ponderous, over-inflated films that begged the question, “Is it art or is it porn?” Nikkatsu was more concerned with generating the answer, “I don’t know if it’s art, but it sure is cool.”
Somewhere in the process, though, studio producers became so lax in what messages they would allow in a film – so long as they were surrounded by the requisite blasts of sex and violence – that Nikkatsu became a haven for directors and writers who wanted to make controversial social and political statements in criticism of Japanese culture and found the best way to do so was to disguise their pointed arguments in the clothing of an exploitation film. On the surface, they were just making the Japanese equivalent of drive-in movie fare, but running throughout many of the films was a subversive current of dissent and radicalism that never would have been allowed on screen in a more direct fashion. Certainly you’ll find very few Japanese films that are willing to criticize Japanese culture despite there being some very juicy targets for the more liberal-minded; specifically, Japanese conduct during WWII and subsequent denial that there was anything done wrong, and the fact that though not in a malicious “cross burning” fashion, Japan is also one of the most racist countries in the world and a country in which the racism is so ingrained in society that most people don’t even recognize it as such – like the fact that people of Korean ancestry continue to have to register as foreign aliens, even though their relatives came to Japan five or six hundred years prior. It is this second big theme of Japanese racism that Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter takes on, albeit in the guise of a girl gang pulp film.
One of the studios most successful series came when they blended tawdry titillation with delinquent girls in outlandish 1970s outfits – and I mean outlandish even for the 1970s. Floppy wizard hats and hot pants abound in these delinquent girl films, and no matter what violent outrage is depicted on screen, it pales in comparison to the crimes committed against a simple sense of fashion. The five Stray Cat Rock films are poised to be the highest profile series of these violent girl gang gems thanks to the third film in the series (or second film — critics seem to be uncertain) getting a release through HVe in the United States. Previously, various titles like the Sukeban Blues and Sukeban Boss films have been available only as fan-swapped bootlegs, and even then without subtitles. The ridiculously named Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter is, along with Female Convict Scorpion #701 the first film in this highly entertaining and morally dubious (isn’t it always that way) subgenre to see legitimate release in the United States. It works pretty well as a barometer for the films in general. It is not as exploitative or bare-boob-packed as some titles, but it is a little deeper (if also utterly confused) in terms of story. While not the best of this type of film, it’s a decent place to begin, and one hopes HVe will continue to release films from this and other series.
The plot, if you want to call this loose assembly of violent episodic adventures a plot, revolves around gang leader Mako, played by Meiko Kaji. She was a Japanese cult film icon of the 1970s, starring not just in the Stray Cat Rock and Female Convict Scorpion films, but also in the bloody Lady Snowblood samurai films and Kinji Fukasaku’s Yakuza Graveyard. If you wanted a tough chick for your film, the only way you could do better than Meiko Kaji was by hiring Etsuko “Sister Streetfighter” Shiomi. Mako’s gang spends their nights engaging in the usual street thug hooliganism that helps bored and disaffected youths pass their time. This consists largely of donning screamingly loud outfits and walking around the neon-lit streets while a cool-as-hell jazz-funk soundtrack blares away in the background. When they aren’t doing that, they’re mugging squares, going on shopping sprees, getting into fights, or buying drugs from Baron, the leader of the local guy gang The Eagles.
Although peddling drugs brings in the yen, Baron’s real passion is beating up and, if he’s lucky, just outright murdering “half-breeds,” anyone who is of half-Japanese, half-Caucasian persuasion. He does this, so he says, because his sister was raped by an American serviceman in the days after World War II – symbolic, one would guess, of Baron considering Japan itself raped by America during the post-war occupation. Adding to this symbolic smorgasbord is the fact that though he’s a macho, loudmouth braggart, Baron is, in fact, impotent. His assault on these mixed-race citizens is as much, perhaps more, out of his own sexual frustration than out of any sense of moral outrage over what happened to his mother. Rather than coexist with these people, who Baron secretly sees as bigger, more attractive, and more virile than himself, Baron takes out his complex by whooping like a madman as he and his gang tear around town in old US military jeeps, always on the prowl for someone of mixed blood they can beat the crap out of. Although it’s not as important thematically, he also seems physically incapable of buttoning more than the bottom-most two buttons on his big, ruffly shirts.
Mako and her girls tolerate The Eagles’ shenanigans, mostly because they don’t really give a rat’s ass about race and race relations. They are, in a sense, representatives of the Japanese population at large, only in bigger hats and higher platform shoes. They don’t consider themselves racist, but they blind to the racism running rampant in Japan. At least, that is, until Meiko’s Alleycats come into contact with a mixed-race gang led by the hunky Kazuma. He’s in town looking for his lost sister, and naturally he catches the eye of both Mako and Baron, leading to an inevitable showdown when The Alleycats are dragged into the light of racial awareness by encountering this mixed-blood gang and watching them preyed upon by Baron and his jeep-driving goons.
I’ll take time out for a quick disclaimer here in hopes of heading off some undoubtedly well-meaning but misguided email. Japan is about to get taken to task in this review for being, at least traditionally, a heavily racist and xenophobic society. I think it’s a wholly defensible assertion, and I also think that the times they are a-changin’ and one day – soon, with any luck – the characterization of Japan – and by that I mean average, everyday Japan – will no longer be applicable. A criticism of any one part (or even multiple parts) of a country or a people certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, and it certainly doesn’t equal a blanket condemnation of said peoples or country. Additionally, if your initial reaction is to think, “You should take a look at your own country” then let me stop you right there. I already know about America and American racism. But this article isn’t about America or an American movie. It’s about a Japanese movie, and just because I’m taking time out here to touch on the subject of Japanese racism doesn’t mean I’m not aware of its existence elsewhere. So with that in mind, allow me to bore you with the following bloated self-important analysis when, given my own intelligence, I should just stick to talking about floppy wizard hats and go-go dancing.
You don’t really have to see any of the subtext in the film, though I think this is definitely a case of it deliberately being present rather than something simply read in by critics at some later date. The film is as saturated with East-meets-West imagery as it is with lurid colors and gang fights. Frequently, action takes place in a setting with some neon advertisement for an American product blazing in the background. When Mako and the Alleycats take revenge on The Eagles for selling them out to a bunch of horny businessmen for a gang bang, they throw Molotov Cocktails made from Coca-Cola bottles. And during a club scene, the group Golden Halfs – famous for being ridiculously hot half-Japanese women – perform. The only real problem is that while the film wants to make a comment about racism in Japan, it doesn’t seem entirely certain what the point of it should be. Obviously “purity of Japan” racists like Baron are cast as screwball assholes while the more open-minded Alleycats are the good girls. At the same time, the frequent focus on American brands dominating the night skyline seems to imply that this loss of Japanese culture to Western consumer pop culture is something of a tragedy. Ultimately, the film may be saying that maintaining and cultivating your culture is one thing, but violence and racism is flat out nasty.
Baron himself seems to represent a conflicting duality that is common in Japanese culture to this day: he is the racist who hates all others but the Japanese, yet he and his gang love those American jeeps and Western fashion. Japan has, since probably the Meiji Restoration and certainly since the end of World War II, had a crisis of identity in which it wants to remain fiercely Japanese and superior but, at the same time, is endlessly fascinated by other cultures and quick to adopt their trends. In the past, it has frequently been American-Japanese culture, but as divisions and lingering bitterness over the war fades with each subsequent generation, and as Japanese culture continues to affect American culture nearly as much as American culture does Japanese, this is becoming less of an issue. More at the forefront now is a lingering feeling of superiority to Koreans struggling with the youth culture’s fascination with Korean cool.
If one wants to dismiss the political agenda of a film like Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, one should probably think about how, when intellectuals and politicians have failed, its simple and often exploitative pop culture that has and continues to smash the cultural barriers that have been erected between people. Just as each subsequent generation of Americans sees (one hopes) their racism slip further away as we enter a truly global and connected community, the same thing happens to young Japanese. And Chinese. And one would hope just about everyone else as well. Of course, when something as ingrained in so many people’s character as racism starts to be challenged on such a grand scale, there is inevitable backlash. It is, after all, a fight and a progression, and no one said it was going to be easy just because white kids starting listening to hip hop, black kids started watching anime, and Japanese kids fell in love with Bruce Lee.
I might also add, if you’ll indulge me in just one more bit pompous rambling, that it was very forward-thinking of the film to cast the women as the peacemakers and the more open-minded members of the population. I’m probably dipping into social issues that demand far more time, explanation, and analysis than I can beat out in a movie review, but I guess I’ve gone this far already. It’s no secret that Japanese workers – and by that, I largely mean the Japanese men who dominate the business world – have traditionally been obsessed with their jobs. Tales of salarymen working from the rise of the sun and well into the wee small hours of the morning are commonplace. Japan is one of the few places that has an actual clinical term for literally working yourself to death and dropping dead at your desk. With the burst of the bubble and the grim discovery of things like unemployment, layoffs, and uncertain futures, things have changed a little, but let’s set ourselves firmly before that time.
With men so committed to employment, relationships between men and women were bound to suffer, or if not suffer then become just one more formalized function. Women, for their part, were starting to discover that sitting at home, rearing children, and rarely seeing your over-worked husband wasn’t as much fun as some might think. Some started fighting for equality in the workplace, for the right, I guess, to drop dead at their desks right alongside the menfolk. Others, however, started rebelling against this social system by becoming more adventurous, by traveling around Japan and around the world, and perhaps most daring of all, by befriending those wild-eyed, hairy foreigners.
As a result of their dissatisfaction, free time, and willingness to brave the white edges beyond the map of Japanese culture, Japanese women started freaking out the men by becoming more worldly, more liberal, more aware, and just plain smarter when it came to knowing something outside the office. As usual, there was a backlash against such adventurous women, partly out of “defense of Japanese society,” but more likely motivated by the fact that men who committed themselves to a lifetime of obsessing over their job realized they were boring and largely ignorant of the world. But once something like this begins, all the uptight businessmen in the world can only hope to slow it slightly, at best, And with the collapse of Japan’s previously unstoppable economy, one expects the men to get with the program as well. What was my point? That it was very telling in 1970 for director Hasebe to see women as the ones who will be the first to break away from traditions of xenophobia.
So congratulations to Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter for being such a socially radical film and for saying something that most everyone would consider completely outrageous, even if it’s right. But as I’ve said time and time again, good intentions and laudable politics might make an admirable film, but they don’t necessarily make a good film. Thus we turn from the assertion that Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter is a progressive film that is much smarter, more subversive, and more radical than you might first realize and instead ask another important question for assessing the overall value of a film: is it entertaining?
Well, I think so, though I wouldn’t count it as a must-see. The film has some awkward flaws, not the least of which is that it spends its entire running time building to a violent, out-of-control gang war between the Alleycats and Eagles, then doesn’t deliver. Instead, the finale is a rather dull showdown between Baron and Kazuma, with the previously firebrand Mako suddenly crumpling and cowering in the corner as if we hadn’t just spent an entire film building her up into a tough-as-nails but open-minded bad ass. The film seems to pull the rug out from under itself by falling back on the mano-a-mano battle between the two men – especially since “she’s a bad-ass” is about as deep as much of the characterization ever bothers to go. There’s not much reason given to us to invest any emotion in the outcome of the film. And the plot is an uneven mess with no real direction.
Luckily, Meiko Kaji effortlessly oozes charisma, and the sheer over-the-top madness of some of the action and all of the art direction keep the eyes occupied when the mind isn’t. Hasebe had already proven himself a master of mind-blowing pop art with Black Tight Killers, and while his visual flourishes were largely absent in the previously reviewed Bloody Territories, they return in full force with this film. Everything is draped in garish colors and shot from weird angles. The shaky handheld camerawork that would come to dominate much of Japan’s action cinema output in the 1970s shows up here, mostly to good effect since it was still novel and not entirely headache-inducing as it would later become. You’d also have to go to Roger Vadim picture to find loonier costumes. Hasebe takes his exploitation picture and elevates it to high-concept and high camp territory, which is refreshing. And despite the title and its position as a Nikkatsu production from the 1970s, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter is relatively tame in its sexual content. The most difficult bit is, of course, the scene in which The Eagles set the Alleycats up to be raped by a bunch of horny businessmen, but even that is played more for outrage and disgust than sleazy titillation the way it would have been in many later films. There’s still enough sexploitation in the movie to stop you short of celebrating it as bold feminist filmmaking, but within the context of the genre, it’s one of the more sensible entries as it features more gratuitous jeep driving than nudity.
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter is probably one of the most thematically ambitious of all Nikkatsu’s post-Seijun Suzuki films, and that along makes its release in America worthwhile. It is not, however, the most entertaining of their girl gang pictures. Perfectly adequate, yes, but not a blow-away triumph. I hope it opens the door to more sukeban mayhem in the very near future.
Release Year: 1970 | Country: Japan | Starring: Meiko Kaji, Rikiya Yasuoka, Tatsuya Fuji, Jiro Okazaki, Yuki Arikawa, Tomoko Aki, Yoko Takagi, Akemi Nara, Setsuko Minami, Mari Koiso, Mie Hanabusa, Nobuko Aoki | Writers: Yasuharu Hasebe, Atsushi Yamatoya | Director: Yasuharu Hasebe | Cinematographer: Muneo Ueda | Music: Hajime Kaburagi | Original Title: Nora-neko rokku: Sekkusu hanta