Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (Japan, 1970)

Nikkatsu's Stray Cat Rock films established a couple of precedents in Japanese exploitation cinema. For one, they contained the seeds of the Pinky Violence films that Toei would produce throughout the 70s. Second, they mark a first step in the ascent of actress Meiko Kaji, who was just on the cusp of achieving Tarantino-certified cult icon status with her titular roles in the Lady Snowblood and Female Convict Scorpion series.

However, those coming to the first film in the series, Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss, with hopes of seeing a nascent version of the cold-eyed badassery Kaji would evince in those later films will be at least a little disappointed. Because here Kaji is little more than a supporting player, leaving the spotlight to star Akiko Wada, a Japanese pop singer here making her screen debut. And that is as it should be.

Wada makes her first appearance in the film under it’s opening credits, playing surly loner Ako, who comes roaring into town on her motorcycle like a distaff Brando, her face—and gender—obscured by her helmet. Soon she runs into Mei (Kaji), a waifish street kid who demands she give her a ride. Ako drops Mei at a mucky unused reservoir, where she joins in a fight against a rival gang with her fellow cadre of bad girls. Mei and her friends quickly lose their advantage, and are saved by Ako, who chases the other gang away while doing sick jumps on her hog.

Now having made fast friends with the gang, Ako retires with them to a noisy psychedelic nightspot, where she finally removes her helmet to reveal her long hair and arguably feminine features (by which I mean that the permanent cocky smirk on her face is somewhat on the far side of demure.) Mei is undeterred by this revelation and asks Ako to dance, which she does. This is as far into Sapphic territory as the film goes, though there are other vague intimations of Mei’s attraction for Ako.

Mei is saddled with a boyfriend, Michio (Koji Wada), who, by all appearances, is a cowardly loser. Michio is intent on gaining entrance to a neo-fascist criminal gang called the Seiyu Group, and endeavors to do so by convincing the gang to bet heavily on his boxer friend in an upcoming match, with the understanding that he will convince his friend to throw the fight. He fails in this, and ends up a prisoner of the Seiyus, who beat him mercilessly. A real “stand by your man” type, Mei convinces the other girls to join her in rescuing him--and, in the ensuing brawl, Ako comes very close to blinding Hanada, the gang’s boss. This is enough to make the elimination of the gang, and Ako especially, a top priority for Hanada and his giggling top enforcer Katsuya (Tatsuya Fuji).

In classic Pinky Violence tradition, the battle-hardened young women of Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (not to be confused with just plain Delinquent Girl Boss, a later Toei film) find themselves in a world populated only by the most grotesque examples of the male species. This is true from the sickeningly weak-willed Michio all the way to the leering Katsuya, who, at one point, leads his men in violently raping Mari, a member of the gang portrayed by Yuka Kumari, the sister of  Branded to Kill's Annu Mari.

These portrayals are given a sharper edge by the fact that the movie has a bit more grit than later PV films, which had a tendency to go over the top into lurid absurdity (surprising, given its director Yasuharu Hasebe is famous for directing the modish fever dream Black Tight Killers.) Unlike some of Toei's later PV films, which seem targeted at dirty old men, you get the sense with this picture that the filmmakers are actually trying to speak to the disaffected youth they are portraying. To this end, there are a lot of moody location sequences that, while celebrating Tokyo nightlife, also seem to hint at its emptiness and isolation. The nightclub scenes are harshly chaotic, and gain an added sense of verisimilitude from the appearance within them of actual bands of the time, like long-haired psych rockers The Mopps and OX.

All of this is not to say that the film is without stylization, as the occasional appearance of blinding, primary colored wipes and overlays clamorously attests. Also, it being a Japanese studio film of its era, it almost goes without saying that many of the shots are beautifully composed--especially when Hasebe chooses to forefront his young actors, dwarfed by the indifferent urban landscape looming above them. As an added concession to pop consciousness, we also get a couple of songs from Akiko Wada, including her hit “Boy and Girl”, (which was featured on Volume 2 of Big Beat’s Nippon Girls series if you want to hear it.) To these the husky voiced, sleepy-eyed Wada brings the same confident swagger that she does to her acting.

I have to say that Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss seems pioneering for how it so matter-of-factly presents an androgynous female protagonist in the typically male role of the laconic outsider hero. Contrary to expectations, none of the exploitative tropes concerning same sex attraction (the shower scenes, the leather clad bdsm, etc.) are in evidence.

All of this allows Wada to emerge as a female action hero of rare charisma and gravity. Though Kaji would eventually take over the lead in the Stray Cat Rock films, in Delinquent Girl Boss it is Wada who provides the film with exactly the kind of compelling central presence that Kaji did to her more well-known films. Check it out.

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