Thursday, 19 August 2021

Stray Cat Rock - Beat '71

More Hippy, Less Kaji

Stray Cat Rock - Beat '71
aka Nora-neko rokku -
Bôsô shûdan '71

Japan 1971
Directed by Toshiya Fujita
Nikkatsu/Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
As part of Arrow’s Stray Cat Rock Dual Edition Set

Warning: Spoilers included in this review.

Okay so... Beat ‘71 is the fifth and final of the short, barely tied together, five film series of Stray Cat Rock movies. It’s also the second one by the director of the most disappointing of the five, Wild Jumbo (reviewed here).  Well, most disappointing until I’d seen this one, that is... this is not the best way to end the series, to be honest. Going out on a low rather than a high, it seems to me. I find it hard to believe that this is the same director who would go on  to direct the two, classic Lady Snowblood movies but... well, there you are.

This one has all the problems of the second movie in that the camerawork, editing and presentation are all pretty good... but they’re not outstanding like in the first and fourth (and to a certain extent the third) films in the series. There’s also not the same attitude from the main protagonists in this one either, although it does start off in ‘gang’ territory and ends up there for the finale, to be fair. But there’s no girl gang involved and the star of the series, Meiko Kaji (this time playing a girl called Furiko), is certainly not the leader of the small band of hippies who make up the main players in the movie.

The plot is simple. A hippy guy named Takaaki (played by Takeo Chii) forces himself on hippy gal Furiko in a field and she somehow instantly falls in love with him for a few moments before a gang, employed by Takaaki’s respectable father, beat him up to ‘straighten him up’ and take him home... but not before Takaaki manages to stab one of them. They knock Furikoo unconscious and leave her to take the rap for the guys murder before returning with Takaaki.

When Furiko escapes from the local Remand Centre two months later with her sister, she travels to Takaaki’s home town. Her sister tells her hippy friends and after much umming and ahhhing (and a ‘disgraceful hippy orgy’ staged for the press on a broken down bus to grab some money, they go off on their tandem and accompanying bicycles to try and catch up with Furiko, to see she doesn’t get into trouble. However, Furiko is also kidnapped by the father, for fear she will expose his son as a murderer and the hippies have to stage protests outside his mansion in an effort to get her back. Alas, they eventually have to steal Takaaki to hold him for an exchange but he goes back to his father. Meanwhile, the police break up the ‘dangerous hippies’ and the majority of them go and hide in a nearby Wild West Town set, where some film studios used to shoot Westerns.  

Things come to a head when Furiko is about to be killed by one of Takaaki’s father’s aides. The two escape and head towards the Western Town and then, as you would expect from the Stray Cat Rock films, the whole thing ends in tragedy for three of the main protagonists (and a couple of the antagonists) when the gang and some other’s of the father’s company go there for a showdown on their motorcycles and a bulldozer, as the hippy kids try and defend themselves with their limited weapons, plus some handy dynamite they just happened to find laying around in the abandoned Wild West Town set (okay... how did this get there? Perhaps I missed a plot point somewhere.).

One of the things about the movie to note is that the star of the series (by now), Meiko Kaji, is hardly in it (although the plot does at least revolve around her). She’s in the first ten minutes, comes back for a couple of short scenes in the middle (and sings a few bars of a song in one) and then returns for the last ten minutes or so... just in time to be killed while she is trying to avenge the death of Takaaki. Looking at her CV, she was in seven films just in 1971 alone and the years before and after were similarly cluttered.. they obviously worked their contracted workers hard at Nikkatsu and it must have been exhausting for them. My guess is she was probably, as she had on the second and third films of this series, shooting two films simultaneously... possibly even the previous Stray Cat Rock film, at the same time. She also doesn’t have the trademark big floppy hat and look of her characters from the Sex Hunter and Machine Animal films in the series but I’m pretty sure she uses this in some of her successful Female Prisoner Scorpion movies too, if memory serves.

As I said, it’s not the most technically innovative film in the series by a long shot but there is a nice moment where she confronts semi-regular Stray Cat Rock star Bunjaku Han (who has even less screen time than Kaji in this) at a petrol station and the director uses the upper part of Kaji’s body in the foreground as a vertical shape to split up the frame into two sections. So that’s nice.

There are no cuts back to any kind of nightclub in this though so, almost to make up for this, when the hippies are demonstrating outside the mayor’s manor (Takaaki’s father is the mayor, it turns out), a wandering pop group suddenly turn up out of the blue from nowhere and sing a song for the crowd off the back of their truck. There’s also, as I said, a brief musical interlude from Kaji as she sings a song in her cell, a little later on in the film (but nowhere near as ‘spot lit’ as the songs she sang previously in the series).

And... okay, Stray Cat Rock - Beat ‘71 is a fun film which, once again, gives us a portrayal of ‘doomed youth’ but, like I said, it’s not nearly as punchy as even the previous weakest link in the series, Wild Jumbo and, like that one, it doesn’t really feel like it belongs with the other three. However, it’s still an interesting film when you don’t compare it to the others and Arrow’s Blu Ray set of the Stray Cat Rock films is surely an essential purchase for lovers of a certain vibrant era of Japanese cinema, for sure.

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