Sunday, 15 August 2021

Stray Cat Rock - Delinquent Girl Boss

Delinquent We Stand

Stray Cat Rock -
Delinquent Girl Boss
aka Nora-neko rokku:
Onna banchô

Japan 1970
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
Nikkatsu/Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
As part of Arrow’s Stray Cat Rock Dual Edition Set

I’ve only ever been able to see the third of the five Stray Cat Rock movies over here in the UK, previously. I have an old Region 1 DVD copy of Stray Cat Rock - Sex Hunter which I loved and, a few years after I bought that, the NFT showed the same one as part of a festival of Japanese cinema they had programmed (I was luck enough to see one of the early Zatoichi movies on a big screen in that season too), so I went to see it on the kind of screen it was shot for. But, for some reason, I’d never come across subtitled copies of the whole series before Arrow released this lovely Blu Ray set a few years ago... which I’ve now finally got around to cracking open. I have to say, this is a real treat.

First things first... I have to give appreciation to Jasper Sharp, a man I have come to respect as somewhat of an authority on the art of Japanese cinema over the years (and also slime moulds and fungi but, that’s another story). He wrote the accompanying booklet in this set and it alerted me to the fact that, since I’d only ever seen the third, that while the films retain some of the same actors throughout... most notably the young ‘superstar on the rise’ Meiko Kaji, receiving only second billing here... there are no running characters and so it’s a series really only in terms of it focuses on youth culture and ‘girl gangs ‘ of the period. I mean, I would have figured out the abstract nature of the idea of a series by the end of this picture because of something which happens (and I won’t spoil that for you here)... but it’s nice to be forewarned sometimes, at any rate. So, loosely connected or otherwise, Nikkatsu (a studio I always tend to associate with crime and action cinema by the likes of Seijun Suzuki), must have really worked their actors hard in those days. The first four Stray Cat Rock movies all came out in the same year with the fifth and final one coming out the following year. I’ve seen a few of these ‘girl gang delinquent’ style films over the years, most notably in a top notch Panik House box set release, The Pinky Violence Collection, from a couple of decades ago (which needs a Blu Ray release please folks) but, I have to say, this first movie of this series, Stray Cat Rock - Delinquent Girl Boss, is probably one of the most amazingly gobsmacking films of this genre I’ve seen.

Now, for the record, I don’t think the ‘good gal’ girl gang in this one are called Stray Cats or even Alley Cats (as in some English translations) so I’m really not sure what the collective title means on this series. However, my best guess is it’s a female equivalent of terms like Stray Dog or Lone Wolf which tend to be used as a metaphor in Japanese films for a kind of maverick, roaming character and this one certainly has that in the form of the actress who actually does have lone status (and top billing above Kaji) in the film and joins in the action as a peripheral to the gang... Akiko Wada as Ako.

Stray Cat Rock - Delinquent Girl Boss must have been one in a whole raft of movies at the time in Japan which were a blast of fresh air on the cinematic climate. I was bowled over when I watched this and I can only assume it had a, perhaps more muted but somewhat similar effect on audiences (especially since they grouped five of these films together under one binding title).

The film starts off with a blue wash of colour and a circle cut out from this reveals the screen, a lone biker, Ako played by Wada, riding up front and centre of the circle which heralds the title card of the movie. She gets into an altercation with a guy in a beach buggy and his gang of bikers, as he rear ends her but, instead of getting in a fight, they just drive off. These are the notorious ‘black shirts’, the thuggish gang employed by a crime syndicate in the city. She speeds after them without ever catching them but the credits as we follow her on the bike are absolutely amazing with the Stray Cat title song pitched against high speed shots rapidly cut together in a way that makes the whole thing just very exciting without once being confusing. Great stuff.

The director makes some really wild stylistic choices on this film about two rival gangs getting into conflicts, after the boyfriend of gang leader Meiko Kaji fails to successfully rig a boxing match for the criminal organisation he works for, losing them a lot of money and potentially his life. There are the usual rivalries between the gangs and also the syndicate as the girls alternatively hide and do battle in a not overly bloody but decidedly nasty series of incidents as everyone crosses paths. It’s well acted but standard stuff in terms of story content but, as I said, it’s not shot in a standard way and it’s an absolute joy to watch.

For starters, the director will suddenly black out portions of the screen artificially to make new shapes. A moment during the titles, for example, has the credits staying where they are but the picture content is further narrowed down to a horizontal slat from the 2.35:1 aspect ratio it is already framed as. And he’ll do things like this to highlight different things at different points. Such as, in one scene, suddenly bringing the sides of the frame in so just the character who is the main subject of the shot is in his own, vertical slice so we can focus on his facial expressions. There’s even a point later on in the film, at the end of the boxing match which is so central to the plot, where he’ll just put washes of different bright colours filled in crudely around characters to isolate them within the frame. It’s not subtle but the rock and roll sensibility of the film and the aggressive editing we’re already used to... not to mention the groovy, psychedelic night club where the girls hang out and listen to the local rock group do their thing... means that the sudden introduction of techniques like this don’t feel in any way out of place with the tone of the movie. They just seem like a natural fit somehow.

Another thing he does, which is far from subtle, is to announce the time stamps in the film in a very ‘in your face’ way. The opening time check is the numbers reversed out of a big, green wash that flashes alternatively against the picture for a second or so and, similarly, he does this throughout with subsequent cards such as Saturday Night flashing  out of pink, Sunday Morning (heralding the moment when the rival gang bikes to the hiding place of our heroes, armed to the teeth) in orange, the denouement of Sunday Night flashing in crimson... perhaps to foreshadow the bloodiness of the fate of some of the characters... and Monday Morning flashing up out of magenta, for the final aftermath and farewell scene. They’re a bit like those rapid cuts Dennis Hopper uses in Easy Rider but with a time fix and it’s a great way for the director to burn the ‘documentary’ detail of the information (an old trick to add a certain weight to a fiction)  into the audience’s collective retina and to make sure we don’t miss it.

I was just in awe of the way this film looks, to be quite honest, especially for the first two thirds. There’s a wonderful moment where Meiko Kaji follows her boyfriend into a street to talk to him. They are only about six feet apart but the director suddenly goes into a split screen and, rather than to show us two separate, simultaneous incidents, the director uses it to dislocate the space of the conversation from our perceptions and focus us on different perspectives. So the boyfriend is in the left half of the screen in long shot, more or less in profile, looking back over his shoulder at his girlfriend but, Kaji is in close up at a different angle dominating the right of the screen... it’s fantastic stuff and a really arresting way of staging the conversation. Then Hasebe reverses it so the boyfriend is in a close up and Kaji is shot from a longer distance. It’s just incredible stuff.

Even the action scenes, such as the fights with the fluid but fast camera movements which will then pull right back to give you a shot of the action all taking place at once as several ‘girl versus girl’ combat scenes are happening simultaneously, makes the whole film completely enthralling. It’s like watching a rock video (the soundtrack to this is cool although, some of the night club songs lose their edge a little) and it’s one of those films you can watch with your toes tapping all the time.

And as if this wasn’t enough... the acting and chemistry from the actors, many of whom I’ve seen in other films (I just can’t put names to faces here) is just amazing. I mean, Meiko Kaji is always great to watch and the tough attitude she conveys coupled with her strong screen presence means you’re always onto a winner (even this early on in her career). However, as brilliant as she is here... and she is... she’s kind of playing second fiddle to the wonderful, attitude filled, tough gal role of Akiko Wada’s lone wolf... err... stray cat kind of character, charming all the girls here who revel in her coolness in a way which almost brings a sapphic admiration to the front (which I’m sure was probably a deliberate move on the part of the director but it’s not spelled out too much here). She’s pretty amazing in this and she and Kaji make a rip roaring pair of main protagonists to get behind on this kaleidoscopic whirlwind of a movie (kaleidoscopic to the point where the director even rotates the frame 360 degrees in one club scene).  

With all this plus an unusual beach buggy versus motorcycle chase, this film is an absolute wonder and, despite some warnings in the back of the booklet about the ‘rawness’ of certain aspects and why they’ve made the restoration decisions they have (bearing in mind I don’t think Arrow restored these themselves, possibly), the film looks absolutely brilliant with a very clear transfer and no picture damage that I could see. Literally, my one grumble was that I wish they’d subtitled one or two more of the Japanese language songs sung by the random groups in the film but, it doesn’t detract from the movie in any way and, frankly, I just loved this first entry in the series. I’m not sure the second one can live up to it but I’ll find out very soon. I’d recommend this to pretty much anyone who wants to see how brilliant the aesthetic visual language of cinema can be utilised to tell even a basic story and capture the imagination. Stray Cat Rock - Delinquent Girl Boss is a real assault on the senses but, you know, not in a bad way and I can’t wait to see what’s in store next (although this director doesn’t return to the series until the third film).

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