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

Japan (1970) Dir. Yasuharu Hasebe

Exploitation cinema of the 1970’s hasn’t aged so well, aesthetically as well as politically but given they are traditionally low budget affairs made for young male audiences this is no real shock. In Japan, where they subvert everything, their exploitation films stick to the low budget ethos but the women aren’t there solely to be ogled at, they are there to kick butt!

Biker girl Ako (Akiko Wada) is cruising through Shinjuku when she encounters Mei (Meiko Kaji) and her girl gang The Stray Cats having a knife fight with a rival gang who prove too difficult to beat since they have the backing of a male gang the Black Shirts. When some of the Stray Cats are caught by the Black Shirts, Mei is reluctant to retaliate so Ako leads the charge.

Meanwhile Mei’s boyfriend Michio (Koji Wada) is keen to join the right wing nationalist outfit the Seiyu Group, and to curry favour he convinces his boxer friend Kelly Fujiyama (Ken Sanders) to lose a big money fight which the Seiyu Group will cash in on by betting against him. During the fight, Ako cheers Kelly on so he changes his mind and wins the bout, angering the Seiyu Group and now they want Michio’s head.

A pretty involved plot there but aside from a few extra minor details, this is as substantial as it gets proving to be largely functional to make way for a whole host of action packed and often incongruent musical distractions. But what do you expect for a film that was knocked out in a hiccup and had a budget most people would consider loose change?

The Stray Cat Rock series was originally created by celebrated studio Nikkatsu to rival the Delinquent Boss series from their competitors Toei (in turn inspired by the 60’s biker films in Hollywood). It was intended to be a vehicle for popular singer of the time Akiko Wada to raw younger audiences to the cinemas but some have you may have noticed a more familiar name in the cast list – more on this later.

Even though the extreme nature of Japanese cinema and other aspects of their culture flies in the face of their reserved and prudish reputation, they don’t do rebellion very well as this film shows. While the rest of the world were growing their hair, going on marches to protest war and turning on, tuning in and dropping out, in Japan the kids were sticking it to the man by listening to jazz music!

I only mention this because this is the soundtrack that accompanies the knife fights and vehicle chases – a stark contrast to Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild in the US – but the early 70’s were a strange transitional time. The Stray Cats might be classed as delinquents but they are generally well behaved and don’t do anything anti-social except fight with the other gangs.

Since this is an exploitation film they are also very good looking if a little surly on occasion, lightening up during the boxing match were they jump around like giddy girls. Ako on the other hand is deliberately made to look androgynous with her shortish hair, leather jacket and jeans, making her gender a surprise when she removes her bike helmet for the first time.

The Black Shirts are in the pocket of the Seiyu Group, acting as their muscle to keep the delinquents in check, but this seems a bit odd when you consider the Black Shirts leader Katsuya (Tatsuya Fuji) is your archetypal trouble-making yobbo who shouldn’t answer to anyone but himself. Perhaps the message is that all men are controlling jerks to make the Stray Cats more relatable protagonists for female audiences.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call these girls role models since they drink and smoke and solve their problems with a flick knife, but they don’t rely on men to fight their battles – in fact, when Michio is abducted and attacked by the Seiyu Group, it is the Stay Cats who rescue him. Yet, despite the Mei and Michio relationship being a key plot point there is no room for soppy romance in this world.

Ah, but this is an exploitation films so there must be sex right? Actually no there isn’t, nothing beyond any heavy petting while the nudity consists of a couple of bare bums. But fear not, because instead of lurid prurience we have a bona fide pop singer on hand to treat us to a few tunes, as do a bevy of anonymous musical acts performing their approximation of hippie pop/rock.

Sound bizarre? Well, director Yasuharu Hasebe worked under the maverick Seijin Suzuki, who had been fired by Nikkatsu for making films that made no sense, and it is clear that Hasebe had picked up some of Suzuki’s habits through osmosis. This would account for the abrupt musical interludes and eclectic arrangement of camera angles but is also reflect in some of the film’s aesthetic.

Earlier we discussed how this was supposed to be a platform for singer Akiko Wada but it was her co-star Meiko Kaji in her first major starring role that drew the most attention, so she was moved into the lead role for the future instalments (not playing the same character) and led to her iconic roles as Lady Snowblood and Female Convict: Scorpion, the basis for the latter character is present here in a nascent form.

The low budget afforded this film, exposed mostly in scenes shot in the dark suggesting they couldn’t even stump up for lights, dates this film as much as the period fashion and hammy acting. However, looking at it today it is these qualities that gives it is charm and kitsch value for film fans.

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss is the first of a five film series and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here with Meiko Kaji now the focal point.