Sunday 10 October 2010

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter
(Yasuhara Hasebe, 1970)

I’m certainly no expert on the strange and complex world of Japanese popular cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s. What little information I do have is pieced together largely from reviews on other websites, DVD liner notes and the like, probably the same ones you’ve read, so I probably can’t offer much in the way of new insight here. One thing I do know about Japanese popular cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s though is that I love it. So if you’re prepared to let me wing this one on enthusiasm alone, we’ll get on fine.

In particular, the output of Nikkatsu studios in the hazy, ‘anything goes’ period that fell between their ‘60s golden age of stylish crime/youth culture films and the studio’s unsavoury descent into ‘pink eiga’ and ‘roman porno’ territory in the early/mid ‘70s, seems to have produced a whole swathe of what is simply the most astoundingly fucking awesome genre cinema I’ve ever seen.

Western critics/experts who know more about this stuff than I do naturally have their own strong opinions re: which films from this era are worth preserving, which are best left in the vaults etc, and with opportunities to see these movies still remaining frustratingly rare in the English speaking world (despite their obvious potential for attracting a huge, post-Kill Bill crossover audience a couple of years back), the choice few titles I have been able to acquire on DVD probably represent the films that the aforementioned critics and experts have collectively gone to bat for as representing the most worthwhile and/or mind-blowing examples of the form. But even so, the fact remains: I’ve yet to see a Japanese action/exploitation/crime movie made between about 1966 and 1974 that did anything less than totally kick my ass.

There’s just something about the spirit of ‘em, I think. Watching a movie like “Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter” makes me happy to be alive, regardless of its flaws and imperfections. God bless Japan, it makes me want to yell. God bless them for taking our bone-headed Anglo-American exploitation movie culture and feeding it back to us in a manner more intelligent, more brutal, more beautiful, more exhilarating, more experimental, more crazy, more plain fucking cool than anything that was coming out of America at the same time. God bless them for calling movies stuff like “Detective Bureau 23: Go To Hell Bastards!” and “Battles Without Honour and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match” that at least try to live up to those names.

Not that “Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter” really lives up to its name. Which is probably just as well, let’s face it. In fact, Meiko Kaji herself makes reference to this in an interview in Chris D’s book Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film;

“One thing that happened a lot with Japanese movies back then was to integrate sensational images or catchphrases into the movie titles to draw people into the theatres. For example, the ‘Sex Hunter’ film in the ‘Stray Cat Rock’ series, you get more of a social consciousness at work dealing with the persecution of mixed race teenagers. But then you have the movie called ‘Sex Hunter’! You used to get that a lot.”

Thankfully devoid then of anybody hunting for sex (in fact most of the film’s leads seem more concerned with consciously avoiding it for one reason or another), “Sex Hunter” is in fact the third entry in Nikkatsu’s “Stray Cat Rock” delinquent girl gang series, and the second to feature Meiko Kaji and Tatsuya Fuji as the top-billed stars and Yasuhara Hasebe as director.

Apparently there’s no crossover of characters or plot-lines at all between these films, so starting on part # 3 is fine and dandy, although you could be forgiven for assuming otherwise as “Sex Hunter” opens midway through a mugging/beating being administered to a cringing salaryman by a gang of bad-ass teenage girls, then plunges us straight into the depths of an awesome psychedelic nightclub, where an altercation between gang leader Mako (Kaji) and her unctuous second in command Miki leads straight into a bloody nocturnal knife fight between the two girls (they fight in darkness, with a dagger in one hand and a torch in the other), as members of thuggish boy gang The Eagles circle the scene, tearing up the turf in their US Army jeeps. Kicking straight into gear with little in the way of preliminaries or explanations, it’s an exhilarating start to a movie, and the pace scarcely lets up until the closing credits, eighty something minutes later.

In brief, “Sex Hunter” tells the story of the increasing tensions and eventual bloody conflict between Mako’s girls and the yakuza-styled Eagles, as led by impotent, racist overlord The Baron (Fuji). At the film’s outset, the activities of the two gangs seem closely connected, as they hang out together exchanging tough-talk over whisky-cokes at the club and collectively terrorise the streets of their conveniently police-free neighbourhood.

(As with many Japanese exploitation films, “Sex Hunter” eschews the bright lights of Tokyo, instead restricting the action to a bleak, geographically-vague suburb, looking under-populated and economically bereft, characterised by the wasteland left behind by a disused USAF base – the perfect setting for the film’s overall themes of cultural desolation and adolescent abandonment, and, I’d wager, a more realistic backdrop for a Japanese crime story than the glass-fronted penthouses and skyscrapers that predominate in later films.)

Cracks in the uneasy relationship between the two gangs are exposed when the Eagles beat up the mixed race boyfriend of Mari, one of Mako’s girls, and when The Baron – portrayed by Fuji as a classic tragic villain, seething and sweating behind mirror shades – subsequently flips out and declares a war on ‘half breeds’, sending his men to trash ‘Mama Blues’, a bar/social club frequented by the children of African-American servicemen and their ‘disgraced’ Japanese mothers.

As it happens though, the girls quite liked the folks ever at Mama Blues, and take a dim view of The Eagles’ increasingly fascistic behaviour. Furthermore, Mako has developed a pretty special friendship with Kazuma (Rikiya Yasuoka), a handsome, upstanding half-American guy who’s in town looking for his long lost sister, and is not inclined to take any shit from The Baron’s thugs.* Inevitably, the battlelines are drawn, and all manner of blood-curdling mayhem awaits.

As a director, Yasuhara Hasebe has what more faint-hearted (read: sane) film fans might consider a ‘mixed’ CV, beginning his career with the highly entertaining pop art action flick “Black Tight Killers” in ’66 before helming several “Stray Cat Rock” movies, a handful of early Sonny Chiba flicks, and the rarely seen fourth entry in the phenomenal “Female Prisoner Scorpion” series. Whilst many of Nikkatsu’s best known ‘creatives’ understandably jumped ship as the studio turned it’s resources over to the productions of violent sex flicks in the ‘70s however, Hasebe by all accounts embraced this new era with gusto, turning anyone who’d care to look up his resume on IMDB weak at the knees with a series of absolutely crazed-sounding efforts, ranging from the notoriously disturbing “Assault! Jack The Ripper” to something called “Honeymoon Surprise: Rape Train”, whose title alone makes me feel like I need therapy to recover from it.

Thankfully for our purposes here though (and let’s face it, if there’s one thing to be learned from watching flicks like “Sex Hunter” and the “Scorpion” series, it’s that the artistic worth of Japanese movies should not be judged by their titles and plot synopses), Hasebe is also a flat-out killer director, with both a great feel for violent, fast-moving action and a keen eye for composition (perhaps inherited from his mentor Seijun Suzuki) that rarely lets him down, as he and cinematographer Muneo Ueda succeed in transforming practically every moment of “Sex Hunter” into a snapshot of transcendent pulp artistry that you could (and should) hang in a motherfucking gallery. All of the screengrabs I’ve included in this review have been taken at roughly desktop size, so click to enlarge some of ‘em, and hopefully my point should be self-evident. I could look at this film all day.

And if looking at stills is one thing, imagine them moving! Imagine this world of brooding, technicolour cool propelling itself through a constant turnover of knife fights, fist fights, gun fights, fire fights, chases, showdowns, pot parties, obscene trash-talk, dance sequences and bits where tough chicks just strut about the streets looking invincible, all accompanied by distorted psychedelic funk and post-Ye Ye Nippon girl-pop… godDAMN. Put simply, the entire film is a work of beautiful, pop art brutality.

On one level, the lessons that “Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter” seeks to teach us are basic ones: racism is stupid, violence is self-defeating, and if you go around trying to force yourself upon unwilling young women then you’ve only got yourself to blame when they return to fuck you up with a box of molotov cocktails. But beneath the film’s surface lie darker, more confused issues that imbue proceedings with a vicious counter-cultural kick reminiscent of the work of Koji Wakamatsu or Shunya Ito – “Sex Hunter” may be a great action/exploitation flick, but it’s also a brave and thought-provoking piece of Japanese cinema, exploring thorny questions of race and cultural identity with a scattershot, expressionistic approach that demands the attention of cineastes (and our aforementioned critics & experts) just as much as those of us here purely for the psychedelic nightclub scenes and cool girls having knife fights.

Whilst it is made abundantly clear to us that the racist violence of The Eagles is ugly and misguided, it’s also easy to see that the director wanted his audience, through the grotesque character of The Baron, to think about the wider circumstances which have driven these young men to act the way they do.

The Baron’s hate-filled worldview originates not so much from unthinking, inherited prejudice, but from an obsessive hatred of Americans and their post-war presence in Japan, arising from the trauma of seeing his sister raped by American GIs as a child – the same event which the film implies has also led to his sexual dysfunction and effectively ruined his life, turning him into a violent, neurotic freak. One only has to look at what American intervention in Japan has turned this guy and his criminal/sadist buddies into, and the physical desolation of the abandoned airforce base town in which they live, so see that the film’s sympathies are less clear cut than a reductive ‘racists vs. cool guys’ reading may suggest.

Melodramatic plot revelations aside, the real tragedy here is of course that The Baron’s quest for a native Japanese culture he can proudly defend against the foreign invaders is inherently doomed – a fact that’s almost comically underlined by the way he and his gang zoom around in repainted US Army jeeps, and spend the whole movie mimicking the mannerisms of Hollywood gangsters. The obvious parallel to guys like Hasebe (who was presumably old enough to remember the war and may even have fought in it), trying their damnedest to make distinctively Japanese films whilst shackled to the seductive allure of Anglo-American b-movies and pop culture, is inescapable, and “Sex Hunter”s bold mise en scene won’t let us forget these cruel ironies for a second.

External shots in the (sub)urban sections of the movie are dominated by oppressive billboards and neon signs advertising Coca-Cola, Pepsi or Lucky Strikes, and coke in particular is used as an ever-present reminder of American economic dominance. Both gangs habitually rattle off orders for “whisky-coke” at their club hang-out, and Mari’s status-quo threatening Jimi Hendrix-lookalike boyfriend is a coca-cola delivery guy - when The Baron’s thugs arrive to menace him, we see him pushed and beaten against crates of coke, and attacked with a broken bottle.

Even the girl group who sing in the club scenes are “The Golden Half”, a super-group of sorts put together to cash in on a brief trend for half-Caucasian / half-Japanese pop stars, and this mixed up exploration of cultural imperialism reaches it’s natural conclusion (and whatever else it may be, this film sure ain’t subtle) when The Eagles lure members of Mako’s gang to a spurious party and turn them over to a cabal of Caucasian ‘businessmen’ intent on holding their own ‘rape party’.** When Mako realises what’s going on and escapes from The Baron’s ham-fisted parallel attempt to seduce her, it goes without saying that her vehicle of choice as she rushes to help out her friends is a stolen Harley Davidson, and the film reaches a frenzied crescendo of symbolic, destructive chaos as the girls return to firebomb their white aggressors with – of course – flaming coke bottles!

Any suggestion that Hasebe might be making a straight anti-American statement though is further muddied by the presence of ‘Mama Blues’ and its patrons – a fascinating inclusion that highlights a corner of post-war Japan rarely referenced in popular culture. Interestingly, the Mama Blues scenes seem to be filmed in a different aspect ratio from the rest of the film, leaving thick, black bars on either side of the screen. For all I know this might be because the American Cinemateque DVD*** is sourced from different prints of the movie or something, but whether intentional or otherwise, the effect is excellent, working alongside the actual prison bars that seem to form part of club’s décor to highlight the confined, closely-guarded world of these half-black, half-Asian outcasts.

With a relaxed, languid atmosphere and deep, high contrast photography, the Mama Blues scenes have a totally different feeling from the violent hyperactivity of the rest of the movie. Decorated with sombre portraits of jazz greats rather than garish corporate logos, the bar seems to be an island of calm, where an older, more refined culture holds sway. And when The Baron’s thugs intrude, they are a parody of the worst kind of Japanese machismo - screaming and bullying and revelling in their own cruelty. After they depart, we see a mixed race teenager who has been beaten by the gang get back on his feet. Slowly walking over to the turntable, he lifts the needle from the Nina Simone record that’s soundtracked the whole scene, and carefully puts it back in it’s cradle, as his friends wordlessly go about tidying the wreckage left by the intruders.

Corny stuff by the standards of a modern American movie maybe, but here the scene stands as an expression of a powerful dignity, speaking of a deep respect on Hasebe’s part for the implacable cool of black American culture, maybe even a plea for his more obnoxious fellow countrymen to try to understand and learn from it.

With such weighty themes being thrown around in such a bracingly violent and irreverent manner, it’s something of a tragedy that “Sex Hunter” takes a serious stumble in it’s final quarter, as the drawbacks of a sappy and undercooked script (and no doubt of the super-tight shooting schedules of Japanese genre films) make themselves felt, scuppering the film’s potential masterpiece status with some odd and disappointing decisions.

For one thing, the climatic girl gang vs. boy gang showdown that the film seems to have been building up to never quite materialises, as Hasebe instead plumps for a more conventional, if pleasingly nihilistic, Spaghetti Western style climax between Kazuma and The Baron’s gang, with the girls kept largely in the background.

Similarly, the characterisation of Mako herself is frustratingly uneven, with a definite tension developing between the weaker character suggested by the script, and the bad-ass gang leader demanded by Meiko Kaji’s iconic presence. Kaji herself seems to have wanted to play the character as bad-ass as possible, swaggering through scenes with an ornate sword-cane, wielding her blade like an avatar of cold, calculating vengeance, and even bringing back her floppy-hat-of-death from “Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41”. This is the kind of character we want from Meiko Kaji, and, for some of the movie at least, it’s the character we get.

Early in the film, Mako visits The Eagles, who have captured Mari after she tried to ambush them with a knife, vis a vis the whole boyfriend-beating thing. “You’re screwed, Mari”, says Mako, after The Baron threatens his prisoner with a particularly unpleasant demise, “but if you guys do that, you’re screwed too”. The guys have a brief manly chuckle about being ordered around by a woman… but then they immediately back off, let Mari go unharmed and do exactly as the lady says. You don’t argue with THE STARE.

Later though, things are different: her role seems to become more passive when Kazuma is on hand to fill the male hero role, especially at the film’s conclusion, which finds the two lovers armed and under siege in a rickety guard-tower as The Eagles approach for a bloody showdown. Not only does Mako refuse to hold a gun here, but when the fighting begins she’s suddenly reduced to the level of the hopeless-female, familiar from any Western – hanging back, weeping and shouting “no” and “please, don’t”, as the guys duke it out. Useless. Is this the Meiko Kaji we know from the “Scorpion” and “Lady Snowblood” movies? I mean, there’s what, about eight or nine guys here, approaching on foot over open ground? Our Meiko would have grabbed the rifle and had half of them howling in pain clutching their bloody groins before we’d had time to blink. What a cop-out.

Such deficiencies are probably inevitable to some degree in a film like this – I doubt anyone had time to think too hard about characterisation and rewrites when many of the cast and crew were filming the next “Stray Cat Rock” movie literally *at the same time* as this one, hustling between two studios on different sides of town. But it’s a shame nonetheless that they sap the overall quality level of what could, under better circumstances, have been one of the all-time, unfuckable-with classics of Japanese popular cinema.

Ah well, who cares. Flaws noted and dealt with - I still thought “Sex Hunter” was a knockout. I’ve gotta say, I’m not usually the biggest fan of consciously ‘political’ cinema, but I love that unique, desperate way Japanese directors so often have of incorporating politics into their films, eschewing the drab dialectics, easy answers and – ugh - logic of lesser Euro/American filmmakers in favour of simply throwing everything into a howling mad contradictory vortex and screaming WHAT THE HEY, bringing us far closer to an understanding of the actual messed up contradictions of human interaction in the process… y’know what I mean?

I really dig those mad, screaming vortexes. It’s an approach that works well for me, and “Sex Hunter” is a fine example. Our critics and experts would lead me to believe that none of the other “Stray Cat Rock” movies are quite as remarkable as this one, presumably lacking in the kind of vision and provocative intent that set “Sex Hunter” apart. But y’know what? If there’s nothing more at the centre of the vortex than psychedelic rock, motorbikes and violent girl gangs, then WHAT THE HEY, that sounds like a pretty good vortex to me. The potent, not-on-DVD thrills of “Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss”, “Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jimbo”, “Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal” and “Stray Cat Rock: Wild Measures ‘71” await, and anyone out there who can point me in their direction will be lavishly rewarded.

*Yasuoka’s character also sings the movie’s obligatory haunting, tragic love song, and it’s a pretty fine example of the form.

**By this point, you might be getting the idea this Hasebe character is pretty fixated on rape, but in his defence “Sex Hunter” is actually notable for featuring NONE of the kind of semi-nudity or leery, male-gazin’ footage you might reasonably expect to find in a film like this.

*** It’s a REALLY great DVD presentation by the way – the film looks absolutely beautiful and the sub-titling is perfect – a real treat to see a film this old and marginal treated so well. I think it’s now OOP sadly, so grab a copy while you can.


The Goodkind said...

This flick is presently on watch-instantly at Netflix. After reading your review I promise to try one more time and sit through it all the way. I love Japanese genre film from this period, but it's been hard to stay focused.

Prof. Grewbeard said...

i too have had the same problem sitting through this film, though i love it's general atmosphere. but Black Tight Killers, now we're talkin'!...

(i know it may seem absurd to comment so briefly on a film you've written at incredible length on, but what i like about your reviews- the enthusiasm!- leaves me with little to add...)

Ben said...

Thanks for the comments guys!

It's odd that you both found this one hard to sit through - as mentioned, I found it an absolute joy to watch - I think the production design and the pace and the music and subject matter all struck a chord with me - I found it to be a bit like a Bava film in that respect; every time it cuts to a new shot, I'm like "wow, check that out!" Maybe that's just me.

If you got bored reading my review though, that I can completely understand! I wish I could reign in my enthusiasm a bit - I try to keep the word counts on these posts, but they're always spirallin' out of control!

Nice to hear this movie is on Netflix anyway - don't think we have that yet in the UK, but it's cool that people in the US will be able to give it a shot without shelling out for the DVD.

Phew, even this comment's ended up being way too long...

Anonymous said...

this was a brilliant movie for the 70's it had great storyline and fashion too! Kaji Mako is excellent in this flick