Thursday, 29 November 2012

Spain Rodriguez
(1940 – 2012)

Sad news filtered through last night about the death from cancer of one of my all-time favourite American underground comix artists, the inimitable Manuel ‘Spain’ Rodriguez.

Like the recently departed Koji Wakamatsu, Spain translated his uncompromising political beliefs into works of hair-raising visual imagination, assuming a perspective that, if it’s a lot more earnest and macho than most of his ‘60s contemporaries (Crumb, Spiegelman, Deitch etc.), is all the more awesome for it.

Contributing to seminal anthologies like ‘Zap! Comix’, and rolling on into such exquisitely named solo ventures as ‘Zodiac Mindwarp’ and ‘Mean Bitch Thrills’, Spain took a heavily EC Comics influenced style and infused it with his experiences as an outlaw biker and Latino street kid, creating a totally brutal, bad-ass, proto-punk approach to comic books – the visual equivalent of listening to some heavy, weed-ravaged biker rock – that is totally unique, and echoes of his work can I think be felt in everything from 2000AD to Charles Burns.

One of my favourite Spain joints is a great Lovecraftian gothic horror strip I’ve got in an old comix anthology somewhere, but since I can’t lay my hands on it at the moment in order to scan, I’m going to have to rely on the good graces of Tumblr to crib some stuff, and, thankfully, it provides.

I think this guy’s mighty talent pretty much speaks for itself, so here without further ado is his EC tribute cover to ‘Skull # 5’ (Last Gasp, 1972), followed by – hey, why not? – his comic book interpretation of Alexandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo”. Just what the doctor ordered.

For further background and interview stuff w/ Spain, see here, or here.

Obit from the SF Chronicle here.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Round-up, part # 1:
The ‘60s

(Tandem, 1968)

(Lancer, 1968)

(Hodder, 1967)

Even more-so than movies or comic-books, you might assume that lower tier sci-fi paperback designers would have been a bit slow in picking up on youth culture trends, but just look at all this bad trip, pop-art madness - merely a taster of the innumerable eye-grabbing volumes that were hitting shelves prior to 1970, all waiting to be harvested from book fairs and charity shops the world over.

All of the above are more or less trad pulp skiffy yarns enlivened by some way-out graphics, but by way of contrast, here’s a rather toe-curlingly try-hard attempt to bring SF to the new youth market. The logic is sound: hippies read sci-fi, and half the people who write it seem to veer in that direction too, so let’s bang out some sci-fi for hippies. The execution however? I think I'll pass. ('She Stripped For Cider' in the author biog made me laugh though.)

Wikipedia reveals that 'The Unicorn Girl' is the middle volume of an apparent 'Greenwich Village Trilogy' published by Pyramid. Characters were shared, but each volume was written by a different author, the other two being respectively credited to underground press luminary and Crawdaddy! editor Chester Anderson, and "professional magician and magic author" T.A. Waters. Presumably any resemblance between "Mike and Chester, fearless hippy explorers of a thousand worlds" and their apparent creators would be wholly coincidental..?


(Pyramid, 1969)

All cover artists and designers featured in this post are uncredited, by the way.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Lady Snowblood
(Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

Snow falls like a funeral
For the dead morning
Stray dogs howl in the distance as she walks
The sound of her ‘geta’
Piercing the air
She walks on, weighed down by karma

Justice and mercy
Tears and dreams
Yesterday and tomorrow
Words that have no hold on her now

The woman who has immersed herself in the river of vengeance
Gave herself up long ago

As mentioned in my introduction to the first Think Pink reviews round-up, I always intended to use the heading to take in a number of films that don’t fit at all comfortably under the ‘Pinky Violence’ banner but nonetheless find themselves associated with it in the West – a notion that’s particularly worth bearing in mind in this case, as I’m sure that star Meiko Kaji, director Toshiya Fujita and Toho studios would all spit blood at the thought of their film being described as PV.

Though she is often thought of as the definitive Pinky Violence star thanks to her pioneering work in the ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ and ‘Stray Cat Rock’ franchises, it seems that Kaji – by all accounts a lady just as determined and formidable as one of her characters – did everything she could to distance herself from the kind of exploitation typified by the ‘pinky violence’ tag, and the films she made outside of the two aforementioned series during the early ‘70s are all essentially attempts to take a more serious, ‘respectable’ approach to female-led action/revenge movies, largely free from the nudity and cheap sexploitation elements that were becoming increasingly prevalent in Toei and Nikkatsu’s output.

Produced for a subsidiary of the more venerable and up-market Toho studios, ‘Lady Snowblood’ – based on the manga by ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ authors Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura – perfectly typifies this trend in Kaji’s films. Although many of the elements here – the simplistic revenge plotline, ridiculously exaggerated comic book bloodshed and frequent use of the zoom lens as a visual exclamation point – are still pure ‘70s exploitation, ‘Lady Snowblood’ nonetheless adopts a heavier, more self-consciously artistic tone than most of its competitors, fleshing out its central character’s traumatic background in lengthy, harrowing detail, accompanied by much pontificating on the whims of fate and the nature of revenge and so on, set against the muted tones and beautified landscapes of a grand historical drama.

Some may see all this as adding a compelling, atmospheric grandeur to proceedings, helping to elevate the film to a level rarely seen in quick turnover b-movie fare. Others though will no doubt find it as overblown and self-important - an empty attempt to raise the stock of what’s essentially just baseline pulp fiction. Myself, I’m kinda on the fence.

In the film’s favour is the fact that it’s extremely well made, with Fujita clearly making optimum use of the resources at his disposal, revelling in some of the most elaborate production design ever seen in a female action/revenge film. Sets, shooting locations and costumes are all exquisite, with the entire movie giving the impression of being art-designed and colour co-ordinated to the n-th degree, lending its images an ‘iconic’ resonance – a certain, ineffable sense of elegant ‘coolness’ – that would certainly be prove difficult to replicate on a tighter budget & schedule. (In particular, you wonder where Kaji’s character gets her supply of stunningly beautiful outfits, roaming the land with no means of financial support, not to mention the cleaning costs necessitated by all that blood flying everywhere, but… oh yeah, stylised comic book adaptation – we’re not supposed to think about that stuff too deeply.)

The achievements of the art department are also matched by the effort that’s been put into the film’s fight sequences, which again goes way beyond the level normally seen in Japanese exploitation, aspiring more to the high velocity swashbuckling of a prime Hong Kong wuxia flick, with the addition of majestic arcs of gore spurting hither and yon, the effects team seemingly rigging up each victim with a series of hosepipes to aid the beyond parodic celebration of arterial spray.

So, yeah - basically, if you’ve got a thing for absurd fountains of blood soiling pristine white kimonos, this is the movie for you. No opportunity is missed to fill the screen with bright whites and reds, whether represented through actual blood and snow, or costumes, flowers, décor and set dressing, the two colours blaze supernaturally against a stormy, autumnal background - a less than subtle reflection of the imagery of the film’s title of course, but also one that takes on added resonance in view of the story’s rather nebulous political sentiments.

And indeed, much of the time this stuff works brilliantly, delivering precisely the kind of hyper-real bloodshed us post-Argento, post-Tarantino ‘cult film’ fans are supposed to eat for breakfast, whilst also drawing us into the movie with a genuine emotional clout, filling our heads with bold, blazing images that live long in the memory.

Other times though, it doesn’t quite cut it. The film’s ponderous narration swiftly becomes comically tedious (can you remind us that this woman is “a child of the netherworld, living only for vengeance” again, mr. narrator? You haven’t mentioned it for a few minutes, and I’m worried I might forget..), whilst the sporadic attempts to invoke an ‘arthouse’ aesthetic are questionable at best. A good examples is the sequence in which the daughter of one of Kaji’s victims throws her collection of hand-wrought wicker dolls into the ocean as ‘poignant’ music swells on the soundtrack, bringing back unhappy memories of the unbearably pretentious Chinese ‘New Wave’ films I had to watch as part of a college course a few years back. (Honest to god, I mean, I love experiencing cinema from all countries and genres, don’t get me wrong, but sitting through some of those made me wish I’d taken Chemistry instead.)

During moments like these, I couldn’t help but think of the very different films Norifumi Suzuki was making over at Toei at around the same time, and in particular the incredible Sex & Fury. Although it’s difficult to confidently ascertain which came first given that both films share a 1973 copyright, Suzuki’s epic certainly plays very much like a cheeky sexploitation response to Fujita’s film, verging into the realm of an outright rip-off at its near-identical conclusion. Garish, prurient and opportunistic, a film like that would no doubt have been looked down upon by everyone who worked on this one, but taken out of context 'Sex & Fury' is arguably the more impressive of the two works, weaving together a tapestry that is just as lavish and visually imaginative as ‘Lady Snowblood’, building an altogether more complex and uncertain portrait of Taishō-era corruption and injustice, and doing so in a manner that is often a hell of a lot more entertaining than the dour, formal approach taken by Fujita and his collaborators.

Not that ‘Lady Snowblood’ is exactly lacking in political clout – in fact it’s just as suffused with it as with gore. Despite their slightly abstract period settings, Koike and Kamimura’s manga maintained a strong connection with contemporary left wing issues, and whilst Lady Snowblood’s calling as an all-purpose righter of class-based wrongs is explored in more depth in the film’s sequel, this initial instalment still never misses a chance to characterise her antagonists as representatives of various aspects of the wave of capitalist greed and state-sponsored criminality that was seen to be sweeping Japan in the period in which the story is set.

Straight out of the opening credits, scene-setting historical narration immediately begins criticising the Meiji-era government for their use of a military draft and misguided pursuit of imperialism, zeroing in on the assorted evils wrought by “mercenary businessmen, plutocrats and corrupt officials” – a class which in fiction set in the Meiji and Taishō eras often seems synonymous with those trying to import ‘decadent’ Western values (and, by extension, the subsequent excesses of European-style military imperialism) into Japanese society.

Even if this notion is never broken down in great detail in the film’s script, the subtext becomes hard to miss during the film’s conclusion, in which the Final Villain (who is now an arms dealer, gleefully helping prepare Japan for the ensuing global conflict) explains through a rather clunking chunk of exposition that he runs his operation out of a newly constructed, Western style building ostensibly opened by the government to receive guests from foreign powers, but in reality housing nightly orgies of “self gratification and shameless hedonism” for the country’s corrupt elite.

When Yuki subsequently attends one of these gatherings in the course of instigating a showdown with the rascal in question, her traditional dress sticks out like a sore thumb amid the multi-lingual, Western-garbed chattering classes, and when the bad guy finally gets what’s coming to him, he does so clutching the Japanese flag, as the literal and symbolic applications of the film’s colour scheme combine in one of those tormented moments of fractured national identity that Japanese b-movies can often embody so powerfully – nationalism and socialism, pacifism and bloody murder, all mixed up in a cathartic howl of cinematic confusion.

Despite all this though, the film is first and foremost a personal vengeance narrative, and beyond of any of the other notes filling up our ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ columns, it’s worth noting that Meiko Kaji herself is absolutely superb, delivering probably an even more extreme, single-minded performance than in the Scorpion films, and certainly a more nuanced one. Drawn and ashen- faced, she perfectly embodies the kind of unstoppable, quasi-supernatural force that the role demands, but at the same time manages to bring out a fragility in the character that helps transform her into a genuinely great heroine. However much she may aspire toward becoming a robotic, inhuman avenger, there is something behind her eyes that suggests that any minute now, her mask will crack, her training will fail, and the abused, orphaned child within will be revealed.

Allowing the sometimes melodramatic nature of the story’s presentation to bounce off her as painlessly as the blows of the assorted goons she ploughs through en route to her real targets, she keeps the human calm at the centre of the metaphorical storm solid and touchable at all times. A subtle touch, too fleeting to really explain properly, it is this certain something in Kaji’s performance that really makes the character, and, by extension, makes the film.

If you’ve read anything at all about ‘Lady Snowblood’ then you’ll no doubt be aware that it is the film that ‘inspired’ the central episodic framework (and much more besides) in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’, so I’m contractually obliged to mention that before we finish, but needless to say, it’s easy to see why the film made such an impression on him. For all its affectations and potential missteps, and for all that it might help to perpetuate just about every Japanese cinema cliché in the book, '..Snowblood' remains a landmark tour de force of stylised action film-making, and, in much the same way that Harry Kumel’s ‘Daughters of Darkness’ is often described as “the Citzen Kane of lesbian vampire movies”, I think Kaji and Fujita have a pretty good contender here for “the Citizen Kane of movies about wronged women wreaking bloody vengeance”... with all the positive and negative connotations that might imply.

(Thanks to the machinations of the big QT, ‘Lady Snowblood’s fantastic theme song is of course widely available from your mp3 provider of choice, so, rather than providing a download here, I’ll leave you to track it down via legitimate means, perhaps even helping to earn Meiko Kaji some miniscule amount of royalties in the process.)

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Girl Boss Blues:
Queen Bee’s Counter-attack

(Norifumi Suzuki, 1971)

Putting on make up in pale neon light rouses my blood
A beautiful flower in Nerikan secretly finds her own way
Only with her beauty… Sukeban Blues

The night in Nanka is cluttered with chaotic flowers
The battle flower blossoms to fight all her foes in the world
Only with her beauty… Sukeban Blues

Between 1971 and 1974, Norifumi Suzuki directed about a dozen pinky violence-related films for Toei*, putting him very much in the driving seat of this short-lived genre, at least in terms of its sleazier and crazier ‘70s incarnation. Given the director’s seemingly all-consuming obsession with dysfunctional sexual weirdness, one could legitimately raise concerns about leaving the guy in charge of a laundry room, let alone a whole cinematic sub-genre, but, four decades down the line, we can hopefully at least enjoy the chaos that resulted.

The first of four Suzuki-directed entries in the ‘Girl Boss’ series, ‘Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack’ is actually one of his earliest shots at the genre, but, though somewhat light on the vengeance and bloodshed side of things, it still manages to deliver just about everything else you could ask of a wild & woolly pinky violence adventure, in industrial strength quantities.

In keeping with many other sukeban movies, the emphasis here is very much on celebration of the hippie/outlaw lifestyle – a kind of hyper-caffinated exploitation version of the previous generation’s ‘sun tribe’ films, but even further removed from reality. Whilst Western movies of this ilk usually purport to represent a kind of “torn from today’s headlines” realism (with an accompanying moral sting), Japanese culture was under no such illusions, with films such as this happily acknowledging that their characters are totally unreal figures living a life of promiscuous sex and comic book mayhem, presumably allowing the devious girl-gangers and long-haired, devil-may-care bikers herein to become irresistible escapist fantasy figures for male and female viewers alike.

Suzuki helpfully signals this by staging the action in a deliberately ‘flat’, cartoonish style, lining up characters on screen like bowling pins and using their exaggerated reactions to move from one set-piece to another at a frenetic pace, allowing for a constant stream of zany incident that leaves us in little doubt as to the director’s tongue-in-cheek intentions. And let’s be glad he keeps his tongue where we can see it, because, this being a Suzuki film, it’s naturally crammed with sordid antics guaranteed to alternately enrage, offend and astound any well-adjusted individuals who find themselves accidently watching ‘Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack’ of an evening.

The promise of casual sex is ever-present in these ‘Girl Boss’ flicks, with the female characters agreeing to sleep with men at the drop of a hat, offering a taste of paradise to sweating, cowardly salarymen or a good night in the sack to the slightly more appealing young bikers or yakuza… provided they can turn a profit on the exchange. In fact, the code adhered to by the film’s inexplicably named ‘Athens Gang’ strictly forbids members from “dating or being manipulated by one particular man”, and women who refuse to use their sexuality for personal gain, or else harbour dreams of a conventional, monogamous relationship, are treated as fools or neophytes throughout.

Suzuki of course can always be relied upon to go further and get crazier with this material than anyone else on the block, and the #1 jaw-dropping exploitation highlight here is undoubtedly the infamous ‘bike fuck’ sequence, wherein the film’s (male) biker gang – perhaps inspired by the cover of Flower Travellin’ Band’s debut album, perhaps not – decide to race their machines naked as the lord intended, but this time with their ladies (mostly Athens Gang members, in a curious deviation from their ‘no profit/no sex’ philosophy) strapped on beneath them. The starting line is set and the rules are simple: stop when you come, and the last one motoring is the winner! What more of a perfectly ridiculous, OTT exploitation sequence could you possibly ask for!? It’s all in good fun too (well, I thought it was pretty fun at least), but, as mentioned, there is no shortage of other material here that sets out purely to offend.

If you get past the opening twenty minutes – during which a teenage girl is forced to break her hymen with her fingers as a gang initiation rite – you might think there’s not much more the film can throw at you, but for sheer I-can’t-fucking-believe-this nastiness, it’s hard to beat the later sub-plot in which an ‘uppity’ pop idol who ignores her former friends pays rather severely for her assumed transgressions when the gang get their yakuza allies to ambush her in a lift and brutally gang rape her. Objectionable enough in itself, this scene attains jaw-dropping heights of crassness by accompanying the action with a jaunty, swanny-whistle based party tune, and when we cut straight to a bar where the girls are celebrating the violation and subsequent ruined career of their rival, the combined effect is unbelievable – an astoundingly tasteless bit of business, even by the shaky standards of a Toei pinky violence movie.

As is usually the case in these PV flicks though, Suzuki seems determined to have his cake and eat it as regards the film’s approach to its female characters, balancing out such horribly exploitative moments with a solid, pro-female emotional core that remains weirdly convincing in spite of all the outrages that surround it. As noted, the ‘Athens Gang’ live according to a strict set of rules that not only governs their sexual behaviour, but also encourages them to avoid falling under the influence of men and to strive for “power, courage and strength” through their sisterhood (look closely and you’ll see that the gang’s cramped apartment hang-out is decorated with pictures of armed revolutionary fighters). The gang’s current boss and the instigator of their code (Reiko Ike, natch) didn’t sign off on the aforementioned rape scheme, and it is this that leads her into a conflict with returning former boss Jun (played as a total bad-ass by Teruo Ishii regular Yukie Kagawa) that dominates much of the film’s run time. Ike confesses to her second in command (Miki Sugimoto) that she was driven to reject conventional society and join a gang after being raped as a young girl, and, one by one, several of her comrades reveal similar tales of grief, allowing for some moments of genuine catharsis that are hard to write off entirely.

As you might imagine, this sort of thing makes for a movie that is wildly uneven in tone, and the waters are muddied further when things veer heavily into yakuza territory for a whole other male-dominated plotline that plays like a pastiche of one of Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘Battles Without Honour & Humanity’ movies, with Hawaiian shirted thugs facing off all over the place as whisky is gulped, teeth are spat out and dearly-held principles are abandoned. (I was quite surprised to see Tôru Abe, one of Japan’s most respected actors, popping up as a yakuza boss, but actually a quick look at his CV reveals that he paid the rent with cameos in a number of sukeban and PV-related movies in the early ‘70s.) “Without money, honour and humanity can be lost in a second” one character opines over a glass of Johnny Walker, as a highly Fukasaku-esque tale of old-fashioned, principled yakuza being ploughed under by brute economics proceeds to unfold.

All of which strikes me as pretty curious to be honest, given that, although he’d made a few lesser known crime movies up to this point, Fukasaku’s game-changing ‘Battles..’ series didn’t even BEGIN until two years after this movie came out, which makes me uncertain quite what Suzuki was riffing on here, but, well… my knowledge of Japanese cinema being what it is, I’ll leave any further speculation to the better-informed amongst you. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

You won’t have much time to ponder such matters whilst ‘Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack’ is actually in progress mind you, as Suzuki somehow manages to also cram in a hefty dose of parental melodrama, enough bawdy behaviour to fuel the scripts for several ‘Porkys’ sequels, masses of gratuitous dirtbike racing footage, a musical interlude featuring what appears to be a transvestite or transsexual club singer, a devious plan involving blackmailing the head of a pharmaceutical company to provide raw materials for a hyper-addictive new street drug, and, well… you get the idea. Frankly how he manages to crow-bar so much STUFF into an 80 minute run-time is one of cinema’s great mysteries - it’s like that clowns-emerging-from-the-car trick, only infinitely more entertaining.

I guess the final, plot-heavy quarter of an hour drags slightly, and the dirt road shoot-out conclusion is rather po-faced and ineffective, but after a film that’s given us this much joyous mayhem & taboo-smashing craziness, such failings are hard to criticise too much. Provided as you can put your ‘morally upstanding member of the human race’ badge aside for a while and roll with the punches, ‘Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack’ is yet another perfect, mindless slice of everything that makes early ‘70s Japanese exploitation movies so exhilarating.

*Not that stopped him also finding time to fit in such classy-sounding pinku productions as ‘Tokugawa Sex Ban: Lustful Lord’ and ‘Modern Porno Tale: Inherited Sex Mania’ during these years. Bit of an autobiographical slant going on there, Nori…?

Mp3 > The Sukeban Blues

Friday, 2 November 2012

Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal
(Yasuharu Hasebe, 1970)

The second or possibly third entry in the Stray Cat Rock series (as they were filmed back to back and realised in pretty quick succession, the chronology is kinda unclear), ‘Machine Animal’ is a more substantial venture than Toshiya Fujita’s light-weight Wild Jumbo, but it’s still pretty throwaway stuff in the grand scheme of things, and can probably best seen as a warm up for Yasuharu Hasebe’s more accomplished work on the exhilarating Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, released later the same year.

Far milder and less salacious than the Toei pinky violence movies that quickly followed, the ‘Stray Cat Rock’ films (with the notable exception of ‘Sex Hunter’) stick pretty closely to the format of post-‘Hard Days Night’ youth/pop music movies, assuming a jaunty, upbeat tone and interspersing their gang war/crime caper storylines with cod-psychedelic musical interludes, way-out fashion shows and assorted goofy montage sequences, rich in gratuitous split screen, camera swirl and other low budget visual effects. What differentiates these Japanese youth movies from their Western counterparts though is of course the fact that they’re prepared to go so much further with their counter-cultural mischief. Restrained as ‘Machine Animal’ may be in view of what came later, it’s still hard to imagine a similarly light-hearted American film in which the heroines get ahead in life by hot-wiring cars, fighting with knives and wantonly guzzling LSD, and it’s that spirit of unrepentant, amoral wildness that keeps us coming back to these films, helping to render even such comparatively minor efforts as this solidly entertaining.

And speaking of wildness, the promise of crazy shenanigans would certainly seem to be on the table when it becomes clear that the plot-line here concerns Meiko Kaji’s gang (the same one seen in ‘Sex Hunter’, to all intents and purposes) getting mixed up with a couple of lively characters who have arrived on their Yokahama turf harbouring an American deserter from Vietnam, and hoping to pay their way out of the country using profits from the 500 hits of acid they’re carrying. Crikey. Contemporary or what?

Sadly, our dreams of a wild sukeban trip sequence are never quite realised – the girls who initially sample the goods just act a bit dopey for a while then get over it, whilst limited means and sparse production design prevent the later ‘freak out’ sequence from really scaling the heights of psychedelic delirium the way we might have hoped, although it’s nice enough as far as these things go.

It’s also nice to note that, whilst they may have been slightly more enthusiastic about it than their American counterparts, Japanese filmmakers were apparently just as clueless about the emerging drug culture, as witnessed by the fact that LSD in the Stray Cat Rock world comes in the form of industrially produced pharmaceutical capsules that can be gulped down by the dozen with no apparent ill effects – a goofy detail that sits well alongside the ridiculous stream of beatnik-via-blaxploitation banter that the fan sub-titles on my copy of the film subject us to. (I mean, not that I’m saying the characters aren’t presumably busting out their best Nippon hep-cat moves at any given point, but if you’re reading sub-title dude, I’d love to know the precise Japanese vocab for “you jive turkey!” or “friggin’ dames!”)

Though it’s only fully manifested in ‘Sex Hunter’, one interesting aspect of all the SRC films – missing from many of Toei’s later PV flicks – is their political undercurrent, particularly as regards the tensions raised by the influx of foreign culture and foreign visitors into post-war Japan (even the air-headed ‘Wild Jumbo’ features buried crate of WWII weaponry and a scene in which Meiko Kaji and Tetsuya Fuji humiliate some American tourists). Of course much of the angst-ridden contradiction that makes ‘Sex Hunter’ such fascinating viewing arises from the fact that, socially and culturally speaking, these youth movie owe their entire existence to the influence of American culture, and as such, ‘Machine Animal’ seems to present a proudly internationalist vision of Japan, with scenes taking place in a Greek bar, a German bakery and an American bowling alley.

The presence of a sympathetically portrayed Vietnam deserter meanwhile seems like a particularly daring inclusion, especially as by far the film’s most harrowing moment comes when he’s mercilessly gunned down by Japanese police, in what seems like a clear nod to the agenda of Japan’s militant student protest movement. (It must be said however that the effectiveness of this storyline is undermined somewhat by one of the film’s strangest time/budget-enforced inconsistencies, vis-à-vis the fact that this brave refugee from the good ol’ USAF is portrayed by a bemused looking teenage Asian guy who speaks broken English in a broad Japanese accent.)

In keeping with a lot of other sukeban flicks, the girl gangers here are initially presented as being somewhat subordinate to their male counterparts, with the opening scenes seeing them riding as passengers with the male ‘Dragon Gang’, rather than conducting their own gang business. In fairness though, the plot does swiftly move in the direction of a male/female gang war (just like in ‘Sex Hunter’, actually), and ‘Machine Animal’ is one of the relatively few sukeban movies I can think of in which the girls actually DO get to do some bike-riding at one point.

But again, the inept / tongue-in-cheek execution of said sequence tends to foul things up a bit; “Jeepers! We need our Hondas!” Meiko (allegedly) exclaims about an hour into the film, and the subsequent scenes in which the girls putter about on two-stroke mopeds sporting groovy goggles & colour-coordinated helmets as they slowly negotiate a series of carefully placed ramps and obstacles are pretty hilarious to be honest – obviously shot as quickly and cheaply as was humanly possible, presumably without the use of any stunt personnel, and generally played for laughs.

And, as in ‘Sex Hunter’, the girls’ street gang abilities are compromised to the extent that they don’t even take part in the fighting during the movie’s final showdown, instead standing round helplessly as the two male heroes duke it out with their opponents – disappointing, to say the least.

Ah well. One thing Stray Cat Rock movies are usually good for at least is rockin’ music and awesome psychedelic nightclub scenes, and, although some of the incidental music is pretty square, ‘Machine Animal’ certainly delivers the goods in this respect. In the Astro Go-Go Club, the girls’ hang-out of choice, silver-clad girls dance suspended above the stage on an elaborate scaffolding type arrangement, whilst a female organist/flautist busts out some wild prog moves, leading a Sunset Strip styled garage band through a couple of loungey yet enjoyable tunes (a soundtrack note on IMDB identifies the band as Zee Nee Voo, if that means anything to Group Sounds aficionados out there). I’d love to tell you that Hasebe’s presentation of these performances matches the psychedelic splendour of ‘Sex Hunter’s club scenes, or the director’s earlier pop-art triumphs in 1966’s ‘Black Tight Killers’, but sadly that’s not the case, and again, things seem rushed, with unimaginative lighting and awkward jump cuts giving things of bit of a ‘70s Top of the Pops vibe (UK readers will know what I mean).

Elsewhere, Michi Aoyama – a singer/actress who turned up in at least a couple of other films for different studios during the ‘60s – makes a memorable appearance as a 12-string strumming folk goddess who hangs out in the aforementioned Greek bar, where she dissolutely belts out a couple of ballsy, low-register blues numbers that are genuinely rather fantastic. Further information on her life and career would certainly be welcomed, should anyone have any.

Meiko Kaji too is her usual cool self, with her trademark vengeance-hat present and correct and the solemn, untouchably bad-ass persona that she’d adopt in so many classic movies over the next few years already well in evidence – more-so than this material demands or deserves, really. It’s notable that her character doesn’t take drugs or join her sisters in the gang acid freakout, and maintains a discreet distance from the rest of the film’s goofy hi-jinks too. Basically it doesn’t take a genius to spot that she had her eye on more demanding, tonally ‘serious’ roles than Nikkatsu were offering her here. Naturally the beautiful, lonesome ballad she sings to an empty boat-shed is another of the film’s highlights (although sadly, for all his/her jive-talkin’ fortitude, the sub-titler of my copy has neglected to provide translated lyrics for the film’s songs – always one of my favourite aspects of watching these movies).*

Regular SCR male lead Tatsuya Fuji also fares pretty well in ‘Machine Animal’, as one of the two acid-dealin’, deserter-shelterin’ dudes, and Meiko’s presumed love interest. This time playing neither a raging psychopath nor an insufferable goon, he’s surprisingly effective as a kinda rough-hewn, free-wheeling leading man in the Peter Fonda mould, revealing some of the charisma that made him a minor star in the Nikkatsu cosmos, prior to his later ascent to cinematic immortality in Nagisa Oshima’s ‘In The Realm of The Senses’ in ’76.

If it seems like I’m concentrating a lot on such incidental detail here, that’s largely because the actual thread of this movie’s plot after the initial set-up has been established is crushingly simplistic and repetitious, as drugs, then money for drugs, then hostages go back and forth and back and forth between film’s feuding factions like some infernal merry-go-round, seemingly for a lack of any other ideas to keep the narrative ticking over, until we just want the damn thing to end.

Nonetheless, Hasebe does his best to maintain interest, throwing in a lot of the kind of “just for the hell of it” formal experimentation that the SCR series does so well, with split screens, slo-mo etc. all present and correct, helping to generate a real out-of-nowhere emotional charge for the film’s few serious/violent moments, and pointing the way toward the stylistic tour de force of ‘Sex Hunter’, a film that sees all the best elements hinted at here magnified ten-fold.

In keeping with previous ‘Think Pink’ entries, I’ve uploaded a few of the film’s best musical moments for you here.

*Although it may seem like I’ve dissed the poor subber(s) a few times in this review, I’d nonetheless like to earnestly thank them for their efforts – I realise it’s a lot of hard work for zero reward, and without their help I’d probably never get the chance to watch films like this one with even the slightest understanding of what was going on, so please, keep up the good work guys – it’s appreciated.