STRAY CAT ROCK (1970-1971) Blu-ray/DVD combo
Director(s): Yasuharu Hasebe, Toshiya Fujita
Arrow Video USA

Before she was Female Convict Scorpion or Lady Snowblood, Meiko Kaji was put through her paces in the five STRAY CAT ROCK movies, out on limited edition, five-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo from Arrow Video USA.

Before Japanese studio Nikkatsu vaulted headlong into the optically-obscured "Roman Porno" in from the mid-seventies onwards, they flooded theaters with a quintet of "delinquent girl" films all made and released in the space of seven months in 1970 dubbed STRAY CAT ROCK. Each taking place in a different place with different characters, they are tied together more by the recurring actors. Although Kaji's Mei is the titular (or sub-titular) character, STRAY CAT ROCK: DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS was actually a vehicle for singer Akiko Wada who plays biker chick Ako who wanders "Man with No Name"-style into the conflict between Mei's girl gang and their rivals lead by Toshie (Mari Koiso). Toshie's gang have the unfair advantage of the manpower of boyfriend Katsuya's (Tatsuya Fuji, IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES) "Black Shirt" gang who quash revolt from the locals for the rightwing Seiyu Group. While Ako inspires the other girls to stand up to Toshio, Mei is preoccupied with her sullen boyfriend Michio (Kôji Wada, GATE OF FLESH) who has asked their professional boxing hopeful friend Kelly (Ken Sanders, MASSACRE GUN) to throw a game Seiyu Group senior member Hanada (Gorô Mutsumi, GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA) – also Katsuya's brother – is betting on in order for him to get into the group. When Kelly wins the match to impress Mei and big fan Ako, Michio is carried off by Katsuya at Hanada's behest. When Ako, Mei, and the gang manage to rescue Michio, they are forced to go into hiding with the "Black Shirt" gang keeping them from leaving town and Hanada (scarred by Michio) packing a mean shotgun.

Wada turns up again in the second film STRAY CAT ROCK: WILD JUMBO, but only in stock footage from the first film for no apparent reason. WILD JUMBO's gang is gender-mixed wrong-side-of-the-tracks layabouts including C-Ko (Kaji), Ganishin (Fuji), his brother Jiro (Yûsuke Natsu), and eccentric Debo (Soichiro Maeno, TOKYO EMMANUELLE). Their morose leader Taki (Takeo Chii, LADY SNOWBLOOD) who is too besotted with the suspect attentions of wealthy-seeming Asako (Bunjaku Han) to involve himself with their ongoing war with the Seibukus (a group of rich kids pretending to be gangsters). When Asako – the mistress of the head of the religious Seikyo sect – finally makes her intentions known, Taki leaves town for a few days without explanation. Meanwhile, the gang discovers that Debo is behind the local mystery of who has been digging up the high school grounds at night, and that he has uncovered a stash of WWI armaments hidden at the end of the war. When Taki comes back, he announces that the gang is going to the seaside. When Asako joins them, they become suspicious; and more so when Taki announces that they are the Seikyo Youth Division and starts them on a training regimen. Taki reveals not a moment too soon that they are not pursuing religious enlightenment but planning a heist of thirty million yen in donations from the upcoming Seikyo festival, but are they really helping Asako escape and humiliate the organization's corrupt leader or are she and Taki setting up the gang for a double cross.

It's hard to tell who the titular STRAY CAT ROCK: SEX HUNTER is in this story, but Kaji – whose black slouched hat anticipates her FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION look – is now Mako, leader of The Alley Cats, who is in heat for Baron (Fuji), leader of The Eagles. When fellow Alley Cat Mari (Koiso) turns down Eagles member Peko (Tomoko Aki, FRIENDLY KILLER) for half-black Ichiro, a waiter at the bar of Mama Blues (Akemi Nara, PITFALL), Baron is fueled by his traumatic memories of his sister's rape during WWII to launch a violent campaign to run all of the "half-breeds" out of town. When Mako and friends defy the Baron by rescuing Mari and helping half-black singer Kazuma (Rikiya Yasuoka, BLACK RAIN) look for his long-lost sister Megumi – who may or may not be their own gang member by that name (Yuki Arikawa) – Baron decides to pimp them out for a "rape party" to visiting white businessmen. Realizing that Baron is an impotent brute, Mako declares war on The Eagles in an attempt to save her friends (with Molotov cocktails) and protect Kazuma and his sister.

In STRAY CAT ROCK: MACHINE ANIMAL, Maya (Kaji) is the leader of another girl gang who have a mutually beneficial relationship with The Dragons, lead by Sakura (Eiji Gô, TOKYO DRIFTER) who rides in a sidecar. When strangers Nobo (Fuji) and Sabu (Jirô Okazaki, MASSACRE GUN) start prowling around go-go bar Astro looking to unload five hundred hits of LSD in order to secure passage on a boat to Sweden, Maya and the gang decide to steal the drugs only to have the guys' American friend Charlie (Toshiya Yamano, SAVAGE WOLF PACK) pull a gun on them. Scouring the city the girls find the guys' car and steal it only for the trio to Nobo and Sabu to come after them. When they reveal their reasons for selling the drugs, and that Charlie is a Vietnam draft-dodger, Maya returns the drugs and offers up their hideout until they can arrange a deal for the drugs and passage out of the country. Maya arranges a deal with Sakura, who takes it to The Dragons' real boss Yuri (Mako Ichikawa), the wheelchair bound daughter of Sakura's former boss, who suggests that the cheaper he can get the LSD, the better. Sakura, however, does not need to steal the LSD since Charlie loses it running from me he thinks are MPs when some of the girls drag him out for a night on the town. When Sakura discovers that the LSD is being sold out of Astro (where he conducts his own operations), Sakura takes over and gets it out onto the street as fast as possible. Maya, Nobu, and Sabu, in turn, decide to hold Yuri hostage for the drug money, making it personal for Sakura who is tragically in love with her.

STRAY CAT ROCK: BEAT '71 is not the most satisfying, but perhaps the most unpredictable of the five films. Ryumei (Chii) plans to run off with hippie Furiko (Kaji) but Ryumei's ex-gang members – acting on behalf of his oppressive father Araki (Yoshio Inaba, SEVEN SAMURAI) – come to retrieve him and Ryumei stabs and kills one of them in the fray. Araki has his son quickly carried away, and the gang's new leader Soto (Gô) places the knife in unconscious Furiko's hand for her to be discovered with the body. After a year in a women's remand center, Furiko escapes with her sister Aya (Yuka Kumari), sending her to stay with her old commune while Furiko goes to Ryumei's home town in search of her. Aya finds the commune – lead by Piranha (Yoshio Harada, SLAUGHTER IN THE SNOW) – playing up hippie free love clichés for a voyeuristic reporter and his photographer and unwilling to help until Aya tells them that Ryumei murdered the biker and let Furiko take the blame. Ryumei has been straightened out by his father and returned home from supposed convalescence in Tokyo to take over his father's local operations while Araki attempts to move up from town mayor to national politics. When Furiko confronts him, Ryumei drives away and lets Soto's gang kidnap her and take her to Araki who wants to silence her in order to prevent a scandal. Upon learning of Furiko's captivity when they capture one of Soto's men (and superglue him to a chair), Piranha's gang appeal to the locals to help them rescue her but the locals are ignorant and the police are in Araki's pocket. When the gang kidnaps Ryumei to exchange him for Furiko, Araki goes on the offensive and labels them as delinquents and desperadoes, working up the locals into a mob.

Although the films were all made within the space of a few months seemingly only a few weeks in between for pre-production, one sees a continued refinement of filmmaking technique with DELINQUENT BOSS having the most conventional plot but the least impressive photography and ragged editing that makes action scenes like the motorcycle vs buggy climactic chase scene play out a little too leisurely. The cheap attempts at psychedelic opticals in the first film (as well as a split screen that is actually a mirror beside Kaji reflecting Wada from offscreen) give way to comic strip image flash cuts and freeze frames in WILD JUMBO and frames within the Nikkatsu Scope frames during the Mama Blues scenes in SEX HUNTER to split screens of simultaneous and energetic action in MACHINE ANIMAL (which also includes an LSD trip with subliminal flashes of blood splatter). SEX HUNTER and MACHINE ANIMAL showcase music video montage in the club scenes showcasing various HoriPro talents (Wada sings in DELINQUENT BOSS while Kaji finds time amidst the drama of all five of the films to sing a few bars). Predating the Roman Porno era of Nikkatsu, nudity is infrequent and teasing while beatings and sadism are drawn out with plenty of beatings and burnings.

The first, third, and fourth films were directed by Yasuharu Hasebe who directed MASSACRE GUN and RETALIATION (both available from Arrow Video USA) and would work with Kaji again in FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: GRUDGE SONG before helming some of the nastier Roman Porno films like RAPE!, RAPING, and ASSAULT! JACK THE RIPPER. The second and last films were directed by Toshiya Fujita who would direct Kaji in the LADY SNOWBLOOD films. The Hasebe films are probably the better ones in terms of style, visceral anger, and plotting (WILD JUMBO does not even reveal itself to be a heist film until fifty-odd minutes into its eighty-three minute running time, and BEAT '71 pretty shapeless until half-way through with the gang finding the fresh air, sea, and mountains as much a reason to go to Ryumei's home town as saving Furiko); that said, it has the most intense and "explosive" finale in an abandoned mine turned western movie set, with orphaned Ma Boy getting a series of brutal lessons in life and death in a short period. Kaji is more of a presence than performer in DELINQUENT SCHOOL BOSS, which was scripted as a vehicle for Wada, but is much more compelling in the other four films, making a nice counterpart to the Fuji's more studied performances. Any one of the films might not be wholly satisfying, but STRAY CAT ROCK manages to impresses as a whole despite the disparate themes and quality of storytelling.

Of the five films, only STRAY CAT ROCK: SEX HUNTER had a DVD release stateside via Home Vision in 2004 in a good-for-its-time 16:9 transfer. All five of the new Arrow HD-mastered 2.35:1 widescreen transfers (1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC on the Blu-ray and anamorphic 16:9 on the DVD) surely look as good as these hastily-filmed, processed, and indifferently archived releases can. There are occasional light leaks on the side or bottom of the frame, oval reel change marks accompanied by rare scratches, but the look is consistent throughout with bolder colors in the later films because of the gel lighting and wardrobe choices rather that any issues with fading. The Japanese mono tracks (LPCM on Blu-ray, Dolby Digital 1.0 on DVD) are clean with the music possessing more presence than the dialogue or gunplay, and the optional English subtitles are credited as newly-translated.

A trio of interviews has been carried over from the Japanese DVD releases. Director Yasuharu Hasebe appears in the first interview (28:37) discussing how the film was written for Wada but that she did not have the acting chops (although he admits few of the Nikkatsu actresses did, so they filled out the cast with other faces from the HoriPro talent agency that supplied Wada). Since Wada's schedule as a singer was full, it was necessary to create another female character to share the focus (Kaji's Mai). Of the nefarious groups present in films, he states that he was less interested in portraying the Yakuza than in rightwing nationalist movements (this can be extended to SEX HUNTER's gang with its leader's obsession with racial purity). Actor Tatsuya Fuji appears in the second interview (30:05) discussing how he found the pre-shooting script for DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS in the Nikkatsu casting department, read it, and knew what role he wanted. He spread word about the script and his interest to everyone he could, although he does not know if this was ultimately the reason that it went into production. He discusses his "laughing man" characterization, how he built from it in the subsequent films, and his character's buggy (as well as how seventies Nikkatsu films often shot without permits unlike the ones from the earlier era). He connected with Hasebe over a love of jazz music and went with him to the Newport Jazz Festival (and read in the newspaper of Nikkatsu's bankruptcy). In addition to his reflections on his co-stars, waiting around for Wada on DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS since she was always off at singing engagements, and the films' twenty days shoots (more of which we hear in the third interview).

In his interview, actor Yoshio Harada (33:06) – who died in 2011 – discusses his beginnings as a stage actor with no interest in doing films. Kaji had actually recommended him to director WILD JUMBO and BEAT '71 director Toshiya Fujita for the trio's previous collaboration STEP ON THE GAS. Of BEAT '71, he describes how the script of Hideichi Nagahara (who scripted A COLT IS MY PASSPORT and GODZILLA 1985 at the opposite ends of his career) was loosely structured with much of it being shaped by Nagahara, Fujita, himself, and other crew at the end of each shooting day (including the decision to move from the city setting of the first half of the film to the countryside for the rest). For a theatrically-trained actor who originally wanted nothing to do with the stage, he is proud of the collaboration on BEAT '71 (while admittedly not a masterwork of Japanese cinema). There does not appear to be a trailer for DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS, but trailers are included for the other four films (2:42, 3:16, 2:48, and 2:37, respectively). This five disc edition is limited to 3000 copies (unlike SOCIETY, no standard edition has been as yet announced, but there is no standard edition in the UK for their limited edition that came out last year). Not supplied for review was the twenty-eight page booklet by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp. (Eric Cotenas)