MUBI is showing the Stray Cat Rock series in the United States from August 29 - October 23, 2016
High on snorted glue and really, really pissed off, the Stray Cat Rock series takes a switchblade to the Japanese Old Guard. Released in five parts during 1970 and 1971, the series, with its unabashed feminist, anti-colonialist and anti-militaristic politics, is a surprisingly detailed and sprawling account of both the radical spirit that intoxicated the air and the racist, sexist and nationalist sentiments that were planning a coup in Japan around the same time. Packaged in a consumable genre form, as ubiquitous as the films’ reoccurring Coke bottles, the series is an effective bait-and-switch, a “fuck you” from inside the system.
As Japanese studios were falling apart and Hollywood imperialism was claiming more and more of the box-office pie chart, the ruling class welcomed its own critique, commodifying the anti-establishment sentiments that had crossed the Pacific. While Americans were protesting racial oppression, intolerance towards gays and lesbians and the war in Vietnam, similar movements were beginning to grab hold in Japan, due to America’s influence post-occupation and the Westernization of the country in the years that followed. A bourgeoning counter-culture of punk-rock and free love threatened conservative hegemony. Meanwhile, popular film studios were losing ticket sales to television and their own “cinema du papa” was no longer in line with shifting cultural values. As a consequence, bourgeois studio heads banked on leftist artists to reinvent their strategy, an irony embodied in the Stray Cat Rock series, to the very core of its being.
Coming at the end of the Nikkatsu’s “New Action” era, whose most important contributions are the films of Seijun Suzuki, the Stray Cat Rock series sees the studio in panic mode. In their final attempt at making youth-centric films, they gave the reigns to Toshiya Fujita and Yasuharu Hasebe to turn the success of Delinquent Girl Boss into a series with four more entries. Some of the episodes are neo-Westerns, some hang out movies, some heist pictures, some actioners and some are all of these at once. While the familiar genre elements are meant to maximize profits, the films’ audacious politics are presented with a soft hand, pushing societal and industry norms through implication, which leaves things open for plausible deniability while also taking an uncompromising stance.
In Delinquent Girl Boss, for example, Ako (played by future pop superstar Akiko Wada) rolls into town like a “Women with No Name,” one of the film’s many reversals of conservative convention. By chance, Ako falls into an all-girl gang who gets into trouble when one of the member’s boyfriend becomes involved with the Seiyu, a group of nationalists. Pitting punk feminism, with a scandalous hint of lesbianism, against far-right extremism, this spunky genre film presents radical sexual politics and a disdain for US imperialism. If the series had ended here, it would have likely been nothing more than a footnote for Nikkatsu.
Thin on narrative and beefy on details and texture, the films trace the course of a doomed coup, beginning with impassioned idealism and ending with a poignant whimper. The second meandering film, Wild Jumbo, focuses on a group of rebellious youth planning a heist on a religious group’s donations, and the third, Sex Hunter, revolves around a “half-breed,” a half Japanese native and half black man who is defended by the Stray Cats from a racist, rival gang. The fourth and fifth films, however, have a more somber tone, realizing that change is scarce. Machine Animal, the fourth installment, is about an American Vietnam War deserter who sells LSD to fund his Hail Mary attempt at getting to Sweden, and Crazy Rider ’71, the best of the series, reconsiders all the previous installments as we follow a group of hippies who rescue their friend falsely accused of murder. Actors switch roles and characters between films, messing up continuity to anyone trying to read the films as a linear plotline.
But if the five installments don’t cohere narratively, it’s because they are bound by greater ties, a comradery between films that share the same values. The series’ power is in its intertext, the ideas that transcend the individual parables, becoming part of a larger narrative: a revolution not isolated to one issue but the outlook and direction of an entire culture. Each film has a primary point of attack, a particular injustice on which to focus its blaze, but the series is richer, seeing the rebellion in the context of a larger history and prior points in the series. However episodic the films may seem in themselves, there is an accumulated resonance, a sense that we’ve somehow come full circle, the revolution entrapping itself, becoming the very violence it seemed to strongly oppose. There is an unseen story here, a narrative only visible through motifs and form.
It’s made visible in how the music is altered throughout the series, changing from punk to soft rock, how the economic developments hidden behind many images contrast with the gang whose drifting homelessness only becomes more apparent as the series goes on, and in our identification with the violent outlaws, which becomes more reflexive and challenge our original allegiance. We know a lot about this world simply through the glass Coke bottles. In the first couple films, they are merely a sign of American economic influence, doubling as nifty, subversive product placement. But as the series reaches the height of its youth rebellion, the Coke bottles are front and center. When members of the gang are being sexually assaulted by white business-types at a party, the rest of the gang come to the rescue armed with Molotov “Coke-tails,” using the imperialist symbol to attack a capitalist patriarchy. But after the fires have burned out and the revolution has devolved into a few stranded hippies getting high in a beat up trailer, the Coke bottle shifts in meaning once more, from a sign of revolution to indicating the the status quo’s dominance. In its final appearance, the American soda plays the role of a betraying kiss, shifting power back in to the hands of the oppressors.
Not merely a studio’s last-ditch effort but a testament to a petering rebellion, the Stray Cat Rock series was made out of moral and financial desperation: cinema raging against the dying of the light, fighting for radical, subversive images. When anti-heroes become villains and a revolution becomes subsumed by the powers that be, the series is revealed to be a very tragic one. Immediately before the final shot, a young boy plays with a gun as his hippie family lie dead on the ground. The final image is a close-up freeze frame of the boy’s face, surely doomed, recalls a similar image in The 400 Blows. He is the fighting spirit that lives on, but to what end?
By 1971, the fifth and final installment had been released. Soon after, Nikkatsu abandoned their “New Action” cinema altogether and transitioned away from revolutionary-minded films. It was the end of a movement.