Cinesphere: The Films of Meiko Kaji

My guess is that many people don’t recognize the name, Meiko Kaji. However, assuming they have ever seen a Quentin Tarantino film, especially the KILL BILL series, they have already been greatly influenced by her.

Meiko Kaji is the actress and singer who stared in three highly memorable Japanese cult film franchises in the Early-Seventies. Those three franchises were; LADY SNOWBLOOD, STRAY CAT, and FEMALE PRISONER 701: SCORPION.

Amazingly, she was so prolific that, from 1970 to 1974, she managed to star in all three franchises at once. I guess that makes sense, given that she made close to 100 films, over the course of her career. Not to mention, a few record albums and TV shows.

Tarantino, has openly stolen, I mean “paid homage,” to all of three of these classic, Japanese, cult franchises. To his credit, Tarantino openly acknowledges their influence on his films. In fact, he even used the theme songs for LADY SNOWBLOOD and FEMALE PRISONER 701 in KILL BILL to pay tribute to Kaji and her work. Both were sung by Kaji, herself, by the way.

LADY SNOWBLOOD was made in 1973. Its sequel, LADY SNOWBLOOD: LOVE SONG OF VENGEANCE was released just one year later. They were both directed by Toshiya Fujita, based on a manga of the same name. Both films are currently available on the Criterion Collection, which should tell you something about their historical standing. Then again, Criterion also makes a special edition of YENTL, so I’m not sure how much weight that really carries.

The film is a non-linear, heavily stylized, masterpiece of violence. Red blood spurting onto bright, white, snow. That sort of thing. The type of imagery you may have thought, mistakenly, was pure Tarantino. KILL BILL, in particular, borrowed heavily from these films.

The story is set in the Meiji era, or Late-Nineteenth-Century, of Japan. An innocent woman is raped and her husband and son are slaughtered. The woman has a daughter who is raised with one, single, purpose. That purpose is find and kill the people who harmed her family. The daughter, played by Kaji, is called Lady Snowblood. And she is a true bad ass. Vengeance is served and it’s beautiful, visually, and otherwise.

Kaji’s first big hit was, actually, a few years before LADY SNOWBIRD. It was the STRAY CAT/ALLEYCAT ROCK series. In it, she played the leader of of an all-girl biker gang that ruled the streets of Shinjuku. The films were inspired by Roger Corman’s American biker films, like THE WILD ANGELS, but had a distinct, Japanese, twist to them.

The STRAY CAT films were cheap. So cheap, that the director of the first films, Yasuharu Hasebe, and screenwriter, Atsushi Yamatoya, were given unusual creative freedom during their production. It was something they took advantage of to capture a much darker, rebellious, side of Japan than was usually depicted in the movies.

Signs of tension with the American military presence, for instance, were openly shown along with an assortment of drinking and (implied) sexual activities. The results were an odd mix of party film and a grim commentary on a violent world in chaos.

There were five STRAY CAT films made in just two years. The series star was intended to be Akiko Wada, a pop star trying her hand at the movies. However, Meiko Kaji proved so popular that she was made the lead in the last four of the five films.

Yasuharu Hasebe was also not their only director. None other than Toshiya Fujita, who would go on to direct Kaji in the LADY SNOWBLOOD films, directed two of the later films in the series.

It’s hard to describe the STRAY CAT films as good. They are not only filled with silly plot lines, the production value and compromises of low-budget filmmaking are often visible. But they capture a mood and undercurrent of Japan which few films of the time did. No kimonos. No swords. Just lots of fists, motorcycles and leather. They also show Kaji being tough, sexy, and dangerous, in the best of ways.

It was, actually, the FEMALE PRISONER 701: SCORPION series which first brought Meiko Kaji to my attention. The SCORPION films are considered a genre referred to in Japan as “Pink Films.” Basically, these are a specific form of exploitation film involving lots of naked women. Women who are often abused. The SCORPION series fits right in. They are women in prison films and not, exactly, politically correct.

However, if you can get over all that, the SCORPION films are well worth watching. For one thing, they are, very, visually innovative. Director, Shunya Ito, used all sorts of odd angles, strange compositions, intense colors and other experimental methods, throughout.

There are also some specific scenes that are just plain weird. For instance, there is a key fight between Kaji and her arch-rival in jail in which her rival turns into a demon. Not, as in, her rival looks like a demon. But the character turns into an, actual, creature from hell.

And man, are they dark. Bad, bad, things happen to people. Usually, the female prisoners. Usually, Kaji. But she gets through any torture they throw at her and gets her revenge in all sorts of creative and colorful ways.

So, three series of influential cult films; LADY SNOWBIRD, STRAY CAT and PRISONER SCORPION. Throughout them all, Meiko Kaji comes off as determined, ruthless, probably psychotic, and tougher than anyone you ever have, or ever will, meet. And she is mesmerizing.

If you don’t watch these films for their unique takes on filmmaking, watch them for her. Meiko Kaji is the Queen of Japanese Cult Films for good reason. If you have something to say about that, go right ahead. Just don’t blame me if Kaji suddenly cuts off your arm with a samurai sword, or boils you, alive, in hot soup.

You’ve been warned.

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