In anticipation of her seventieth birthday in March, Japan Society presents a weekend-long film series devoted to Meiko Kaji, the grande dame of 1970s Japanese studio exploitation flicks. Guest-curated by Marc Walkow, the series consists of five of Kaji’s most iconic screen incarnations, from Lady Snowblood of the homonymous diptych (1973-1974, Toho), ‘Scorpion’ of the Female Prisoner Scorpion series (1972-1973), to Mako the leader of the all-women Alleycats gang in the Stray Cat Rock series (1970-1971). ‘Cruel Beauty’ begins with the international premiere of the middle film in Fukasaku Kinji’s post-Battles Without Honor and Humanity trilogy New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss’ Head (1975). This film sets the tone for the rest of the titles to come in the series, lined as it is with (gender) violence, revenge/retaliation, betrayal, and ensconced in subcultures; in this case, the yakuza, internal dissent, and cutthroat competition. Moreover, it establishes Kaji’s hard-hitting onscreen persona in a hyper-masculine, lawless world who is just as equal to the task of surviving — even thriving — as the men.
The same can be said of her film career: Kaji arrived on the cinema scene in 1965, scouted by major studio Nikkatsu, under her birth name, Masako Ota. In a sense, Kaji’s timing could not have been more challenging, for at the time the film industry was caught in its own web of competition and struggle and film narratives had become incredibly male-dominated. Audience numbers (as well as movie theatres) began to dwindle due to a number of factors, following the great box-office highs of 1958-1960, led by the onslaught of television. For a while, Nikkatsu staved off the threat of television with its androcentric brand of youth films centered on the glittering young male stars dubbed the ‘Diamond Line’: Yujiro Ishihara, Akira Kobayashi, Koji Wada, and Keiichiro Akagi. Subsequently, the studio would bring together various genres (both domestic and Hollywood) including the youth film to craft its mukokuseki akushon (‘borderless action’) films, in line with the maturing ‘Diamond Line’ actors and increasing forays into action. This matinee idol quartet would eventually be joined by the likes of Hideaki Nitani, Jo Shishido, Hideki Takahashi, and Tetsuya Watari. By 1965, however, audiences became further splintered and Nikkatsu’s mukokuseki akushon would soon cede its box-office reign to fellow major studio Toei’s own male-oriented action genre, the yakuza-eiga (‘organised crime film’) and its subgenres.
Nikkatsu had its fair share of actresses to pair with its top male stars in the youth and mukokuseki akushon films (e.g., Ruriko Asaoka, Chieko Matsubara, though there was no such ‘Diamond Line’ quartet of women), to which Kaji was added in the mid-1960s, still as Masako Ota. And so Kaji starred in youth films during her first couple of years at Nikkatsu. In 1969, on the advice of both her home studio and Toei director Masahiro Makino, Ota adopted the stage name of Meiko Kaji, which signaled both the shift in the kind of roles given to her as well as the larger shift to bigger-budget yakuza-eiga productions and their increased popularity.
In accordance with the surge in popularity of yakuza-eiga, particularly ninkyo-eiga (chivarly film, set between the Meiji and early Showa eras), Kaji’s first standout leading role came a year later in the fantastical, irrational, and utterly fun Teruo Ishii-directed Blind Woman’s Curse (1970), included in the ‘Cruel Beauty’ series. Blind Woman’s Curse was the third yet unrelated entry in Nikkatsu’s Rising Dragon series (1969-1970) starring Hiroko Ogi. It’s a yakuza tale with elements of kaidan and mystery and, most importantly, lined with the ero-guro (‘erotic-grotesque’) that characterises Ishii’s cult cinema.
Through the opening credits sequence that also functions as a prologue, Ishii provides Kaji a most dramatic introduction as a lead actress, playing Akemi Tachibana, the leader of a yakuza clan fighting a rival clan: use of slo-mo and bodies in tactical formation, with rain pattering, underlines the intensity of confrontation between the two clans. At the center of it all is Tachibana, wielding a sword and defeating the opposing clan’s leader, with a black cat and a taste for blood putting an exclamation point to the sequence. Fast-forward to three years later, after doing a stint in prison, and Tachibana remains the head of the clan trying to maintain order and dignity within it while new external rival forces attempt to do otherwise, and also wondering about a black cat curse. In truth, though Tachibana is marked in the beginning as the film’s central character, she is but one engaging character among others, at times off-screen for an extended period of time. The film is really an ensemble piece, which reflects the increasingly freakish world in which all of the characters find themselves.
It is a world of the underbelly, the fleshly and the profane. As strange events and deaths befall Tachibana clan members — propelled by betrayal by one of them conspiring with a rival gang and the arrival of a blind swordswoman — so the imagery becomes equally strange to rival the story itself: an underground den of loosely clothed female drug addicts, whom the rival gang maintains and traffics in order to freely violate or prostitute them; the fair whose sights include kids in baskets queued to be cooked in a pot stirred by an old man, an act with a hunchbacked man (played notably by Tatsumi Hijikata) who does the blind swordswoman’s bidding, and a knife act with the blind swordswoman; the buttocks of Aozora, another rival gang leader who wears a red loincloth, which Ishii constantly captures in tight framing; flayed skin and decapitated heads; and, of course, the ubiquitous yet elusive black cat. The film culminates with an atmospheric duel between Tachibana and the blind swordswoman, which brings the story full circle.
Kaji’s first recurring lead role would come the same year as Blind Woman’s Curse with the Stray Cat Rock films, which combine elements of the yakuza-eiga, juvenile delinquent films, and biker gang/bosozoku (‘violent running tribes’) films, and continue in their own — even contrapuntal — way Nikkatsu’s mukokuseki akushon productions. The series originally intended to showcase pop singer Akiko Wada, but Kaji as Mako, leader of the Alleycats gang, proved to be the star in the first installment of the series, Alleycat Rock: Female Boss (1970), thus prompting Nikkatsu to give top billing to Kaji and tertiary billing to Wada in the second installment, Wild Jumbo (1970). By the time of the third installment, Sex Hunter (1970, directed by Yasuharu Hasebe) – and the rest of the series – Wada is no longer around.
Within the Stray Cat Rock series, Sex Hunter is undeniably the most socio-politically charged, having as its ultimate premise mixed race citizens and discrimination in Japan, which may have prompted its inclusion in the ‘Cruel Beauty’ series. Initially, Mako and her clique are in cahoots with the Eagles, the city’s big-shot belligerent hooligans, in the ever-constant search for kicks in the port city of Yokosuka. Mako even has, shall we say, an understanding with Baron (Tatsuya Fuji), the Eagles’ volatile leader. However, early in the film, Mako meets the enigmatic Kazuma (Japanese-Italian Rikiya Yasuoka), a mixed race orphan who strolls into town in search of his half-sister Megumi. Additionally, Alleycat member Mari rejects an Eagle because she is in love with Ichiro, also of mixed race. What all seems like carefree hedonism characteristic of the era in the beginning gradually turns very ugly, starting with Ichiro getting beaten up by Susumu, who is the Eagle sweet on Mari. Baron then leads the Eagles on a pathological pursuit of terrorising mixed race citizens, including Kazuma. Mako’s friendship with Kazuma, and her witnessing of the Eagles’ violence directed at mixed race characters, prompts her to break ties with Baron and company. The film concludes with an explosive shootout that consigns the characters and the city to oblivion.
Nikkatsu’s own shootout, as it were, with the ever-dwindling numbers due to television catapulted it into a kind of oblivion of its own, albeit temporarily. Ever struggling to remain in the black, in August 1971 Nikkatsu closed up shop. However, the studio reopened several months later with the strategy of devoting itself to the new market trend of pinku-eiga (‘pink film,’ or soft-core porn). A number of talent staged a mass exodus in disagreement with this strategy, including top actors Akira Kobayashi, Tetsuya Watari, and Kaji. Her first post-Nikkatsu work, and marking the freelance era of her film career, was for Toei in the Female Prisoner Scorpion, or Sasori, series.
The ‘oblivion’ of the Stray Cat Rock series is mild in comparison to the four-film Female Prisoner Scorpion series, as the misery and debasement increase ten-fold, no doubt influenced by the pinku-eiga trend. Across the series, Kaji plays Matsushima Nami, nicknamed ‘Sasori’ (‘scorpion’), a deadly and fearless assassin. In the first two installments, Sasori is a convict and wreaking immense havoc in response to the immense violence to which she is subjected by various parties both inside and outside prison walls. Included in the ‘Cruel Beauty’ series is the third installment, Beast Stable (1973, directed by Shunya Ito), which finds Sasori an escaped convict and therefore on the run. She strikes an unlikely alliance with a prostitute, Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), who has an incestuous relationship with her mentally ill brother. Unlikely since one of the most memorable images of the film appears when the two women meet for the first time, in a cemetery: Yuki, after her customer has paid and left her, is struck to see a woman behind a tombstone who appears to be gnawing on an arm. In actuality, Sasori is trying to break her handcuffs, whose other end is the arm of a policeman that she sliced at the film’s opening sequence.
All the while Sasori tries to evade the police in hot pursuit of her, separately, the two women are physically harassed by a gang led by Katsu (Reisen Lee), a black feather-clad, husky-voiced woman; Yuki, for plying her trade on the gang’s turf, Sasori, for wrongs committed against Katsu in prison. All of the above provides ample imagery of misery and debasement, and constructs a wretched, damned world; a substantial portion of the film also takes place in sewers and other such underground, dank spaces.
But in the midst of such exploitation elements are sequences memorable for being bereft of dialogue, lingering moments that weigh in on the characters’ plight and the violence that accompanies it: Yuki and Sasori meeting up outside of the latter’s workplace, walking to the latter’s abode, and conversing; the woman in Sasori’s apartment building contemplating the warning over the phone from an anonymous caller about her man and her act of throwing hot water at whom she presumes (mistakenly) to be Sasori; Sasori reaching out to the prostitute whose pregnancy is terminated by Katsu and her henchmen, while both of them are prostrate and locked in Katsu’s bird lair; in the same sequence, Sasori passing a surgical tool across her eyes – a particularly long-drawn-out moment that precedes the revenge killing of those who have violated/abused the women whom she has come to know following her prison break.
As sensationalistic as they may be, pulsating through all or most of these films is a deep (albeit latent in some cases) sense of ethical empathy and justice, which drives Kaji’s characters to precisely walk the path of carnage: against corruption and betrayal (Blind Woman’s Curse, Love Song of Vengeance); racism (Sex Hunter); and abuse/violence against women (Beast Stable). Such is what one character most strikingly tells Kaji’s most famous role, Lady Snowblood, in Love Song of Vengeance (1974, directed by Toshiya Fujita), the lesser known film of the two Toho-produced Lady Snowblood films but also part of the ‘Cruel Beauty’ series perhaps for that reason. A sense of sisterhood can also be found in several of these films in the face of patriarchal arrogance and violence, most notably in Blind Woman’s Curse in that such sisterhood includes men.
And as sensationalistic as they may be, Kaji’s films greatly deserve the attention that they continue to receive, for they reveal a gifted actress who made walking the path of carnage in terms of productions a dignified and dynamic choice
 Hijikata (1928-1986) was the founder of butoh dance
 Yet even in the first installment, a person of mixed race is one of the prominent characters. The series would continue to address sensitive issues pertinent to the times, such as the Vietnam War and draft evasion in the fifth installment, Machine Animal (1970).
Cruel Beauty: A Romantic Weekend with Meiko Kaji runs at Japan Society from February 10-12.
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss’ Head (1975)
Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970)
Blind Woman’s Curse (1970)
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973)