Hey there, and welcome to another edition of Your Japanese Film Insight. This week, I wanted to cast an eye towards the people in front of the camera instead of behind it, at a time when the Japanese studio system was starting to collapse at the start of the 1970s.
For this article, I want to put the focus on the hot-streak of Japanese action films that released during this period and their most prominent star: Meiko Kaji. The ‘pink violence’ action films from Toei released at this time were subversive and extreme as studios fought to gain the attention of audiences rapidly moving away from the cinema and the mass output the studios were providing for entertainment in their home as TVs became more popular in Japanese.
By the time the late 1960s and early 1970s arrived, the struggling studio system in Japan had resorted to more extreme violence and sexual content to catch the attention of an audience that was losing interest in the cinema altogether.
With this, I want to cast an eye on these films and one of the most talented actresses from this period of Japanese cinema who starred in many of the best action films of the era, Meiko Kaji, and discuss not just the style of these films but Meiko’s performances that define them and give them a powerful, anarchical, subversive energy that matched the circumstances they were produced in.
Meiko Kaji, An Action Heroine For A Changing Japan
Meiko Kaji’s career started as a bit-part actor at Nikkatsu, where she defined herself by moving away from more docile roles and towards playing side characters and supporting roles in various yakuza films. She had roles in films like Blind Woman’s Curse, a creative and exciting yakuza film from 1970, as well as Yasuharu Hasebe’s Retaliation two years earlier, each of which helped her to craft an on-screen persona of independence from traditionally male-led stories.
She eventually earned herself a prominent role in the Stray Cat Rock series of films. In just over a year, 5 films in the series were produced and released under the watchful eye of Yasuharu Hasebe and Toshiya Fujita, with Meiko Kaji taking the lead female role from the second film onwards after being a secondary character in the first film. Each film in the series is mostly self-contained, set in different areas of Tokyo with gang violence and youth rebellion a common theme.
For example, the first film centers on the illegal gambling of the Seiyu yakuza group, yet the second film is more to do with Meiko Kaji and her friends letting their days of summer youth pass them by driving a dune buggy and listening to experimental jazz before they decide to end their boredom by hastily planning a heist on a religious cult for 30 million yen. While the films are mixed in quality, each is driven by some exciting pieces of cinematography, great soundtracks thanks to the use of real rock groups and some strong acting performances.
As Nikkatsu continued to spiral, they were eventually forced to halt production on new films before shifting focus to the tastefully named softcore Roman Porno genre. At this time, Meiko Kaji moved to rival Toei where she would act in two of the most memorable roles of her career. Her work as Shurayuki-hime in Lady Snowblood and Sasori, or Scorpion, in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, went on to define her career in the eyes of many both inside and outside of Japan. While it’s commonly known that Lady Snowblood influenced Quentin Tarantino in his work on Kill Bill, it’s her work on Female Prisoner Scorpion that I feel stands out most.
Alongside all of this, she had a prolific music career, performing the theme songs for many films she starred in like Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion, alongside original releases. Her music was featured in Tarantino’s Kill Bill to the extent that it revived her music career and sought a re-evaluation of her older films, but even at the time, her music was chart-topping in its popularity.
While creating a timeline for Meiko Kaji’s movie career during this period is good for understanding just how prolific an actor she was at this time, this only answers half the question as to why she was successful. What led to Meiko Kaji’s extraordinary rise to prominence at this time? And what about her performances is still so captivating all these years later?
While I don’t want to discredit Meiko Kaji’s performances here, I feel like her success was amplified by the changing circumstances surrounding not just the studios she worked with, but Japanese society as a whole. While the widespread introduction of TV into Japanese homes came almost a decade later than it did in the US, its impact on the Japanese studio system and film industry as a whole can’t be understated.
At the industry’s peak in 1960, the six main Japanese film studios were producing an average of almost 2 new feature films each week. A total of 547 films were released that year, 99% of which were produced within the studio system, but in the years that followed attendance and the number of releases plummeted. This was mostly a result of the rising popularity of TV, particularly color TV after it became a popular household item in the early 1960s thanks to the Tokyo Olympics. To keep Japanese audiences going to the cinema, studios went to further extremes in the content they produced in order to entice audiences to see content they couldn’t experience anywhere else.
This, alongside the growing independent film industry caused by the declining studio system, created a shift in the content produced at this time as they each sought to create new and subversive forms of content. The Japan Art Theatre Guild (ATG), whose influence continues to inspire directors like Mamoru Oshii, was the pioneering force on the independent side, producing avant-garde masterpieces like Funeral Parade of Roses. Meanwhile, studios were ratcheting up the violence and particularly sexual content, with the rise of pink films that were essentially highly-produced softcore pornography for a large-scale audience. It became a significant sector of the industry, eventually influencing other genres as content broke away from the moral conventions of the past.
At this same time, Japanese society was undergoing a moral and political reckoning due to the mass student protest movements. During the 1960s up until the movement’s slow death to infighting and fracturing political ideals in 1972, the rise of a new, left-wing, youth-led political force in the country challenged the status quo of political power in the country. With major flashpoint protests like the Todai Riots and the protests against the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty, they were a sizable force in 1960s Japan.
Even as these protests were mostly quashed by the Japanese government as the country entered the 1970s and Japan returned to a more conservative status quo, the country that emerged from it was different from the one it was before these protests, particularly when it came to viewpoints on morality.
I discuss this because I feel Meiko Kaji’s success can be linked to her roles representing this shift and a desire for performances that broke away and rebelled against traditional Japanese morality. Each of Meiko Kaji’s performances stood her in conflict with corrupt, powerful forces, or placed her in direct conflict with issues of race and gender that the country faced at the time. For example, in the third film in the Stray Cat Rock series, Sex Hunter, Meiko Kaji’s gang goes fights against the racist Eagles gang in a film that, more than any other entry in the series, successfully captures the anti-colonial sentiment of student protests from the 1960s and its conflict with nationalist and racist sentiments. Lady Snowblood’s exploration of Meiji-era Westernization and colonialism fits with this theme.
It can be difficult to judge where to stand on some of the works during this period due to their high levels of sexual content. In the first film of the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, it opens on a line of naked women being examined by police officers, with frequent stripping throughout. As the series goes on, some of this content gets more extreme, like the incestuous relationship of Yuki in Beast Stable, even as sexual content overall is toned down in later installments.
Thanks to the performance of Meiko Kaji as Scorpion, she’s successfully able to channel the character as the embodiment of a woman who stands firmly against the systems placed upon her, letting her actions speak far louder than the few words she has to say. As a result, while elements of the sexualized nature of the film were clearly created with the male gaze in mind, the directing of Shunya Ito and Meiko Kaji’s performances transform these scenes into a more contemplative place. Though elements could easily be toned down, the series’ exploration of issues like a women’s right to choose and the systems which oppress them shine above it.
As the studio system further suffered, Meiko Kaji left Toei and went out on her own, stepping away from the outlaw characters that defined her until that point to take on a variety of roles in film and TV. While she endured a level of success throughout, it’s this period of her career for which she’s most renowned worldwide, and rightly so. Not only did they effectively capture a period of changing morality, but she also released a huge number of films and put on strong acting performances in each of them.
With an intense glare and a cowboy hat, Meiko Kaji came to define a period of action films in Japan at a time of upheaval.
Film Flashback: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり 第４１雑居房, Shunya Ito, 1972)
While Meiko Kaji is most recognized for her role as Lady Snowblood thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, it’s her outings before that in the role of Scorpion for the Female Prisoner Scorpion franchise that stands out the most for me. The franchise was Meiko Kaji’s first major film since joining Toei after leaving Nikkatsu due to the studio’s almost exclusive shift into making Roman Porno. Based on the Sasori manga by Toru Shinohara, it was her first major series since joining the studio.
Of these films, the strongest entry in the series is undoubtedly the second film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, a movie far more experimental in visual storytelling than any other film in the series and far more ambitious to boot. The film follows Scorpion once she’s been returned to prison and is subject to cruel treatment from the prison guardsmen, only being given a reprieve when the prison is under inspection. Taking advantage of this, Scorpion flees alongside six other women, and the group goes on the run from the police.
If the first film felt safe and conservative in its storytelling due to there being no guarantee of success, Jailhouse 41 is a movie that takes what works best about Meiko Kaji’s performance as a mostly silent protagonist in the first film and expands on the character’s ideals, augmenting it with avant-garde visual storytelling that sets it apart from its contemporaries.
If the first movie represented the anger and pain inflicted by a patriarchal society, this is a story depicting just how absolute the control of patriarchy and how difficult it is to rebel against this system. This is emphasized from the very opening moments of the film where the spotlight is shone on Scorpion as prison officers look down on her decrepit state in solitary confinement. Almost every scene involving the male prison guards features them standing above Scorpion and is often shot from below, to emphasize the power imbalance.
Much of the rest of the film focuses on the women’s attempts to survive on the run and why they seek freedom from prison, and it’s here where the film is most successful. Taking this thematic idea to its extreme, the film has a sense of futility to their escape and an overarching feeling that truly being free in a society viewing them as they are is impossible, using infighting and an admittedly unnecessary and extreme rape scene to solidify that, even as they escape, they’re still trapped by male expectations for female submission.
Outside of this rape scene, this is the film in the series that most tones down the sexual content for a focus on story. Much more time is spent on growing these characters and their mental state following their escape, best epitomized in a dream sequence that brings the first third of the film to an end. It’s also where these themes become most explicit as the film puts forward that these women, while they may have committed crime, were victims of circumstances caused by men around them viewing them as lesser people and expendable.
One murdered a husband who abused their child in another marriage. Another murdered their father after they attempted to rape them. The point of this isn’t to necessarily cause a discussion on the morality of the prisoner’s actions but, when all six have committed crimes in retaliation to men, only to be abused further by men, it forces you to consider the wider circumstances at play that set women in this disadvantageous position.
Between the refusal to bow down to the abuse received in prison and the discussion of crime here, Scorpion is placed as a mythical embodiment of injustice which her refusal to conform only emboldens. As the first film sets up this reputation for Scorpion, this film not only seeks to solidify this idea in the minds of the audience, which is achieved by the avant-garde filmmaking that gives the film a supernatural air that only adds credence to her now-mythical status.
Of course, as mentioned, this is taken to a sex-fueled extreme that can be viewed as problematic, but I feel this messaging stands stronger than these aspects of the film that are more included as genre expectations and the circumstances of the period it was made in.
With Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Meiko Kaji puts out her career-best performance in a stunning film that showcases how exploitation filmmaking can be about far more than sex and violence if these conventions are weaponized through the narrative. A must-see film in the best series of films in Meiko Kaji’s career.
The entire Female Prisoner Scorpion series is now available to purchase through Arrow Films.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!