In the booklet included with the set, critic Jasper Sharp suggests that the Stray Cat Rock series represented an intentional move away from the slicker gangster films of director Seijun Suzuki and others at the Nikkatsu studio in the late 1960s. Watching the series, there's definitely a looser, more improvisational feel to the films; while both are colorful and energetic, the almost anarchic energy of these films is a far cry from the carefully prepared flourish of Tokyo Drifter's final shootout. Both Hasebe and Fujita pack these five films with all sorts of aggressive camera moves and sudden jolts of violence or action, and the movies each broken up by thrilling chase sequences involving dune buggies and motorcycles or extended rock interludes that practically function like music videos dropped into the narratives.
The plots of the five films all revolve around bands of reckless youths, most of which could be called gangs, but even that might be stretching to find a common element. The first, Delinquent Girl Boss, focuses on a violent rivalry that boils up between two gangs, one of which has ties to officials in the Japanese government. The tension comes to a head when a local boxer refuses to throw a match. Wild Jumbo finds a different band of hooligans setting up camp on the beach with a rich girl in tow, where they pose as a church group and plot a 30 million yen heist. Sex Hunter is a racial drama about more warring gangs, one of which is focused on torturing and chasing off a half-Asian brother and sister. Machine Animal is an outlier even in a series of outliers, in which Kaji's girl gang is sympathetic to the plight of three men, one of whom was a draft dodger, trying to escape Japan by selling 500 pills of LSD. Finally, Beat '71 follows a band of hippies riding around in a repainted school bus. Kaji takes the fall for a murder she didn't commit, only to find out after escaping that the man she took the fall for has tried to reform himself in the interim.
In Sex Hunter, Kaji's character Mako discovers her rival crime boss Baron (Fuji) has swept her away from a fancy party because her gang members are going to be raped by the other partygoers. She escapes Baron's apartment wearing nothing but a shirt, steals a man's motorcycle, and ultimately bursts back into the party armed with molotov cocktails inside Coca-Cola bottles. At their best, the Stray Cat Rock movies are an encapsulation of this weapon: explosive pop cinema. In particular, the first movie feels like a sugar rush, led by Mei (Akiko Wada), a brash motorcycle girl who sets the story in motion. She gets into fights on her bike, protects her friends, stands up to people she doesn't like, and even jumps on stage and sings -- not even the horrible dubbing job can neuter the film's energy. She even convinces the boxer not to throw his fight through what seems like sheer willpower. (It's a shame that Wada is only in the first movie, even though some terrible Pink Panther-style editing of old footage tries to make it seem like she's still around.) In Machine Animal, there's also a bit of the girls just plain having a good bawdy time together, scenes echoed by modern films like Girlhood.
That said, it's also surprising how much of these seemingly colorful girl-gang pictures are a dramatic bummer. Wild Jumbo in particular takes a surprisingly decisive turn near the end, and Sex Hunter is melodrama played to its most piercing notes, as Mako tries to save "half-breed" Kazuma (Rikiya Yasuoka) from Baron, who not only hates Kazuma but is also infatuated with Mako. None of the Stray Cat Rock films are particularly brutal, especially when considered within the spectrum of 1970s exploitation films, but Sex Hunter does have the series' darkest moment, in which Baron intentionally orchestrates a gang rape. The series also appears to become more political as it goes on and grows a bit in scope (which, again, is a bit odd for a series that was over and done with in less than ten months). The draft-dodger subplot of Machine Animal is fascinating and engaging, not to mention it gives Tatsuya Fuji a chance to stretch in a sympathetic role, but Beat '71 ends up a bit dry by comparison, with the focus drawn away from human characters like Charlie (Toshiya Yamano), the actual deserter.
Gauging how modern audiences will react to the Stray Cat Rock series is hard, especially given how vastly different each entry is. However, aside from Wild Jumbo (which, frankly, is just kind of depressing), each film is a fascinating cultural artifact, and each one gives the viewer a new look at the two recurring performers as they take on a new role. The experience may not be cohesive, and overall the set is a bit more mixed than I would've liked, but the moments when these films are electrifying are hard to deny.
The Video and Audio
The set also includes original theatrical trailers for four of the films, all except for Delinquent Girl Boss.