unchained melody cover
Cover art by Nathanael Marsh

For a figure now so iconic and enduring, it’s strange that a comprehensive study of the cinematic career of Meiko Kaji (in English, at least) has been so long coming. Tom Mes’ wonderfully titled Unchained Melody seeks to rectify this unfortunate situation with a wide ranging examination not only of Kaji’s screen persona(s) but also of the changing nature of the industry which at times supported and frustrated her, as well as the various directors through whom she was able grow and change as an actress. The picture which emerges most strongly through Mes’ book is of a woman who was often as defiant as the characters who came to define her in the public eye, but necessarily so for, unlike some of her contemporaries, her goal was always a betterment of her craft and she would, therefore, be ruthless in pursuing it.

After beginning with the personal in a prologue detailing a meeting with the woman herself in 2006, Mes wisely moves on from biographical detail to focus on Kaji’s film career as it progressed from miscasting as Nikkatsu’s particular brand of cutesy girl-next-door, to her reign as queen of outlaw cool in the youth crazy 1970s and the inevitable cooling down as time moved on. It is, however, in least in Mes’ view and in the way Kaji herself seems to describe it to him not a story of decline and fall but of personal choice.

The Japanese studio system, like that of Hollywood, could be rigid and unforgiving. In many ways it’s an odd comparison, but the dilemma Kaji finds herself in is much the same as that experienced by Hollywood’s own defiant woman, Bette Davis, who successfully managed to push her otherwise overbearing managers into giving her the kind of work which she felt she deserved but was being denied. Nikkatsu’s output was star based rather than director led, meaning they had a steady stream of cardboard cut out headliners they could slot into the project the marketing department was busy dreaming up. This is naturally disadvantageous to an aspiring actress whose interest is craft rather than stardom.

Mes, as kindly as he can, contrasts Kaji’s fortunes with an early co-star, Sayuri Yoshinaga who continues to be a tentpole star – perhaps the only female actress of her age to be so. Yoshinaga, well known both as an actress and singer, has played things quite differently, capitalising on an image which is the very opposite of Kaji’s – that essential small town wholesomeness that Kaji had so much trouble with at Nikkatsu. Still playing roles well below her physical age – most notably as a frequent mother figure in the films of veteran commercial director Yoji Yamada, Yoshinaga has certainly had a long and very successful career, but, as Mes implies, not the kind of career Kaji would have wanted.

Rather than capitalising on her new found stardom after the twin hits of Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion, Kaji opts for challenging roles rather leading ones. Mes uses this as a jumping off point to profile some of the directors who helped to shape her career from her big break in Nikkatsu’s groovy youth series Stray Cat Rock which gave her a lasting relationship with Yasuharu Hasebe (who returned to direct the last in the Scorpion series), and Toshiya Fujita who further helped to create her image with Lady Snowblood, as well as the lesser known director of the Scorpion films Shunya Ito, the better known Kinji Fukasaku, and the provocative Yasuzo Masumura for whom Kaji produced one of her most surprising cameos as a kindly village woman in Lullaby of the Earth. In addition to giving an impression of how these various directors fit into Kaji’s ongoing development as an actress, these brief digressions also help to situate it within the fracturing world of ‘70s Japanese cinema in which the death of the studio system had created a gaping void into which slipped the commercial filmmaker’s baser instincts.

Where other books on cinema might hold back, Mes is also keen to highlight Kaji’s long career in television in which she often found the kinds of challenging roles unavailable in the cinema. A brief resurgence in international interest following Tarantino’s Kill Bill which cited her as a clear influence and used two of Kaji’s iconic theme tunes might have led to a cinematic comeback but it was sadly not to be, and, truth be told those challenging roles for older actresses are still few and far between. Still, Kaji’s counter cultural cool endures and if there’s one thing that Mes’ book makes plain, it’s that this essentially defiant quality extends past her screen image to the woman herself who was not prepared to be bound by the way that others chose to see her but continued to fight for the right to define herself, not as a star in someone else’s image, but as an actress.

Unchained Melody: The Films Of Meiko Kaji is published by Arrow Books 11th September, 2017.

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