Savage Wolf Pack (野獣を消せ, Yasuharu Hasebe, 1969)

savage wolf pack posterYasuharu Hasebe was a key player in Nikkatsu’s pre-Roman porno stab at groovy youth gone wild responsible as he was for 3/5ths of the Stray Cat Rock series. Yet even before launching the seminal cycle, he was busy sowing the seeds of Pinky Violence in Nikkatsu’s regular action output. Savage Wolf Pack (野獣を消せ, Yaju wo Kese), released in 1969, features many of the same motifs as his later work in its beatniky setting, mildly anti-American sentiment, and general counter cultural milieu along with a propensity for shockingly nasty sex and violence. Hasebe manages to include all of this within the confines of a Nikkatsu Action movie which would normally hold back from such extreme fare, painting a nightmarish vision of lawless youth and out of control cruelty.

A vicious biker gang chases a young girl down into an abandoned field where the lackeys gang rape her while the chieftain (Tatsuya Fuji) and his lady (Mieko Tsudoi) look on from their custom jeep with a strange bat symbol attached to the front. Once they’ve finished what they came for the gang simply leaves and the young woman, battered, bruised and broken picks up a discarded Coke bottle and smashes it to slash her wrists.

Meanwhile, big game hunter Tetsuya (Tetsuya Watari) has returned from Alaska to find his hometown much changed. The violated woman, Satoko (Mari Yoshioka), is Tetsuya’s younger sister though the identity of her attackers is not yet known. Ironically enough, Tetsuya himself encounters the gang by chance while they’re in the business of running another girl, Kyoko (Meiko Fujimoto), off the road. He turns back, confronts them, and rescues the woman but continues to encounter the gang until Kyoko is eventually captured, as is he when his valiant rescue attempt fails.

The gang at the centre of Savage Wolf Pack is genuinely nasty. There’s nothing noble or aspirational in their drop out, delinquent lifestyle. They make their living by fencing stolen booze to a local nightclub and threatening violence to anyone who gets in their way. The entire town is frightened of them, even the old man who owns the garage where Tetsuya lives urges him not to get mixed up in their business as they have the surrounding area under complete control.

As later becomes apparent the gang’s casual attack on Satoko is not an isolated incident, but a symptom of their way of life. Just as Tetsuya hunts down big game in the frozen expanses of Alaska, the gang stalk, chase, run down and devour their prey for nothing more than the thrill of subjugating another human being. The attack is as brutal as it is mundane, once done it hardly matters to them.

Tetsuya starts out as the unshakeable hunter, a solitary figure unwilling to get involved with a local girl who might take him away from the beautiful simplicity of his life as sniper in the shadows. Kyoko apparently falls for him straightaway thanks to his knight in shining armour act though ironically enough it’s she who’s been struggling to assert her own independence after running away from her wealthy politician father’s home in protest at an arranged marriage. Tetsuya proves a poor protector, allowing her to be captured through his own indifference and then failing to save her from the gang’s bestial appetite for cruelty. Though Hasebe hangs back from excessive depictions of sexual violence and its fetishisation as seen in other films of the era, Kyoko’s sudden desire to give herself to Tetsuya mere hours after being kidnapped, humiliated, and gang raped seems unlikely and an odd resolution to their already bizarre romance.

What starts out not so far from Gangster V.I.P eventually runs into horror territory as Tetsuya takes his all-powerful gun to the beatnik drop out biker gang preying on all the women in his life. The final battle is bloody and visceral in the extreme as bits of brain stain the walls and intestines tumble from open stomachs. Tetsuya hunts the gang with bear traps and picks them off from afar with his sniper rifle, reducing them to the rampant beasts they really are.

Yet the world itself is a dark one. One theory behind Satoko’s death is that she was perhaps attacked by GIs from the nearby base and it’s no coincidence that she slashes her wrists with a broken Coke bottle or that a Coca Cola billboard is later used for target practice. Another of the gang’s would be victims is the wife of a high-ranking GI who is not currently around leaving her to enjoy the company of various men while he is away – something the biker gang choose to exploit. The biker gang is, perhaps, a symptom of the ongoing corruption of traditional culture by imported Western values as they indulge their delinquent, drug fuelled, individualist lifestyle to its horrifying, destructive limit.

Tetsuya is later forced to surrender to the Americans and presumably submit himself to whatever punishment is appropriate for clearing up town. Kyoko seems to have rediscovered an ability of self-assertion as she vows to stand up to the father she’s repeatedly blamed for her current situation rather than running away, inspired by Tetsuya’s heroic defiance against the offensive hubris of the biker gang. Unlike the majority of Nikkatsu Action movies, Tetsuya does not emerge as a hero but merely as a survivor, caged and robbed of his own autonomy even if ultimately victorious in ridding his nostalgic childhood home of corrosive, drug addled crazed youth.


Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (女囚さそり 701号怨み節, Yasuharu Hasebe, 1973)

The saga seemed complete with the end of Beast Stable but inevitably Matsu returns in the bonus instalment, Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (女囚さそり 701号怨み節, Joshu Sasori – 701 Go Urami Bushi). Original director of the series Shunya Ito agreed that the ballad of Matsu was sung through, and so Yasuharu Hasebe reteams with star Meiko Kaji after their previous collaborations on Retaliation and the Stray Cat Rock series during their time at Nikkatsu. Hasebe’s style is the polar opposite of Ito’s arthouse inspired painterly majesty and heavily favours the groovy, ‘70s youth inspired aesthetic he employed in the Stray Cat Rock series. Coming as it does after Ito’s genre rocking visual tour-de-force, Grudge Song can’t help feeling a little regressive and a reminder of what a considered cash grab this fourth instalment really is but that isn’t to deny the fact that it can prove an enjoyable, genre skewing, effort when considered in isolation.

The end of Beast Song told us that Female Prisoner Scorpion served her sentence, was released and disappeared into the ether like the legendary creature she was. However, Grudge Song provides another episode to her history and begins with Matsu (Meiko Kaji) being re-arrested by police during someone else’s wedding (you have to feel sorry for the happy couple – could the police not have done this outside at least?). She fights them off in grand fashion and manages to escape though is gravely injured and not able to run very far. Luckily she is found by a damaged former protester working at a cabaret club who helps her hide out from the police. Soon the pair enter into a kind of romance but it’s not long before Matsu has some names to add to that ever increasing grudge list.

Along with the change of director comes a slight refocusing. Both the original trilogy and this fourth instalment have definite political undercurrents but Grudge Song allows these to be more overt with its constant references to the student protests of the late ‘60s and ’70s as well as to police corruption and brutality. Matsu’s ally and sometime lover, Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), had been a prominent protester picked up and repeatedly tortured by police leaving him with both physical and mental scarring. Obviously distrustful of authority but also made fearful, Kudo has been keeping his head down until he finds a kindred spirit in Matsu and decides to fight back.

The enemy here is the police – as it was to a degree in some of the other films, but Matsu’s concerns are playing second fiddle to her male saviour’s psychological traumas. This is the first film where Matsu has any kind of male help, and she’s essentially in an assisting role as Kudo attempts to defend her from the police (her injuries meaning she can’t exert the same kind of preternatural power as in the other instalments). There may be a kind of spiritual connection between Matsu and Kudo but the fact that she trusts him so quickly is strange given her behaviour throughout the series, though perhaps she has little choice given her physical condition. This is also the first time where Matsu allows an innocent woman to be killed in front of her – ironically another victim of male violence whose life is lost through no fault of her own. The other Matsu would at least find this upsetting, but this new Matsu who’s now more of an accomplice to a borderline terrorist protest cell consisting of one male member, is entirely indifferent.

Though Hasebe mimics some of Ito’s cinematography notably in the opening and his iconography of “Scorpion”, he abandons his stylistic concerns in favour of something very much more directly contemporary. In keeping with his work on the very groovy, youth orientated Stray Cat Rock movies, Hasebe turns Female Prisoner Scorpion into a standard ‘70s exploitation pic complete with gratuitous lesbianism, nudity, and random violence. Zooms, whip pans, and anarchic camera action are accompanied by jazzy electric guitar and a stoner vibe that is designed to appeal to the youth of the day but appears hopelessly dated now unlike Ito’s approach which is still of its era but manages to take on a timeless quality. As an example of ‘70s exploration cinema, Grudge Song pays its dues but as a Female Prisoner Scorpion movie, it falls far short of its predecessors.

Grudge Song marked the last outing for Kaji as the titular Scorpion, though this Matsu is not the Matsu of the rest of the series. Hasebe doesn’t seem so attached to the cult of Scorpion and more or less reboots her for a fairly straightforward genre affair which lacks the subtle intelligence of Ito’s vision. Still, taken alone Grudge Song is not without its charms though it loses the feminist edge of the rest of the series and recasts its heroine as a bit player in a game of revenge against the authorities in the name of vengeance for the death of the student movement.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Massacre Gun / Retaliation (UK Anime Network Reviews)

Arrow double whammy up at UK Anime Network as I review both of Arrow’s recent Yasuharu Hasebe releases – Massacre Gun and Retaliation!

Massacre Gun
Tatsuya Fuji tests his gun out in Massacre Gun (and looks cool in the process)

Arrow have been turning up some hidden gems and neglected classics as they trawl through the world of the populist cinema from the Japanese golden age of the 1960s and 70s – they’ve already brought us the iconic Lady Snow Blood, the lesser known Blind Woman’s Curse, the anarchic Stray Cat Rock series and now, following on from their release of Seijun Suzuki’s famously crazy Branded to Kill they’ve turned their attention back to Nikkatsu Noir with Massacre Gun. The first of two releases from director Yasuhiro Hasebe who also directed three films in the Stray Cat Rock series (Retaliation will follow next month), Massacre Gun has everything any genre fan could wish for – depressed hit men, warring gangs, jazz bars, boxing clubs, stylish monochrome photography and the melancholic ennui that permeates all the best noir movies. Perhaps not quite as impressive as the greatest hits of Nikkatsu Noir such as the afore mentioned Branded to Kill or Nikkatsu’s other offerings like A Colt is My Passport, Massacre Gun is nevertheless another impressive entry in the studio’s short lived action output.

As the film begins, thoroughly dejected Kuroda has just been asked to carry out a hit on a woman who is in love with him – feelings which he may have have reciprocated but, but like any good lackey, Kuroda chose his boss over his heart and sent the love sick girl into a lake with a bullet in her chest. When Kuroda’s two younger brothers find out they do not approve and hot headed youngest brother Saburo who trains at a yakuza run gym hoping to become a a pro-boxer, decides to have a word with Kuroda’s boss, Akazawa. As might be expected things don’t go Saburo’s way and he’s brutally beaten to the extent his hands are all but crushed leaving him unlikely to box again. At this point, Kuroda wants out of the game – but for a yakuza hit man there is no out. His only option is to take down Akazawa’s empire and build one of his own.

Like most of Nikkatsu’s late ‘60s action output which would later retroactively become known as Nikkatsu Noir, Massacre Gun is heavily indebted to the American B-movie and particularly to the film noir. Its settings are those of “low culture”, Western bars and cafes where people drink expensive whiskey and wear sharp suits and sunglasses. In fact, the Kuroda brothers’ side business involves running a jazz bar with a half Japanese-half African American jazz singer playing piano in the corner and a pair of Western dancers doing some sort of scantily clad, artistic ballroom dancing routine in the middle. Most importantly it’s full of the classic Film Noir feeling of spiritual emptiness and existential ennui with the very depressed contract killer Kuroda at its centre.

A very male affair (perhaps the key missing element from a Film Noir is a femme fatale), the bulk of the film is the opposition between Kuroda on the one side and his former boss on the other. Other than the closeness with his two younger brothers and to a lesser extent the other workers at the club, Kuroda’s other most notable relationship is with his old friend Shirasaka who coincidentally married another woman Kuroda may have had feelings for. Though the two have enjoyed a close friendship up until now, Kuroda’s decision to leave Akazawa’s employ has meant Shirasaka has had to make a choice and he’s chosen Akazawa. The two are are now mortal enemies on opposing sides of a war – a fact which causes them both pain but which, nevertheless, cannot be otherwise.

Hasebe is best known for his striking use of colour which makes Massacre Gun a notable entry in his filmography as it’s the only one he made in black and white. Other than the perverse habit of sticking colours into the names of his leading characters and locations (the “Kuro” in Kuroda means “black”, the “Shira” in Shirasaka means “white” and the “Aka” in “Akazawa” means red making this one very complicated game of checkers), Hasebe still manages to make an oddly “colourful” film even in monochrome. Taking a cue from Suzuki, Hasebe has come up with a fair few arty and unusual compositions of his own though not quite to Suzuki’s absurd extremities and neatly retained the classic Nikkatsu Noir aesthetic in his superbly crisp black and white colour palate.

Coming as a late addition to the genre, Massacre Gun also takes a fairly unusual approach to violence with a far more explicit representation than would be expected from this period. Simply put – lots of people die in this film, many of them in quite exciting ways. Blood is everywhere and there are so many bullets fired you start to wonder if some one in the yakuza equivalent of the administration department isn’t having some kind of heart attack behind the scenes. Massacre Gun might not be the best entry in the Nikkatsu Noir series, but it is perhaps one of the most typical. Edgy and arty, exquisitely framed and perfectly photographed it brings out the effortless cool that came to symbolise Nikkatsu’s late ‘60s output. Aside from all that – it’s just fun as most of these films are. Another welcome release from Arrow who continue to root out these lesser known genre movies, Massacre Gun is a must see for fans of classic ‘60s action movies.


Retaliation
Jo Shishido smokes a cigarette in Retaliation (and looks cool in the process)

Arrow are back with another neglected classic of Japanese action cinema produced by Nikkatsu – Retaliation, a slightly later film from Yasuharu Hasebe director of Massacre Gun and three out of five of the Stray Cat Rock series. Unlike Massacre Gun (but like every other film Hasebe ever made), Retaliation is shot in colour and features Hasebe’s trademark use of it. Retaliation is very typical of its genre in someways and very not in others. It stands on something of a borderline seemingly symptomatic of Nikkatsu’s eventual slide into a producer of soft core pornography as their Roman Porno line of sex and violence based movies took over as their main production style. Not as strong as some of the other entries from around this time, Retaliation nevertheless marks itself out as an interesting addition to the genre.

Not one of the most exciting plots in yakuza movie history, Retaliation’s main mcguffin centres around trying to persuade some farming families to sell their ancestral land to developers who want to build a factory there. Having just been released from prison after taking the fall for gang murder, Jiro is offered the chance to head up his own group, however his patch is between two rivals and his best bet is to play the two off against each other as they both vie for this disputed farmland. One group is super old school and the other is the more modern type of thug who’ll do pretty much anything to get what they want – including abducting one of the farmer’s daughters and molesting her in the back of a car as a way to threaten her father. Jiro is given his own mini team to help out on his mission including an out of work actor and card shark, and another top yakuza guy who just happens to be the brother of the man he went to prison for killing and who has already vowed to killed Jiro in revenge. Jiro sometimes dreams of going straight and leading a different kind of life but gang loyalty still means something to him and those outside of the life aren’t always so understanding. Retaliation is the only way to stay alive in this new, empty yakuza world.

Retaliation starred three of Nikkatsu’s famed “Diamond Line” stars – Akira Kobayashi is the film’s lead leaving Jo Shishido playing second fiddle (his star had fallen a little at Nikkatsu and they didn’t see him as an actor who could carry a colour film as the leading man), and Hideki Nitani coming in third. Tatsuya Fuji and Meiko Kaji round out the almost famous section of the cast and each would soon find fame (or notoriety) in the new landscape of ‘70s Japanese cinema. There’s undoubtedly an air of everybody just doing what they do – it is after all what they’ve been employed for but at the same time no one’s really pushing themselves to do anything very notable. That said, you do have five of the biggest (or soon to be biggest) names of the time in one movie which gives it a feeling of a prestige project. However, in another move that anticipates the direction in which Nikkatsu was headed, the sex and violence quotient has been significantly upped.

Nikkatsu action films could already be shockingly violent for the time period, but Retaliation unfortunately adds a layer of sexualised violence against women which is undoubtedly being offered up as something for the viewer to enjoy. The early scene in which Meiko Kaji’s farmgirl is molested by a gang of thugs before being dumped at her parents’ house is unsettling on one level, but is shot with such a voyeuristic camera style that it’s difficult to not feel complicit in this fairly horrific act. There’s even another such sequence later in the film when one yakuza is forced to give up a girl he’s with so all his yakuza mates can have a go first which is again shot with a lingering camera often cutting back to the salivating gangsters. Of their time in one sense, these sadly salacious scenes of sexual violence against women filmed with an encouraging eye give the film an unwelcome sleazy quality from which it is hard to bounce back.

The other notable theme of the film is that it positions itself between the glamorous, modern samurai, gangster movies of the past and the grittier tales of modern thugs that were about to become the mainstream narrative. Jiro has been away for a long time, the yakuza world has moved on and his old clan would have died out if weren’t for another gang’s generosity. Jiro is the last of the honourable men who place loyalty above personal gain and seek to protect women and the put upon rather than exploiting them. Unfortunately, modern yakuza think differently and it’s no small irony that it’s a group of farmers they’re falling over themselves to ruin given that farmers are the very people old school yakuza, as the receivers of samurai values, would be expected to protect. Jiro and some of his cohorts still believe in these “old fashioned” ideas and are thought brave and noble. The other gangs who rape and torture women whilst forcing farmers off the land they’ve worked for centuries are not.

Again, it’s a fairly manly affair with women becoming little more than props to be used and abused throughout the film but the relationship between the two central guys Jiro and Hino takes on an oddly homoerotic context even ending with Shishido’s character getting rid of his girlfriend because he apparently falls in love too easily before telling Jiro that this is the first time it’s been with a guy. Considering their relationship began with Hino determined to kill Jiro, to end it with a quasi declaration of love (even half in jest) is a pretty steep character arc but one of the better things about the film.

Retaliation isn’t a perfect film, and it might not have the most exciting basis for its plot machinations but it certainly has its moments. Entertaining enough, the film is marred by its unpleasant treatment of women and takes a few dramatic missteps towards the end. The action is good however, as are the performances and production values. Perhaps not an essential Nikkatsu action movie but nevertheless a very interesting one from several different perspectives, Retaliation deserves a view from the genre’s committed fans.


Both available now in the UK on DVD & blu-ray from Arrow Films!

Stray Cat Rock Collection (Uk-anime.net Review)

Stray Cat Rock Wild Measures '71 castReview of the new high definition Stray Cat Rock box set up at uk-anime.net


The late ‘60s/early ‘70s was a fascinating time in terms of Japanese popular culture and cinema was certainly no exception. With studios becoming desperately worried by the rising popularity of television and a troubled political situation, they knew they’d have to find someway to bring back that all important youth audience. Ultimately, they resorted to the time old solutions of sex and violence to try and lure the increasingly disinterested viewers back to the cinemas. In the end, Nikkatsu would end up becoming a purveyor of soft core pornography as its Roman Porno line all but dominated its production. The films from this era represent a kind of bridge between the youth orientated “Sun Tribe” films of the ‘50s and the full on exploitation films of the ‘70s. There’s no denying that in many ways they are very much of their time, which is generally a good thing, but the Stray Cat Rock films are an essential snap shot of a moment of counter culture shift.

This new blu-ray box set from Arrow films includes all five films in the Stray Cat Rock Series: Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal and Beat ’71. Perhaps “series” is a misleading way to describe the films as they’re really more of a “cycle”. There is no plot through line, each film stands independently with its own distinct story which appears to have no obvious connection with any of the other films in the series save sharing a certain sensibility (though even this shifts slightly as the films go on). The same actors reappear in several of the films, notably Meiko Kaji who is most closely associated with the franchise and Tatsuya Fuji who appears in every film, but even the actors who appear frequently are playing different (though often oddly similar) characters. What links the films together is their focus on what some might see as ‘low’ youth culture – bars, clubs, motorcycle gangs, drugs, drink and sex! What’s being sold, essentially, is a subversion of femininity – strong women who do not require the assistance of men but even take on male roles themselves such as forming or running violent street gangs.

The first film the series, Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss was intended as a vehicle for leading lady Akiko Wada and as a rival to Toei’s Delinquent Boss series. However, it was Meiko Kaji who became the breakout star of the film and a number of sequels featuring her were quickly put into production. The first film tells a fairly typical story of gangland warfare, albeit that it’s girl gangs, but the second, Wild Jumbo, takes a detour by telling a somewhat tragic tale of a group of students who plan to rob a mysterious cult – with tragic consequences! The third in the cycle, Sex Hunter, is the best known, perhaps because of its more complicated plot and engagement with racial politics. Apeing a western, a mixed race young man comes to town looking for his long lost sister and wanders straight into the gang war between Kaji’s female gang the “Alleycats” and the male “Eagles” lead by Fuji who has a prejudice against people of mixed race as his younger sister was gang raped by a mixed race gang. After this instalment the heavy sex and violence themes begin to fizzle out slightly and the fourth film, Machine Animal, is the most political of the Stray Cat Rock films as it follows a group of guys trying to dodge the draft for the Vietnam war planning to fund their onward journey to Sweden by selling LSD. The fifth and final film, Beat ’71 takes this even further and replaces the ‘gang’ motif entirely with a story set around a hippy commune.

Always fairly liberal in tone (even if the characters meet a ‘bad’ end, the series feels more aspirational than morally critical), the Stray Cat Rock films present a world of hedonistic, counter cultural youth. They’re full of the popular music of the time with long ‘live’ music sessions set inside the clubs, sometimes even prominently featuring popular bands and the theme song for Machine Animal “Gamble on Tomorrow” is even sung by Kaji herself. The earlier films are also filled with psychedelic imagery and interesting directorial touches like unusual split screens, blue screen cut outs, brightly coloured title cards, dissolves and freeze frames. However, Machine Animal marks quite a big change from the three previous films as the gang themes start to take more of a back seat to the politics and by Beat ’71, the tone of which is much more whimsical, they are pretty much absent. Films one, three, and four were directed by Yasuharu Hasebe while two and five where direct by Toshiya Fujita (Lady Snowblood) and there are some pretty clear directorial differences with Hasebe’s films being slightly more avant-garde and adventurous in terms of shooting style while Fujita’s are a little more classical. However, there might be something in the statement made by Hasebe in the interview included on this disc that by the end the pop culture tone had shifted from violence to beauty – the more salacious content, and in particular the sexualised violence, reaches its peak in Sex Hunter and decreases as the films go on.

All five films were made extremely quickly and released between 1970 and 1971 – that’s five films made and released in under two years! Though the creative team may have envisioned them as low budget, fairly disposable cash grabs designed to give a much needed boost to a declining industry, the Stray Cat Rock films have gone on to have cult appeal which still has its devotees all these years later. Hugely enjoyable in their own right, the films are an interesting window into a relatively small period time which nevertheless saw fairly massive changes taking place. Though they anticipate the trend of salacious exploitation that was to come, they stop short of some its excesses but were also to prove hugely influential in the history of ‘70s Japanese cinema.