Stray Cat Rock Blu-ray Review

Meiko Kaji shines in this wave of early Japanese exploitation films

Stray Cat Rock: The Collection is a loose grouping of five Japanese exploitation films from 1970 and 1971. Produced by the Japanese film company Nikkatsu Studios, they are held together by the luminous Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood, Blind Woman’s Curse). This series would mark her as the preeminent star of Japanese exploitation cinema for a generation. Featuring a delirious mix of girl gangs, bikers and mob bosses on top of the usual sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the counterculture, the five films put their distinctive stamp on Japanese cinema – a thrilling set of films that are far better than they have any right being.

All the titles in the Stray Cat Rock series have catchy names. In Delinquent Girl Boss, a girl gang goes up against a criminal ring known as the Seiyu Group, after a fixed boxing match goes wrong. In Wild Jumbo, Meiko Kaji and the gang get involved in a kidnapping and the robbery of a religious organization. Sex Hunter has Kaji’s girl gang go up against the Eagles, a nasty group that violently attacks ‘half-breeds’. Machine Animal has two gangs pursuing some LSD pushers looking to move a big score. Stray Cat Rock’s swansong is Beat’71. It sees Meiko Kaji’s character framed and sent to prison by her boyfriend’s father.

The thing about the Stray Cat Rock series is that none of the films are tied together by the same characters. It’s more about their ethos and the unforgettable Meiko Kaji running through each entry like she owns them. Yasuharu Hasebe directs three of the entries, while Toshiya Fujita handles two others. The direction has splashes of storytelling genius in these films. Meiko Kaji doesn’t play the same character in any of them. Sex Hunter is probably the most well-known movie of this bunch to Western audiences. Meiko Kaji cuts a stylish figure in her wide-brimmed, black hat in Sex Hunter as she leads a girl gang in it. It has an unforgettable scene where she allows her gang to stone her after dishonoring it, among others.

By the standards of Western exploitation, Stray Cat Rock is a more sophisticated and less crass attempt at entertainment.

Other distinctive elements bind these films together. The Jazz-infused Rock soundtrack is heavily influenced by popular Western music of the era. Whenever the action slows down or there is a natural stopping point in the plot, the setting shifts to a night club where the young women hang out. Japanese Rock and Pop bands play in these scenes. Nikkatsu were often iconoclasts with their movies and often avoided traditional Japanese influences. Sex and violence play a role in the Stray Cat Rock films but they never seem gratuitous. The surprisingly intricate narratives have fully developed characters becoming swept up in forces beyond their control. By the standards of Western exploitation, Stray Cat Rock is a more sophisticated and less crass attempt at entertainment.

Five films is a lot to digest for a neophyte to Japanese cinema but Stray Cat Rock is well worth it. The light exploitation elements, the shining charisma of Meiko Kaji, the taut scripts with gut-wrenching developments – this is all a fun, cool series of movies.

Movie ★★★★☆

Stray Cat Rock Collection Blu-ray screen shot 11

Arrow Video ports their British Blu-ray set to America. The only difference is that Stray Cat Rock is now coded for Regions A and B, while the 3 DVDs have been included as NTSC this time in 480P. Arrow Video included this information in the booklet about these transfers:

The Stray Cat Rock Series was transferred from the original preservation film elements by Nikkatsu Studios in Japan. All five films were delivered as restored files on master tapes and supplied to Arrow Video. The films are presented in their original widescreen aspect ratios.

Arrow has spread the five films over two BD-50s. None of them are overly long, all running between 80 and 85 minutes in length. Encoded in AVC, there are no apparent compression problems with the slight exception of Delinquent Girl Boss. The encoding drops awfully low on occasion during Delinquent Girl Boss, introducing some minor chroma noise and hints of banding. The encoding does handle grain reproduction without a hitch for all five films.

The film elements for each movie are in satisfactory condition with nice contrast and decent clarity. The original camera negatives are certainly not used for these transfers. Cue marks and other tell-tale signs indicate lower-quality elements. The transfers have fairly organic presentations with film-like grain. They haven’t been processed with heavy filtering or sharpening. Color reproduction is uniformly strong with nice flesh-tone balance.

Overall definition is very respectable for vintage Japanese cinema. Close-ups contain a fair amount of high-frequency detail, though the video remains on the soft side. The widescreen presentations remain true to the spirit of these films, including a few masking sequences retained from the original theatrical showings.

Arrow Video had to live with Nikkatsu’s work on these transfers. Thankfully, Nikkatsu did a good job with all of them. Getting Sex Hunter and the others in true HD transfers from decent-looking elements is a vast improvement. This is a capable set that really can’t be picked apart by videophiles. For classic exploitation fare they positively shine in 1080P resolution with proper, respectful presentations.

Video ★★★★☆

The original mono audio for each film is delivered in fine 1.0 PCM soundtracks. The Stray Cat Rock series has a lot of musical performances as a frequent stopping point between the heavier action and drama. Arrow makes apologies for the occasional sync problems but I didn’t find it troubling at all. The recording quality is average, pretty typical for a low-budget exploitation film of the era. Dialogue could possibly be a little higher in the mix but it’s not worth really mentioning. The Japanese audio includes all-new English translations.

The optional English subtitles display in a white font. They remain inside the widescreen presentation at all times.

Audio ★★★☆☆

Americans have been waiting for the Stray Cat Rock series to hit our shores since Arrow first released it in the UK. This new limited edition set has 3000 units available. It includes a gorgeous 28-page booklet filled with photographs and artwork, including an excellent essay from Jasper Sharp. Sharp has done pieces for Arrow before on their other Nikkatsu releases and the man delivers a fluid summary of the Stray Cat Rock series. One of five collector’s postcards are included, featuring an upcoming Arrow BD release.

Everything from the UK set has been brought over intact. A featurette on Meiko Kaji would have been welcome but the three interviews are interesting.

One thing should be known about the packaging. The discs are stacked in two flimsy plastic hubs when folded completely out. It’s not a dealbreaker but Arrow should switch to a sturdier design for future releases. It will not stand up to the rigors of a bubble mailer.

Wild Jumbo Trailer (02:42 in HD)

Sex Hunter Trailer (03:16 in HD)

Machine Animal Trailer (02:48 in HD)

Beat ’71 Trailer (02:37 in HD)

Yasuharu Hasebe Interview (28:37 in HD) – Director of Delinquent Girl Boss, Sex Hunter and Machine Animal shares his thoughts.

Tatsuya Fuji Interview (30:05 in HD) – Star of all five films fondly recalls his memories of Stray Cat Rock.

Yoshio Harada Interview (33:06 in HD)

Extras ★★★☆☆

 

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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.