Sunday, April 4, 2010

Meiko Kaji

Meiko Kaji in Straycat Rock: Sex Hunter

Meiko Kaji, like Tura Satana, managed to use the sexploitation movie genre to portray strong, powerful, and dangerous female characters. Unlike her American predecessor, however, Kaji conquered her adversaries not with cleavage and karate kicks, but rather with bad-ass hats, knife skills, and a steely-eyed stare.

Born Masako Ota in 1947, Kaji might actually be better known as a singer in the Japanese Enka style, a kind of postwar pop ballad known for its embrace of traditional musical influence and socially conscious themes. Kaji began working in the film industry in the mid-60s, playing smale roles and using her real name. In 1970 she first used the name Meiko Kaji, starring in director Yasuharu Hasebe’s Alleycat Rock series. In these films about girl gangs, Kaji first began to establish characters that defied the stereotype of the docile Japanese woman, and kicking more than a few men's asses along the way. Here’s a clip from Straycat Rock: Sex Hunter.

In 1971, after doing the Alleycat Rock series, Kaji began working with exploitation director Shunya Ito, appearing in several of his women in prison films. The wildest of these would have to be Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41. Scorpion has all the trappings of the genre: violence, lesbian sex scenes, brutality at the hands of male prison guards and wardens, etc. But it goes way beyond the usual limitations, adding unique twists like ghost mysticism and surreal sequences, which all probably have to do with the fact that the film’s an adaptation of a style of Japanese comic known as manga. Ito's films exposed Meiko Kaji to a wide audience, and earned her movie status in Japan.

A still from Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41

Sexploitation & Japanese comics? How's that for dorky? Anyway, Meiko Kaji is still around, alive and well and still making records and appearing in films and television. As might be expected, some of her songs were recycled by Quentin Tarantino in his film Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

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