The first part of the Nora-neko rokku ("Alley Cat Rock") series was originally Nikkatsu Studios' answer to the rivaling Toei Studios' Delinquent Boss series, but spawned four sequels thanks to its popularity. I haven't seen any of the entries in the Toei series, so I don't know how the Nora-nekos do in comparison, but in their own right all five of them are very entertaining bad girl movies.
Onna banchô, the first movie in the series, takes place in Shinjuku, Tokyo where rivaling youth gangs are constantly trying to one-up each other in toughness. An all-girl gang led by Mei (Meiko Kaji) gets involved in dangerous circles when Mei's boyfriend Michio (Kôji Wada), wants to join a powerful yakuza organization called Seiyu but inadvertently loses the gangsters' money in a fixed boxing match. Of course, Mei's gang is not going to leave him to the gangsters, especially when helped by an enigmatic and independent female biker called Ako (Akiko Wada).
The film is known for its visual look that captures the spirit of the era pretty neatly. Many scenes take place in a psychedelic rock club with colourful lights and bands performing psych-rock, soft schlagers and folky guitar ditties. The non-diegetic score is totally groovy too, as are Akiko Wada's song scenes, be they related to the plot or not the movie was the film debut of the deep-voiced singer of Korean heritage, so I guess some singing was to be expected. The downside of the ultra-cool atmosphere is that at many points the screen looks way too dark, making it difficult to see what exactly is happening (or perhaps it was just my old television set). What I appreciated about Yasuharu Hasebe's direction is that he keeps camera trickery (weird angles, quick zooms, filters) under control, only using special techniques moderately and not in an overly distracting manner.
The plot itself takes place within less than two days and involves many fights, chase scenes and tough talking, staying quite entertaining for the shortish runtime. The street fighting may not look as tight as actual martial arts flicks, but does its part alright. Some of the torture scenes look a bit nasty, especially the blow torch part, but overall the mood stays pretty light compared to some real exploitation sleazies. One of the best scenes is definitely the big chase between Ako's motorcycle and the roofless "Fellow Buggy" of the yakuza underboss Katsuya (Tatsuya Fuji) that is not stopped by narrow tunnels, shopping malls or even staircases, either descending or ascending.
Looking behind the first-hand crime plot, there is a strong feminist undercurrent in the film and the portrayal of the girl gang members' friendship is one of the most important themes. I would not call the movie the strongest of character dramas out there, but at least the charismatic Akiko Wada carries her scenes at ease (too bad she doesn't appear in the sequels). I also liked the self-confident performance of Tatsuya Fuji who is probably best known for playing the lead part in Nagisa Ôshima's controversial sexual drama In the Realm of the Senses a few years later.
I am far from well-versed in Japanese youth gang movies, but I think Stray Cat Rock is certainly entertaining enough to be recommended to anyone who is interested in the genre. The sequels are worth seeing too if you like the first one, but Delinquent Girl Boss (or whatever its correct English title is) may be the best starting place to the series after all, even though the movies are not really connected in terms of plot. A fun flick, in any case.
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