New York, NY – Known for her fashionable modern style, long black tresses and piercing gaze, the inimitable Meiko Kaji rose to the top of the Japanese film industry in the late 1960s and '70s, working with some of the era's most talented filmmakers to create several now-classic genre film archetypes along the way—from hard-boiled girl gang bosses to kimono-clad, sword-wielding assassins.
Japan Society celebrates the iconic star, who turns 70 in March, with an action-packed prelude to Valentine's Day, full of female rebellion, ice-cold vengeance and tough love. Guest curated by writer and producer Marc Walkow, Cruel Beauty: A Romantic Weekend with Meiko Kaji screens five films - , highlighting a selection of Kaji's most memorable roles.
In addition to the International Premiere of New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss's Head, the series includes early star-making appearances in Blind Woman's Curse and Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, as well as selections featuring her iconic characters in Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance and Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable.
In his program notes from the series, Walkow writes: "Japanese movie stars don't get much more iconic than actress Meiko Kaji. Born as Masako Ota in Tokyo on March 24, 1947, Kaji's history is sadly one of being continually misunderstood by the studios which employed her. Originally groomed as a matinee idol at Nikkatsu in the '60s, she instead found fame there as the leader of a hard-boiled girl gang, riding motorcycles and brawling tooth-and-nail with both men and women. She moved over to Toei in the early '70s, again miscast as a replacement for recently-retired period film star Junko Fuji, who had embodied a different kind of beauty and strength throughout the '60s. Before long, however, Kaji once again found her place as an outlaw character, this time as a nearly-silent, icily violent female prisoner who unwillingly becomes the leader of a rebellion against the patriarchy. Having found fame, Kaji once again defied industry expectations and passed up further star turns in favor of working with talented filmmakers in supporting roles, preferring to take her work as an actor more seriously, as well as devote much of her time to her own private life. She remains an inimitable presence in Japanese cinema, and an icon who continues to inspire filmmakers and audiences around the world."
Though all films are later episodes in popular series, they stand on their own and can be enjoyed without familiarity with preceding episodes. These films contain a considerable amount of violence, nudity and graphic depictions of sex typical of the genre, and are recommended for audiences ages 18 and over.
Admission: $13/$10 seniors & students/$9 Japan Society members. Special offers: All Access Pass (1 ticket for each film in the series, 5 tickets total) $50/$35/$30; Double Feature Pass (2 different films in the same transaction) $22/$16/$14. Tickets may be purchased online atwww.japansociety.org, in person at Japan Society, or by calling the box office at 212-715-1258.
SCREENING SCHEDULE AND FILM DESCRIPTIONS
Film descriptions written by Marc Walkow. All films are in Japanese with English subtitles. These films are unrated but recommended for persons 18 years of age and older.
New Battles Without Honor and Humanity: The Boss's Head (Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai Kumicho no Kubi)
1975, 94 min., Blu-ray, color, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku. With Bunta Sugawara, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Meiko Kaji.
Never before released outside Japan, Kinji Fukasaku's follow-up trilogy to his successful Battles Without Honor and Humanity series tells three unrelated stories about yakuza intrigue and betrayal, and this middle film co-stars Meiko Kaji as the dutiful wife of a heroin-addicted hitman (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who befriends, then betrays, series star Bunta Sugawara. An essential link within Fukasaku's cinematic world, The Boss's Head found him expanding his action vocabulary to include car stunts, as well as creating not one, but two meaty female roles (the other played byYuriko Hishimi). Composer Toshiaki Tsushima contributes another memorable score, and the ensemble casting is among the best of the entire series. A yet-to-be-discovered classic.
Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (Shurayukihime Urami Renka)
1974, 89 min., DCP, color, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Toshiya Fujita. With Meiko Kaji, Juzo Itami, Yoshio Harada.
Meiko Kaji took a break from her work on the Scorpion series at Toei to make a pair of bloody period swordplay films at Toho Studios, based on a manga by Kazuo Koike, the creator of Lone Wolf and Cub. The Lady Snowblood films, both of them directed by former Nikkatsu collaborator Toshiya Fujita, cast Kaji as the swordswoman Yuki, born in prison, and raised to seek vengeance on the group who raped her mother and murdered her father. Love Song of Vengeance, the sequel, sets Yuki on a different path, helping a left-wing dissident (Juzo Itami) who seeks to reform the government and expose a conspiracy between military and industrial forces which threaten the future of the nation. [A well-documented influence on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films, Walkow discusses the history of the Lady Snowblood films in-depth at Film Comment.]
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (Nora-neko Rokku Sekkusu Hanta)
1970, 85 min., Blu-ray, color, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe. With Meiko Kaji, Rikiya Yasuoka, Tatsuya Fuji.
Meiko Kaji headlined her first ongoing series with this group of five girl-gang biker films, made during Nikkatsu Studio's heyday of "New Action" films, which amped up the sex and violence while addressing contemporary social issues from a distinctly left-wing point of view. Sex Hunter is the third (and best) entry in the series, and stars Kaji as the leader of the Alleycats and girlfriend to the morose, possibly impotent Baron (Tatsuya Fuji), who leads a biker gang of his own in attacks on mixed-race kids around the US military base in Yokosuka. Co-starring burly, half-Italian actorRikiya Yasuoka (Tampopo) as tough outsider Azuma, his not-quite-consummated romance with Kaji burns up the screen as their increasingly violent brawls with Baron's gang, as well as the local yakuza, pile up the casualties on both sides.
Blind Woman's Curse (Kaidan Nobori Ryu)
1970, 85 min., Blu-ray, color, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Teruo Ishii. With Meiko Kaji, Hoki Tokuda, Makoto Sato.
Although she began her acting career at Nikkatsu under her real name, Masako Ota became Meiko Kaji on the advice of her mentor Masahiro Makino, and this phantasmagoric female swordplay saga—the best period film Kaji made at Nikkatsu—was her first starring role under her new, tougher name. The third and final entry in the Rising Dragon series of female gambler films that starred Hiroko Ogi, Blind Woman's Curse dispenses not only with the original character but also Ogi herself, instead casting Kaji as the benevolent, tattooed leader of a band of yakuza. Kaji and her gang become targets of supernatural vengeance after she blinds another swordswoman in a duel, and genre master Teruo Ishii adds his signature erotic-grotesque elements to the story, which may be the best female swordplay-cum-ghost cat horror film Japan ever produced!
"Meiko Kaji, the doyenne of 1970s exploitation pics, is at her glowering, slashing best in Teruo Ishii's 1970 actioner… The film displays Ishii's trademark brand of eroguro (eroticism and grotesquery), which made him one of the era's most distinctive filmmakers." – Mark Schilling, The Japan Times
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (Joshu Sasori Kemono Beya)
1973, 97 min., Blu-ray, color, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Shunya Ito. With Meiko Kaji, Mikio Narita, Reisen Lee.
Perhaps Meiko Kaji's most iconic role, Nami "Scorpion" Matsushima was created by Toru Shinohara for an adult manga, and has been the subject of many remakes, but Kaji will always remain the original and the best. The third film in the series, and last by original director Shunya Ito, Beast Stable is the most horror-tinged entry, and arguably the most violent. Nami, having escaped from prison in episode #2, befriends a lonely sex worker and incurs the wrath of a yakuza gang led by a former nemesis, the sadistic and power-mad Katsu—a grand guignol creation clad in black feathers who has sworn vengeance on Scorpion.
Marc Walkow has worked in the film and video industry for 25 years, and brought a variety of Japanese genre films, such as Nobuhiko Obayashi'sHouse, to the attention of foreign audiences. He writes about Japanese film, works as a translator and programmer, and produces Blu-ray special editions for Arrow Video and The Criterion Collection.
The Japan Society Film Program offers a diverse selection of Japanese films, from classics to contemporary independent productions. Its aim is to entertain, educate and support activities in the Society's arts and culture programs. Japan Society has actively introduced Japanese cinema to New York’s international audiences since the 1970s, presenting works by the era’s then-new giants such as Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, and Hiroshi Teshigahara upon their first release, and groundbreaking retrospectives on now canonical figures such as Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. The Film Program has featured retrospectives of great directors, thematic series and many U.S. premieres, and toured some series to other U.S. venues. While Japan Society’s repertory film programming gained new momentum and institutional support in the 70s as a full-fledged program, the first screening at Japan Society was actually in 1922, a four-reel film of then Crown Prince Hirohito’s 1921 visit to Europe. For more, visit www.japansociety.org/film.
Founded in 1907, Japan Society is a multidisciplinary hub for global leaders, artists, scholars, educators, and English and Japanese-speaking audiences. At the Society, more than 100 events each year feature sophisticated, topically relevant presentations of Japanese art and culture and open, critical dialogue on issues of vital importance to the U.S., Japan and East Asia. An American nonprofit, nonpolitical organization, the Society cultivates a constructive, resonant and dynamic relationship between the people of the U.S. and Japan.
Japan Society is located at 333 East 47th Street between First and Second avenues (accessible by the 4/5/6 and 7 subway at Grand Central or the E and M subway at Lexington Avenue). For more information, call 212-832-1155 or visit www.japansociety.org.
Special thanks to Arrow Video, a subsidiary label of Arrow Films. Japan Society's Film Programs are generously supported by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Endowment Fund. Additional season support is provided by The Globus Family, James Read Levy, Masu Hiroshi Masuyama, Nachiketa Das, Laurel Gonsalves, Dr. Tatsuji Namba, Mr. and Mrs. Omar H. Al-Farisi, David S. Howe, and Geoff Matters.