in medias res • ISSN: 1604-5104 • Årgang 1 • Nr. 2

Meiko Kaji: “Woman walking at the brink of life and death”

By Rikke Schubart

 

Introduction

Meiko Kaji

Cool Alleycat

Scorpion: Sting of Death

Lady Snowblood

The Star Persona of Meiko Kaji

 




Introduction

The Japanese WIP film Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 from 1972 opens with a monotonous, scratching sound. The camera tracks backwards, tilts, moves into a prison, glides down corridors and into the bottom of a hole where a woman is lying with her hands and feet tied. It rests in a close-up on her face. A face with a spoon held between soft, full lips. She patiently grinds the spoon on the uneven floor, turning its harmless shape into a knife. This is Matsu, the female prisoner nicknamed Scorpion. And this is Meiko Kaji, a hauntingly beautiful, enigmatic and seductive actress, who was a star in Japanese exploitation film during the seventies and is the inspiration for Uma Thurman’s female samurai assassin in Kill Bill Volume 1 and Kill Bill Volume 2.

 

Meiko Kaji

As I was going through stills from Kaji’s films at the research library in the National Film Center in Kyobashi, Tokyo, in the summer 2004 (as part of my research for a book on female heroes) it struck me how the studios always chose to focus on her big eyes, the long, straight black hair, and her body as a brooding figure. Often holding a weapon - a knife, piece of glass, a rifle, a samurai sword - and looking away from the action and directly into the camera and the eyes of the audience. She did not smile in any of the stills but remained a lonely existence immersed in darkness. She resembled a female version of Clint Eastwood’s character The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. This is not accidental as she personally requested the directors of the Scorpion series and the two Lady Snowblood films to remove most of the dialogue from her characters, just like Eastwood convinced Leone to remove the name and most of the dialogue from his character.

The articles about Meiko at the Japanese film library were in Japanese, so a lot of the information about her is compiled from American and French Internet sites and the information on the DVDs issued with English subtitles.[1] Meiko Kaji was born on March 24, 1947, as Masako Ota. Her film career started with minor roles in 1967 with the studio Nikkatsu under her real name. In 1970 she had her first starring role credited as Meiko Kaji in Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, the third in a series of five films about a contemporary girl gang of which Meiko played the leader in two entries (1970, 1971). When Nikkatsu turned their production into ‘Roman Porno’ (romantic soft-core porn films), Kaji switched to the studio Toei, where she starred in the women-in-prison series Female Convict Scorpion based on a manga from the sixties by Tooru Shinohara. The character Sasori (Scorpion) used an obscene language and Kaji requested a change into the almost mute character which would become her trademark. Nudity, too, was removed. The protagonist (when played by Kaji) had only one scene in which her breast is displayed; all other nude scenes were transferred from Sasori to fellow female convicts, thus enhancing the aloof nature of Meiko’s film persona. The silence was continued in the Lady Snowblood films produced by Toho Studios. Lady Snowblood was based on a manga, Shurayukihime, by Kazuo Koike who also wrote the immensely popular manga Kozure Ôkami [2] (Lone Wolf and Cub, also called Baby Chart).

 

Cool Alleycat

Two features of Kaji’s star persona are present in the character Mako in Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970): a cool and arrogant behavior and stubborn pride.

The plot of the film evolves around national identity and genetic purity. Two gangs operate in the city: The all-female gang The Alleycats led by Mako (Kaji) and the all-male gang The Eagles led by the Baron (Tatsuya Fuji). At first the two gangs socialize: Mako is the Baron’s girlfriend and the Baron’s second in command, Susumu, is in love with Alleycat Mari. However, things change when Mari falls in love with half-breed Ichiro, and Mako falls in love with half-breed Kazuma (Rikiya Yasuoka) who is searching for a lost sister, who was adopted when he was a child.

A “half-breed” is a person of mixed Japanese and foreign descent; the status of “half-breed” signals both genetic impurity and possibility for change, in contrast to the purity of Japanese blood and traditional Japanese culture, which is portrayed as impotent. “Baron - why don’t you ever fuck me?” Mako asks the Baron, “aren’t you up to it?” When he tries, it turns out he is impotent. He compensates by beating up half-breeds. Kazuma refuses to leave town and when The Alleycats help him, the Baron cons them to a rape party. The Baron has made a deal with the mafia and while he is in bed by Mako, he tells her the gang is “right now being gangbanged at the party.” Mako returns with Molotov cocktails and frees her gang and the end is a showdown between The Eagles and half-breed Kazuma with Mako at his side.

The film’s mood is cool, tragic, and romantic, yet also stylish. The genre template is the western - a stranger comes to a town, two gangs, the showdown at dawn - and visually the film opens with a close-up on Mako’s black hat, zooms out to The Alleycats, and closes with a zoom in on Mako, who puts on her black, broad-brimmed hat in existential pragmatism: To love is to suffer and die.

 

Scorpion: Sting of Death

Like any American WIP film the Female Prisoner Scorpion WIP series combines a plot of rebellion with scenes of sexual violence.[3] But unlike any American WIP film I have seen, it does so in a surrealist style and with an enigmatic heroine.

Matsu (Kaji) was betrayed by her police-lover, who used her to infiltrate the mafia, then dumped her and became corrupt. He enters the room when the gangsters rape Matsu, laughs and disappears as the back wall turns like a turning theatre stage. In the first film, Female Prisoner # 701: Scorpion (1972), Matsu escapes after three years of prison and returns to the city to kill her lover and his corrupt associates. In the start of the second film, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972), Matsu has been isolated for a year. Her first act out of isolation is an attempt to cut out the prison director’s right eye with her spoon-turned-knife (his left eye was lost in the first film). He punishes Matsu by tying her in a Christ-like position to a huge branch and having his men gang rape her in public, masked and dancing around her in a circle.

The attempt to break Scorpion is in vain. She is a mute symbol of male betrayal and social injustice, and her mission does not stop with the death of her lover. Her goal is the system of which he is a representative. Scorpion is raped and beaten, however, it has no effect, and even when she is tied in her cell can she make a female guard scold herself, and she can cause an epileptic seizure in another female guard who laughs, when Scorpion is punished. Her powers are nearly mystic.

Scorpion’s face is framed by a long black hair which is lustrous and well kept in contrast to the prisoners, whose hair is rumpled, unkempt, and lusterless. The hair hangs down each side of her face covering face and eyes like curtains. Or like a lens, which opens and closes to allow light in the camera. Such a comparison makes Matsu’s face an “eye” looking back at the men and back at the male audience. In feminist film theory the gaze belongs to men - and that the Scorpion series had a male audience is quite clear from the opening of the first film, where the women parade naked in the jail yard in punishment for Matsu’s attempt to escape. However, Matsu returns this male gaze with her black eyes wide open like an abyss, where every insult and maltreatment is absorbed. In the iconic close-up of eyes in spaghetti westerns, the eyes are always narrow lines, which hardly allow light to enter. In the extreme close-ups of Matsu, her eyes are wide open showing the white around the iris: a terrifying abyss.

In the cinema the wide open eyes belong to the victim in the horror film. Carol Clover in her book Men Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992) draws attention to the fact that modern horror cinema has two gazes: assaultive and reactive gazing. The first - the assaultive gaze - is in line with the traditional Mulveyan gaze, the male gaze which can be either voyeuristic (sadistic, controlling and punitive) or fetishistic (turning woman into an icon). This is the prison guards leering at the naked women, the prison director triumphantly looking down at Matsu tied in the hole in isolation, the police-lover watching as Matsu is raped by the gangsters. The second gaze - the reactive gaze - is one of the “blind spots,” says Clover, of Mulvey’s theory. This is the frightened gaze, the eye wide open in terror. Clover quotes Christian Metz who also distinguishes between two gazes, a projective (“casting” itself over things) and an introjective (where things are illuminated by the gaze and “deposited” within the spectator, the things being “projected” onto his or hers retina, so to speak).[4] This last gaze, the introjective gaze, is where we look at things and retain them in our mind, where they may come back to haunt us. Clover compares her reactive gaze to the introjective gaze - the gaze of the victim looking at horrible things, a gaze mirrored by a frightened audience (who also keep the images in their minds). Some WIP films represent the reactive gaze in scenes where frightened female prisoners are tortured. Often, however, the female protagonists in WIP films refuse to be intimidated into the position of the victim and reactive gazing.

“Why do you stare at us like that?” a new prison director asks in Jailhouse 41. He has come to succeed the former director, and as Matsu suddenly strikes out with her knife, the new director collapses in chock and wets his pants. Not only does Matsu refuse to take the position as victim and use the reactive gaze (being scared), she even exposes the male gaze as a fraud. This gaze pretends to be phallic and in control, when, in fact, it is not a gaze, but just a look. Clover compares the relation between gaze and look to that of the relation between phallus and penis: The first (gaze and phallus) is the fantasy of mastery; the second (look and penis) is the biological “tool” and weapon of mastery. And this latter weapon is vulnerable and soft, as the many castrations and mutilated eyes in exploitation, rape-revenge cinema and WIP films tell us. Where fantasy can triumph, flesh may fall.

The scene where Matsu is raped in Jailhouse 41 is interesting: The guards cover their eyes with masks, thus hiding their eyes. As they rape Matsu, tied crucifixion style, she lifts her head and stares wildly at the guards. The camera shows no nudity, but focuses on her face and eyes. Her eyes are wide open, not in terror as in the reactive gaze, but in trying to terrorize the men with her gaze and show them that she is not subdued, will not surrender. She uses her eyes as an assaultive gaze, a projective gaze “casting” itself on the attackers and seeking out and focusing on (like a lens pulling an object into focus) the prison director standing at the brink of the sand grave. Returning the male gaze turns Matsu into a monster. Or a witch who can “cast eyes.” “I hate you for destroying my eye. Other things don’t matter. I’ll make you go mad,” the prison director tells Matsu.

The witch symbolism is manifest in the film’s surrealist visual style, as when a female prisoner attacks Matsu in the shower in the first film: The traditional shower scene - giggling, nudity, masturbating - is a surrealist nightmare where the attacker’s face is painted as a demon, thunder strikes, the shower transforms into a hellish maze of glass, water, and screaming women. Matsu remains calm, and the attacker by mistake stabs the director in his right eye. An example from the second film is when seven escaped prisoners meet an old woman in an abandoned village. The woman is a ghost or a witch, who releases their inner demons. Behind flames they sit in a row wearing white kimonos, the old woman sits behind them bathed in purple light, and a male voice narrates their crimes: One killed her two children because her husband was unfaithful, drowning her two-year old son and stabbing the unborn fetus to death in her uterus. Another killed her lover, because he maltreated her son from a former marriage. A third killed her father, who tried to rape her. And so on. When the witch dies, a sudden autumn turns the sky purple and colors change from dark blue to bright red, purple and yellow. The imagery is strikingly beautiful with tilted and upside-down images, radiant colors, and magical transformations, turning an exploitation film into a cry of existential anguish. The text on the back of the DVD describes Jailhouse 41 as “as subversive as Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance, John Boorman’s Point Blank and Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend.” In fact, the film is far more subversive. It unites strategies of art and exploitation cinema not to create “high art” but “high exploitation.” A utopian mission Tarantino would pick up decades later.

The first two films in the series are hailed as the best of WIP cinema. In a way they are too experimental, well crafted and lacking in sexual sadism to represent the WIP genre. There is sadism, as when the prisoners beat Scorpion because they believe she sold them out. But it isn’t gruesome. And there is sexual violence, as in the gang rape of the female guard who helps Matsu in the third film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973). But it isn’t graphic. Nudity and torture is scarce. In fact, most of the violence is done to men, as male guards are beaten in the first film, a guard is castrated in the second film, a film operator tortured in the third film, and a policeman has his arm cut off in the fourth film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: # 701’s Grudge Song (1973). Also, we find an explicit political critique, which is unusual for WIP films - a critique of all men and all masculinity being destructive by nature. No wonder the female prisoners hate men! Their crimes relate to betrayal and disappointment, anger and jealousy, and the impossibility of female dignity in a patriarchal society.

The series was a commercial success, but when budgets diminished and new director Yasuharu Hasebe failed to keep the standard in the fourth entry, Meiko left for another project developed with her in mind by Toho Studios: Lady Snowblood.

 

Lady Snowblood

The woman called Lady Snowblood, or Yuki, child of the netherworlds, is born out of her mother’s desire to take vengeance on the people who murdered her husband, took her son, and raped her for three days. When she is convicted for the murder of one of the culprits, she has intercourse with the prison guards to ensure an offspring who can exact vengeance. “You have a destiny that needs to be realized. Forget joy, forget sorrow, forget love, and forget hate. Except for vengeance, these must be forgotten,” Yuki’s adoptive father Dôkai teaches her. “You are a beast, a devil, not even Buddha can save you now.”

Yuki or Shurayuki-hime (Meiko Kaji) as the child is called, is a tragic figure. “Shu re” means “netherworlds,” “yuki” is “snow,” and “hime” means “lady.” The “tragedy,” as a male voice-over calls the story, is divided into four chapters entitled “Vengeance binds love and hate,” “Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworlds,” “Umbrella of blood, heart of strewn flowers” and “The house of joy, the final hell.” We recognize this narrative device from Kill Bill. This is where the frozen images with information about characters comes from, like the assassins caught by the camera, their names written in blood: Tsukamoto Gishiro, Banzô Takemura, Tokuichi Masakage, Okono Kitahama. From my experience with East Asian cinema the film’s use of chapter titles, frozen images, and manga (inserts of cartoons) are strikingly modern and has a Brechtian effect of Verfremdung which draws attention to the height of the drama, the depth of the tragedy, the high-strung sentiments, the exceptional beauty of the woman, and the superhuman fatality of her destiny. In short, we are in a world of Shakespearian proportions.

The plot is narrated by jumping back and forth in time, opening with Yuki’s birth in 1874 in prison and then going forward twenty years to when she as a young woman dressed in kimono slices five men to death with a samurai sword. The last victim gasps: “Woman, wh.. wh.. who the hell are you?” “Lady Snowblood.” This is the beginning of Yuki’s revenge and as she proceeds with the three murderers left alive (her mother killed the first), the background is filled in with flash-backs to her mother’s death in prison, the terrible crime and Yuki’s training as a child by the adoptive father, former liege vassal Dôkai. Yuki secures the help of a beggar king, Sir Matsuemon, whose army of beggars track down Yuki’s targets. The first man, Banzô (Noboru Nakaya), has become a pathetic drunk and a gambler, living off his daughter who works as a prostitute. Yuki saves Banzô’s life in a casino to confront him with old debt: “You and I have some business to take care of” (echoed later in the Bride’s words to each of her targets: “You and I have unfinished business”). The man begs for his life, however, the answer is: “An eye for an eye.” Second in line is Okono Kitahama, the malicious woman restraining Yuki’s mother while the men murder her husband. Okono owns a restaurant where Yuki fights her bandits (the inspiration for the sword battle in O-Ren Ishii’s restaurant). Okono hangs herself, but to be sure she is dead, Yuki slices the body in half. Blood spurts everywhere in red geysers blasting out of the molested body. At this point a curtain falls (a real fabric curtain). The final murderer and mastermind behind the crime is Tokuichi Masakage (Takeo Chii), a smuggler and political opportunist who houses a party for the Japanese elite and the foreigners. In the ball room Yuki jumps from one balcony to another, kills Tokuichi and flees fatally wounded by gunshots. Outside in the falling snow Banzô’s daughter stabs Yuki, who falls to the ground, her white kimono stained by blood. When the sun rises it caresses Yuki, who opens her eyes, the music rises optimistically and the screen goes red with blood spurting from the sides to frame Yuki’s face.

The character Yuki is connected to a savage nature of uncontrollable forces surrounding a fragile civilization. She exercises with her sword in the woods, wanders on top of the black, tall rocks beaten by the blue ocean below, elegantly battles without stumbling in her traditional women’s sandals of wood. The second film, Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), opens with Yuki visiting her mother’s grave in the cemetery. When she leaves, a group of policemen attempts to arrest her. Moving slowly, never interrupting her feminine walk with short steps constrained by the tight kimono and the clicking sandals, and never beating an eyelash, Yuki handles her sword so swiftly that we hardly notice it. Like Matsu, she is invincible, and she can only be captured when she surrenders out of existential Weltschmertz. Wounds heal magically as Yuki survives being shot in both films, being cut and stabbed by swords, having her foot crushed in an animal trap, and being touched by the plague. Magical powers seem to protect Yuki.

Witches are known by all cultures: “The witch sets out to unsettle boundaries between the rational and irrational, symbolic and imaginary. Her evil powers are seen as part of her ‘feminine’ nature; she is closer to nature than man and can control forces in nature such as tempests, hurricanes and storms.” [5] Christianity links witches to the devil and female nature to evil. A medieval manual for inquisitors, The Malleus Maleficarum (1484), describes women thus: “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colors!” [6] Other cultures, however, associate witches with nature and magical powers of healing, positive aspects explored in contemporary popular culture with television series like Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003) and Charmed (1998-), films like Practical Magic (1998) and cartoons like W.I.T.C.H. Yuki is not called a witch, but she is - like Matsu - magically embedded in a savage nature.

Yuki is a relative of the maternal rape-avenger, but unlike the avenging mother this is a daughter avenging a mother’s rape and death. In the manga, Yuki is repeatedly gang raped, abused and beaten, and her naked body is a central visual point of attraction in the manga. However, in the two films Yuki is a pure virgin in a white kimono, unblemished except for the blood spurting from the people she kills. To compensate for the missing rape of Yuki, the films show the men raping her mother. The rape weighs heavier than the husband’s death, which is just shown once. What drives vengeance is, in fact, not maternal anger but desire for revenge. Compared to Kaji’s former characters, Mako and Matsu, and to American rape-avengers in films like I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981), Yuki has an exceptional status: She is attacked by men, but never raped. Her body remains intact, unopened, and sacred, like a child’s body.

 

The Star Persona of Meiko Kaji

We find the star persona of Meiko Kaji somewhere between the extraordinary powers of a castrating gaze and the existential malaise of a female killer. Kaji’s characters are haunted, if not by the past, then by a sense of not belonging, of being out of place and out of time. In this, they resemble the traditional male hero. They are exceptionally beautiful, yet out of reach emotionally. Their weapon skills are at the expense of inner balance. They move faster than any opponent but loose track of life. Why live, if not to kill, as a police chief points out? Watching the anarchist in the second Lady Snowblood film, Yuki senses the man’s love for his wife, for poetry, and for the poor. But like the anarchist’s brother, a disillusioned doctor who dies from the plague, she is incapable of reaching into her soul.

The actress Kaji appears as enigmatic as her characters. During the seventies she became a huge star appearing in television series, historical film dramas as well as chanbara films (swordplay films), experimental films and exploitation films. In 1978, however, she vanished from the film arena returning only occasionally in a handful of minor films and television series over the next decades (her last television series was in 2003). Sites on the Internet wonder why she withdrew - studios offered roles, but Kaji turned them down and quit her role as Sasori in the Scorpion series, which continued in two films in 1976 and 1977 with actress Ryôko Ema. Also, the Lady Snowblood films could have become a series. Instead, Kaji joined the silence of her characters. Leaving the fame of the film star she chose to become a singer.

 

Notes

[1] My information on Meiko Kaji is ascertained by several sources and résumés of films are based on my viewing. Information on the Internet vary in quality; one review of Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 thus describes Kaji’s role in the Stray Cat Rock series as “the leader of a vicious gang of female bikers.” However, the girls are not “vicious” (no random violence) and not bikers but on foot in the city ( http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/femaconv.shtml ). Also “Urami-bushi”, performed by Kaji, is on www.imdb presented as the title song of the third Scorpion film, while it is the title song of the first film and reappears in slightly different versions in each sequel (http://www.imdb.com/). Some sites claim Meiko starred in all five Stray Cat Rock films, others credit her with only the third and fourth film in the series. From my research carried out in 2004 at the National Film Center in Kyobashi, Tokyo, the latter seems true. English, German and French websites only list her under the third and fourth Stray Cat Rock film.

[2] Kazuo Koike, Kozure Ôkami, manga published from 1970 to 1976 in 28 volumes of 300 pages, in all 7000 pages. See www.mangamaniacs.org/reviews/lonewolf.shtml for a review of the original and the English translation. The manga was turned into a series of six films, a television series and records. An American film, Lone Wolf and Cub by director Darren Aronofsky, is in production.

[3] See Rikke Schubart, “Hold It! Use It! Abuse It! Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and Male Castration” in Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (eds), Femme Fatalities: Representations of Strong Women in the Media (Nordicom, 2004), 185-203.

[4] Carol Clover, Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (London: BFI, 1992), 207.

[5] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993), 76.

[6] Creed, Monstrous-Feminine, 75.

 

Meiko Kaji filmography (selective)

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (Nora-neko rokku: Sekkusu hanta), 1970, Yasuharu Hasebe

Stray Cat Rock: Wild Measures ’71 (Nora-neko rokku: Bôsô shudan ’71), 1971, Toshiya Fujita

Female Prisoner (# 701: Scorpion), 1972, Shunya Ito

Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 (Joshuu sasori: Dai-41 zakkyo-bô), 1972, Shunya Ito

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (Joshuu sasori: Kemono-beya), 1973, Shunya Ito

Female Prisoner Scorpion: # 701’s Grudge Song (Joshuu sasori: 701-gô urami-bushi), 1973, Yasuharu Hasebe

Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld (Shurayukihime), 1973, Toshiya Fujita

Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (Shura-yuki-hime: Urami Renga), 1974, Toshiya Fujita