As the superhero movie has become the dominant face of both genre and blockbuster cinema, the definition of what a “strong female character” has changed alongside it. Now, strength is tied into some kind of superpower – think Captain Marvel arriving to save The Avengers once their enemies become too strong and otherworldly for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to handle – with the politics of that strength shifting in turn. These superheroes are so often establishment figures, fighting to maintain the status quo, or for the institutions of the powerful.
On the other end of this spectrum are the characters that define the career of Japanese actress Meiko Kaji: the eponymous Lady Snowblood, Matsu in the Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion series, and a selection of ever-changing girl gang leaders across the Stray Cat Rock franchise. These characters are more subversive than the contemporary versions of this archetype that came in the wake of Kaji’s roles. What makes the characters so compelling is the way in which they define strength: less about power, and more about ideas of solidarity, often with an explicitly political edge. Kaji’s characters never compromise in order to exist on the same terms as maleness, but instead expand the idea of what strength can look like.
The ways in which Kaji’s characters challenge the relationship between power and gender are at their most clear in her various appearances across the Stray Cat Rock series. Each film focuses on a girl gang, and Kaji plays their leader. In the first of the series, Delinquent Girl Boss (1970), her gang are placed in direct opposition with an all-male gang – the tension that exists along gendered lines is vital to the tension of the film. What’s striking is that throughout this film Mei (Kaji) and her gang never needs to compromise in order to combat to the Seiyu Group – who Mei sees as being cruel and violent, aligned with right-wing politics – a stark difference to the more contemporary female protagonists who so often are made to define themselves and their strength using the language of maleness; more recently in the fraught Black Widow plot-line in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Across the Stray Cat Rock series, the intersection between power and gender is explicitly politics, with Kaji’s ever-changing character often fighting against an oppressive political force; most explicitly in Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970).
Within the third film in the franchise, Kaji’s latest character, Mako, faces off against a gang that are violently racist; bringing their jeeps and weapons into town with dark purpose of invoking militaristic fascism. As this gang extend their reach, it feels like a declaration of war. The villainous Baron (Tatsuya Fuji) laments the lack of “decent women” and tries to get Mako and her gang to “act docile” at what he calls a “gentleman’s party” but is in actuality him selling off the girls to be used or assaulted. As the film moves towards its climax, and Mako and her gang challenge both the racist Eagles and Baron, she insists “I’m fighting back, our way” a line that captures the thing that makes Kaji’s characters at once so enduring and subversive: that their strength is deeply political, a challenge to the traditional structures of power, rather than co-signing it.
The violence of the systems that Kaji’s characters rebel against is best embodied in her title role as Matsu in the Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion series. Like Stray Cat Rock, Scorpion is a franchise that dives into the weeds of a classic exploitation sub-genre – where the former is focused on girl gangs, the latter is all about women in prison.
From the very beginning Kaji’s Matsu is established as an anti-establishment figure; not only does the film open with a scene of prison officers getting a commendation, but the film’s opening credits show how violent those officers are.hey humiliate and degrade the women that they’re watching over, making them walk naked along a staircase while the guards stand beneath staring up at them. Like Delinquent Girl Boss, Scorpion associates a very specific kind of cold, abusive power with maleness and the institutions that prop it up. What’s striking about Scorpion here is the other women in prison – those in orange jumpsuits – side with the guards for a taste of that power, with one even forcing Matsu onto her hands and knees, telling her to “eat like a dog”.
What makes Matsu’s acts of rebellion here so defiant – and what continues to add a political edge to the power and fury of Kaji’s characters – is a continued refusal to fall in line with the world as it is. Not only does she fight against these institutions (the prison itself is practically in ruins by the end of the film) but she also fights against the death of emotion that it seems to represent. Even when Matsu is trying to escape she still turns back in order to save fellow prisoner Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe).
For Matsu, and Kaji’s various girl gang leaders in Stray Cat Rock, their strength comes from acts of liberation, finding power in the assertion of agency. It’s no wonder that fighting back “my way” in Sex Hunter is so impactful – it creates a pathway to strength in a way that doesn’t require doing so on the terms of those who would make these characters weaker.
In all of these films, the idea of strength is about more than just physical power, or superhuman abilities. Instead, it’s rooted in ideas of agency and solidarity – something that’s much more subversive, and loaded with political power. With Kaji’s title role in Lady Snowblood (1973) embarking on a quest for bloody vengeance to get justice against the prison guards that tormented her mother, the ice queen demeanour and darkly feminist edge of Kaji’s persona exists effortlessly in her characters from both the 19th and 20th century. To see contemporary cinema defining strength in such narrow ways only serves as a reminder for how subversive – and timeless – Kaji’s characters are.
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Published 25 Aug 2022
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