Stray Cat Rock: Beat ’71 (1971) Review‏

"Stray Cat Rock: Beat '71" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Stray Cat Rock: Beat '71" Japanese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Alleycat Rock: Crazy Riders ’71
Director: Toshiya Fujita
Writer: Tatsuya Asai, Hideichi Nagahara
Cast: Meiko Kaji, Takeo Chii, Tatsuya Fuji, Yoshio Harada, Takeo Chii, Yoshio Inaba, Bunjaku Han, Michiko Tsukasa
Running Time: 87 min.

By Kyle Warner

Director Toshiya Fujita returns to the Stray Cat Rock series for the fifth and final installment, Stray Cat Rock: Beat ’71 (aka Stray Cat Rock: Crazy Rider ’71). While I thought that the previous film signaled that the series was running out of steam, Fujita successfully livens things up and lets the series go out with a bang (literally and otherwise).

In Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo, Fujita broke away from the delinquent girl gang stuff that the series is generally known for, and he moves even further away from that sort of movie with Beat ’71. The final Stray Cat Rock film isn’t about cool, good-looking young people hanging out in clubs and getting into altercations with their rivals, instead it’s about homeless hippies and a society that doesn’t see a use for them.

Meiko Kaji plays Furiko, a hippie that lives with her friends in a broken down bus. She’s in love with Ryumei (Takeo Chii), a rich young man that’s given up his life of luxury for love. However, Ryumei’s dad doesn’t accept this, so he sends a biker gang to retrieve Ryumei and get him away from Furiko. Ryumei kills one of the bikers but he is abducted anyway – and what’s worse, Furiko is blamed for the biker’s murder. It’s not long before the hopelessly romantic Furiko breaks out of prison, skips town, and tracks down her lover. Her hippie friends hear about her escape and are originally against chasing after her, but when one of their own dies while masturbating with a jackhammer, they figure ‘what the hell?’ and begin a road trip to find their fugitive friend.

This is such a fun, weird movie. Easily one of my favorites of the series. Fujita’s style is very carefree and he encouraged improvisation from his actors. You can tell that the cast is having a good time. And though there are many laugh out loud moments to the film, Beat ’71 is not without its dramatic tension and political commentary.

When the hippies arrive in town looking for their friend, they’re met with general hostility by the townsfolk who just want them to leave. The hippies go to a grocery store and are told that they can’t buy anything. To which the hippies smile and say that they weren’t planning to pay anyway, they’re just taking what they want. By the end of the film, the bad guys and general townsfolk alike have all taken up arms and rallied against the hippies who refuse to leave their town.

Perhaps the most amusing part surrounding the hippie lifestyle comes early in the film when a magazine writer and photographer go to the hippie bus for interviews and photos. The hippies do their best to play the part that society expects from them, sniffing glue, playing with guns, and engaging in group sex for their guest’s entertainment. After they’ve been paid, the hippies drop the act and return to their usual activities.

Beat ’71 brings back many familiar Stray Cat Rock faces for the finale film. Takeo Chii, previously seen in Wild Jumbo, convincing plays Ryumei as a man lost between two worlds. Chii’s Wild Jumbo co-star Soichiro Maeno has a small part as a bad guy. Eiji Go once again plays the leader of an evil biker gang. Rikiya Yasuoka, the ‘cross-breed’ hero of Sex Hunter, makes a cameo appearance as a biker. And Bunjaku Han, who only missed out on one of the Stray Cat Rock films, also appears in a small role.

If there’s one major thing to hold against Beat ’71, it’s that it almost completely wastes series star Meiko Kaji. In the original film, Delinquent Girl Boss, Kaji was not the lead but she was definitely the most interesting performer of the cast. In Beat ’71 she’s relegated to a supporting part despite her star billing. Once her character Furiko busts out of jail and goes in search of Ryumei, she’s only seen sporadically until the finale. In her absence, the hippies take over the film, particularly the leaders of the troupe played by series regular Tatsuya Fuji and newcomer Yoshio Harada. Fuji and Harada are good enough to hold the film together while Kaji isn’t around, but the series star is missed.

Yoshio Harada’s one of my favorite actors and it was cool to see him in this, one of his earliest film roles. In his youth Harada was known for playing antiheroes and was one of Japanese cinema’s best tough guy leading men in the 70s and 80s. Later in his career, Harada became more of a character actor and would impress in both dramatic and comedic roles in films like Rokuro Mochizuki’s Onibi: The Fire Within, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, and Katsuhito Ishii’s Party 7. If Harada had been around about ten to fifteen years earlier his name might be mentioned in the same breath as Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, and Shintaro Katsu. Alas, he was a generation behind those cinema giants and entered film during the 70s, just as the studio system started to die, with the Japanese film industry never fully recovering. In Harada’s own words, “I got on the last carriage of the last train.” Still, Harada gave us many great films, and his presence is very welcome in the Stray Cat Rock series. In his role as the hippie leader Piranha, Harada showcases a bit of everything he’d come to be known for, including great comedic timing and a cool tough guy swagger.

Stray Cat Rock: Beat ’71 was more than just the end of a series. Nikkatsu, the studio behind Stray Cat Rock and many of Japan’s most popular action movies, would soon shift towards producing pink films in order to stay afloat. Many actors that Nikkatsu had long been grooming quickly jumped ship, including Meiko Kaji. Beat ’71 and other films made by the studio around the same time mark the end of an era.

I’ve really enjoyed my time with the Stray Cat Rock series and I’m kind of sad that I’ve now reached the end. I’m trying to think of another series that’s like this one and I just can’t at the moment. It’s a strange series of films. They use many of the same actors from film to film, but never playing the same characters. Sometimes a Stray Cat Rock film is a gritty crime drama, other times it’s a youth comedy. One film deals with the subject of racism, another film has a dude dying from sexual excitement while using a jackhammer. And though the films are often funny and wildly different, they all invariably end in shocking, downbeat fashion. The Stray Cat Rock series is part Nikkatsu action movie, part Easy Rider, part counterculture comedy, and 100% 1970s.

Beat ’71 may not be the most polished of the bunch but it is one of the funniest. In general, Yasuharu Hasebe’s entries are the more dramatic and thought-provoking, but I think I’ll return to Fujita’s films more often. Wild Jumbo and Beat ’71 are cool, fun, and wild. I’m giving this film – and this series – a strong recommendation to fans of Japanese cinema.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7.5/10

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