Review: Unchained Melody – The Films Of Meiko Kaji

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Arrow Video’s quest for world domination continues with the first in a planned series of books covering the sort of cult movies that they have built their reputation on releasing. this first volume, rather appropriately, covers Japanese cult icon Meiko Kaji, star of  popular Arrow releases like Lady Snowblood, Blind Woman’s Curse and the Female Prisoner Scorpion and Stray Cat Rock series, and is neatly sized to fit on your shelves alongside your blu-ray collection.

Arrow have certainly published substantial books before, as part of blu-ray packages – the hardcover book included in the Battles Without Honour and Humanity series (which Kaji appeared in) is only ten pages or so less than this new book – but moving into stand-alone books is certainly a gamble. But Kaji – while not exactly a household name in the West – seems a sensible subject to start with, given the increasing cult popularity of her films, many of which are available in expensive box sets that sell out quickly.

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Author Tom Mes has written extensively on Japanese cinema, including books for FAB Press, and certainly knows his stuff. He sensibly devotes the bulk of the book to Kaji’s best-loved films – the extraordinary and brilliant Female Prisoner Scorpion series, the hit and miss Stray Cat Rock films and the two Lady Snowblood movies. His discussion of these films occasionally threatens to take a turn for the academic, but on the whole, he maintains a readable, if somewhat dry style as he discusses the films, their style and their production. He also talks at length about her other work, and more generally about the state of Japanese cinema in the early 1970s, when a new style of action-exploitation film began to emerge, with Kaji as its near-silent, intense, vengeful figurehead.

Mes also discusses Kaji’s withdrawal from exploitation cinema, and her move into smaller (and, frankly, less interesting) roles in more ‘respectable’ crime films and eventually television, which is where her career has been almost entirely based since the 1980s. At points, he decries the film industry for seemingly rejecting her, but as he also makes clear, it was her choice to forego the sort of mega stardom that was hers for the taking. Kaji wasn’t the first actor to move from movies to TV soap operas, and won’t be the last – but it seems unfair to blame anyone but her for that move. She chose to reject commercial cinema for smaller, more serious roles, and we can hardly blame the system for that. In any case, while her disappearance into Japanese TV was a loss for cult movie fans, it clearly gave her a long and presumably lucrative career.

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As the title suggests, this is about the films of Meiko Kaji, rather than her life – while there is coverage of her TV work and her music career (there are thirteen Meiko Kaji albums, all of which sound essential), there is little biographical detail beyond the basics. However, I can hardly complain that the book isn’t the thing it doesn’t claim to be.  More frustrating is that while the introduction teases an interview with her from 2006, it fails to materialise other than as research for the main text. A pity – that would’ve been a fascinating read, no doubt.

But that disappointment – and a touch of repetition in the text that perhaps could have done with editing – aside, this is an impressive study of a legendary performer, one who manages to lift even the most mediocre film by her mere presence. Slickly produced (it’s clean and unfussy, with a great selection of images), this book is definitely required reading for anyone who has admired Kaji’s work and wants to know more about it.

DAVID FLINT

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