Unchained Melody: The Films of Meiko Kaji

“Never curry favour, never be down, never give up.”  – Meiko Kaji

Meiko Kaji is one of the greatest female icons and action stars of cinema. The personification of fierce independence and defiance, and holder of those staring eyes which, as described by Kazuo Koike, are “powerful, glamorous and dark.” While most know her from her leading roles in Lady Snowblood, and the Stray Cat Rock collection, Kaji actually started acting in the sixties under her birth name Masako Ota before reaching the dizzy heights of super stardom in the seventies and ratcheting a cool 92 film credits to her name (and counting) and some 13 albums. Yes, the lady does more than act.

It is this illustrious career that is the basis for Tom Mes’ celebratory Unchained Melody: The Films of Meiko Kaji released by Arrow Books today and in Kaji’s 70th year no less. Although, the discography is mentioned – she often recorded the the song for some of films and released 13 albums – it is the filmography and the directors she worked with (condensed into nifty profiles) that is the star of the show. Spread over nine chapters, nestled in between the most vivid and beautiful photographs, film stills and posters. All within a perfectly sized little paperback which is striking courtesy of Nat Marsh’s fabulous cover illustration.

Mes, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Midnight Eye.com and author of books on Miike and Tsukamoto is more than qualified to explore this particular subject area. His writing style is informative and easily accessible and he provides generous insights into the film industry, what it meant to be an actress at that time, especially one who had gained the reputation of being “difficult” and her relation to and impact on Japanese culture. She was and, according to the books’s prologue in which author and subject meet, still is an amazing woman. One who almost singlehandedly undermined the male gaze of the sexploitation film and who owned her working autonomy implicitly; a true iconoclast and inspiration.

While each chapter details Kaji’s film career, understandably some films are discussed in greater detail as she was rarely on an even keel film-wise. She found herself sidelined in the sixties and, after studio collapses, either retreated into television for a spell or took on smaller supporting roles which were, according to Mes, more challenging but came at the cost of stardom, a concept Kaji cared little for.

The release of Kill Bill (2003) would bring renewed interest in the star and certainly Arrow Films on their Video label have contributed to many a fan’s collection with their restorations of some of Keji’s oeuvre including: RetaliationBlind Woman’s Curse, Lady Snowblood 1 & 2  and their beautiful box sets of Stray Cat Rock: The Collection, Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection, and Battles Without Honour and Humanity. This book would the perfect addition for said collection or if you don’t know where to begin, get this book and go from there – there’s a full discography, bibliography and filmography arranged in chronological order at the back of the book to get you started.

There’s a lot to love for the anti-authoritarian persona, an idol of Japanese cinema who displayed passion, conviction and a refusal to conform, not unlike the characters she chose to play. Whether you’re a fan or a would-be enthusiast, Mes’ respectful and comprehensive love letter is a must-read.

Hel Harding-Jones

Updated: Sep 11, 2017

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