Unchained Melody: The Films of Meiko Kaji by Tom Mes traces Meiko Kaji's career from its earliest beginnings as a teen model and tomboyish basketball fanatic to her critically-lauded and versatile performances onscreen (available September 12, 2017).
In her most notable film roles, Japanese actress Meiko Kaji’s (1947- ) characters are self-ruled women who are fiercely independent and who don’t take any shit from anybody, including those who would seem to be in positions of superiority over them. They don’t cave in to the expected societal norms. What this new book on Kaji by Japanese film scholar Tom Mes reveals is, Kaji herself is much like those characters. She may not have been the leader of any urban bad girl gangs, and she may not have sliced enemies up with knives and swords on vengeance sprees as she has on film. But Kaji has stood up to movie directors when she felt they had it coming, and she has turned down seemingly lucrative roles if they didn’t live up to her sense of personal and artistic integrity. She’s not somebody to be fooled with, no more than the women she’s portrayed on screen have been.
Placing the greatest emphasis on her most well-known vehicles—namely the Stray Cat Rock, Female Prison Scorpion, and Lady Snowblood series—Mes guides us through a chronological visit across Kaji’s acting career to date. In addition to covering her more iconic roles between the late 1960s and mid-1970s, he shows us how she got started in her movie career in the early ‘60s, then reveals what she’s done in more recent decades, including her television appearances. For good measure, in the last chapter of the book, Mes offers a rundown of Kaji’s considerable career as a singer. As the subtitle suggests, Unchained Melody does not venture into discussions of Kaji’s personal affairs.
The short book is primarily about Kaji, but it can also be seen as a mini-history of Japanese cinema from the decades under question, particularly the 1960s and ‘70s. Mes, who has written widely about the country’s film history, paints a vivid picture not just of Kaji’s work in acting but of a whole broad spectrum of the goings-on at famed studios such as Nikkatsu and Toei. We learn about different movements within the industry and how they were impacted by what was going on in Japanese society as well as other parts of the world. We are informed about how the film companies operated and what it was like to be a director or actor working for them through these times. There are even side chapters that are brief career overviews of some of the directors with whom Kaji has worked.
In all, Mes’s book is a brisk, illuminating, and entertaining read. If there’s fault to be found with Unchained Melody, it would come in two parts: (1) There is too much rundown of the plots of some of the movies mentioned. A quick overview of the main storylines and Kaji’s roles within them would have sufficed to give readers a sense of the films. (2) Sometimes Mes goes too far away from the immediate subject of Kaji in discussing Japanese cinema in general. Of course, all of this information is contextual, and it could be said that all of it bears relation to Kaji and her work in films. But in a book that’s about one artistic performer, the writer shouldn’t stray away from the main subject for as long as Mes does here at times. The aforementioned director spotlights, while certainly of interest to Japanese cinema enthusiasts, feel out of place in a book whose title states that it’s specifically about Meiko Kaji.
Those quibbles notwithstanding, Mes’s book is a rewarding read that will be of interest to those familiar with Kaji’s artistic performances who want an inside look at her work in the movies and behind the microphone. And it can function nicely as an introduction to anyone who is aware of Kaji and interested in her but who doesn’t yet know her work. The many pictures of Kaji in her film roles and other settings, as well as the filmography and discography in the back of the book, are nice bonuses. And in the end, Unchained Melody does what it should do: gives the reader a yearning to watch Meiko Kaji act and listen to her sing.
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Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.