The appeal of Nikkatsu’s “Roman Porno” format for the filmmakers who made them is the same as the appeal they have for the cult/exploitation film fans who watch them: this format was very flexible and could accommodate a seemingly endless array of styles and genres. There were Roman Porno comedies, thrillers, horror films, dramas, satires, you name it – as long as the storyline could accommodate Nikkatsu’s one sex-scene-per-reel requirements, the filmmakers could do whatever they wanted otherwise in the film.
She-Cat came from later in Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno cycle, arriving to theaters in 1983. The Roman Porno films had grown darker and more extreme in general by that time but the format could still be pushed in different directions if the filmmakers were adventurous enough. She-Cat is a memorable example of such experimentation, mixing thriller, action and even broad comedy beats into the expected sexploitation stew.
The heroine of the film is Dr. Cat Kagami (Ai Saotome): she runs a woman’s clinic and is trying to forget a sad past that involves a failed romance and nearly being murdered. However, her past is revived when a mysterious woman requests to meet up with her at a bar during a party – and some mysterious thugs shoot up the bar. Kagami soon discovers the mystery woman has evidence in a murder that could ruin the lives of some well-connected businessmen, including one she has personal ties to. When the thugs come gunning for her, she decides to give as good as she gets – but more unexpected shocks await her.
That plot synopsis might sound straightforward but She-Cat doesn’t hesitate to throw its viewers any number of curveballs: it has no problem shift between sexploitation, a vintage style of romantic melodrama, thriller/action beats (including a classic yakuza-movie shootout at the end) and bizarre broad humor. The latter element is likely to make even advanced cult movie viewers do a double take: the eccentric highlight in this arena is a scene where a bunch of drag queens attend a funeral for one of their own while incessantly gossiping – it finds a tone somewhere between early Pedro Almodovar and John Waters.
The same abrupt tonal shifts can be found in how the sex is dealt with: some of these scenesare the fleshly, slightly raunchy style of sex you might expect from a Roman Porno outing, particularly some male/female and female/female couplings in a shower. Those moments are counterbalanced by a couple of traditional bed-set love scenes that are surprisingly gentle for a Roman Porno film. The wild card in this deck is a brutal double-rape scene that happens in the clinic: it goes on for a long time, is particularly vicious and doesn’t try to spare the audience any of the ugly details.
It would be hard for any film to juggle this many shifts of tone but She-Cat does better than you might expect. Actor-turned-director Shingo Yamashiro gives a stylistic shape to the film’s crazy quilt of genres and tones by giving it a glossy, almost rock-video style of cinematography and using a synth-heavy rock music score. He also gets his lead actors to play it straight, with Saotome offering a surprisingly serious lead performance that gives the audience an anchor to hang onto during all the film’s wild shifts.
The end result veers off course a few times but manages to right itself no matter what: She-Cat the kind of film where if you don’t like one scene, you just wait a few minutes for one of a different kind to arrive. As a result, it doesn’t pack the concentrated punch of the best Nikkatsu sexploitation epics but the wild, colorful adventure it offers has its own kind of rewards.
DVD Notes: This title recently made its DVD debut in the U.S. via a disc from Impulse Pictures as part of their Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection. It boasts a nice anamorphic transfer that does well by the film’s glossy look and has crisp, easy-to-read English subtitles to accompany the Japanese soundtrack. The one extra on the disc is a trailer but there is also an insert booklet in the case with liner notes by Japanese film historian Jasper Sharp. The notes offer a lot of interesting information about Yamashiro and Saotome while explaining the film’s place in the context of Roman Porno history.