Most of the famous icons of Japanese action cinema of the 1970s are usually male stars but there are a few exceptions. The best known is easily Meiko Kaji, who enjoyed a double career as a popular singer and film actress whose most famous movies inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004). She built up a cult following with a quintet of girl gang features – the Stray Cat Rock franchise (1970-71) – and then moved on to greater success in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series (1972-73) and two genre classics, Lady Snowblood (1973) and Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974).
The only other Japanese actress from the same period to rival Kaji’s track record is probably Etsuko Shihomi, who first attracted attention in a supporting role in The Street Fighter (1974) opposite martial arts legend Shin’ichi Chiba aka Sonny Chiba. Shihomi followed this up with her breakthrough feature Sister Street Fighter (1974), which proved to be such a hit that she made four sequels to it while appearing in other action flicks with her mentor Chiba. But probably Shihomi’s wildest and least seen movie is Wakai Kizoku-tachi: 13-Kaidan no Maki (English title: 13 Steps of Maki: The Young Aristocrats, 1975), which should have spawned a series but also feels like a homage to Kaji’s Stray Cat Rock series.
The main difference between the Sister Street Fighter franchise and 13 Steps of Maki is the jarring but effective blending of three genres: martial arts action, pinku-eiga (softcore sexploitation) and prison drama. Compared to the series that made Shihomi famous, 13 Steps of Maki is faster paced, more violent and sadistic with wall-to-wall combat and fight sequences. There is also plenty of sexual titillation that stops short of explicit sex acts but still offers female nudity galore, all of it filtered through the male gaze of director Makoto Naito, who specialized in exploitation cinema. You should also know that the film is based on the popular 1975 manga The Young Aristocrats by graphic artists Ikki Kajiwara and Masaaki Sato and was adapted for the screen by Takeo Kaneko and director Naito.
What keeps it from degenerating into a by-the-books sleaze fest is the frenetic cinematography of Yoshikazu Yamazawa (Snake Woman’s Curse, The Golden Bat), Shunsuke Kikuchi’s groovy score which alternates between funk and cool jazz, stylish art direction by Hiroshi Kitagawa but most of all Shihomi’s commanding presence as Maki, a tough, fearless, gravity-defying heroine for the ages.
Before she became an actress, Shihomi was a gifted athlete and her skills were noticed by Sonny Chiba, who invited her to join his Japan Action Club (JAC), which he started in 1970 to raise the profile of martial arts in his country and to provide training for aspiring actors and stunt men. Obviously Shihomi was a quick learner and if you thought her action scenes in the Sister Street Fighter series were amazing, watch her chop, kick and smash her way through 13 Steps of Maki. Her 360 degree body flips off the ground and into the air are so impressive that they are often rendered in slow-motion just so you can appreciate her fluid movements. Shihomi is also highly skilled in the nunchaku, the dual section sticks also known as nunchunks, which she turns into deadly weapons.
Since 13 Steps of Maki is primarily an action film first, the plot is practically bare bones with little need for detailed exposition but here is the basic premise. Maki (Shihomi) is the head of a girl gang that looks out for each other but often encounter macho resistance from yakuza members who want to take their turf, not to mention rival girl gangs. When Momoe, a runaway stripper from a yakuza-owned nightclub runs away from an abusive situation, Maki offers her protection and a place to stay. In reaction to this, Yakuza chieftain Daimon (Hiroshi Nawa) commands his bodyguard Tetsuya (Tatsuya Nanjo) to teach Maki and her gang a lesson. Despite his reputation as an ex-boxer who killed three men in the ring, Tetsuya prefers to handle the Maki problem his own way and accepts her challenge to go one on one. Impressed with her fighting skills and integrity, he eventually becomes a powerful ally.
Still, there are other villains that want to rid the town of Maki and her pals and that includes the corrupt businessman Ebihara (Hiroshi Kondo) and his spoiled daughter Takako (Misa Ohara), who frame Maki for burglary and have her thrown into prison where a rival girl gang (acting under the orders of Takako) try to assassinate her. Meanwhile, Daimon has Maki’s gang rounded up, drugged and turned into sex slaves for international tourists. He also murders Ebihara with a car bomb and forces Takako to marry him despite her revulsion. It all builds to a spectacular climax that unfolds at Takako’s wedding with Maki escaping from prison and joining forces with an injured Tetsuya to slay Daimon and his army of yakuza thugs.
From the opening shot of the film, director Naito hooks the viewer with a disorienting and disturbing shot of two women, spread-eagled and bound to railroad ties, as members of an anti-Maki girl gang torment them. Maki arrives to save the day in an outfit that looks like it was borrowed from a hospital orderly and a modest super hero (cool t-shirt!). She sends the wicked girl punks running but then has to fend off a yakuza mob. No problem. Cue the theme song with lyrics that spell out Maki’s modus operandi with lyrics like “A storm is my cup of tea. When oppressed I have a burning urge to fight back. If someone slaps me, I’ll kick them back.” Trust me, she does.
Other subversive visual touches that stand out from the ensuing karate mayhem include a scene where several of Maki’s gang members are hijacked, stripped naked and bound to wooden horses on a fairground carousel and a sequence where the villainous Takako is captured and given a humiliating but artistic tattoo on her back. Equally non-PC is a segment where a girl snitch in prison is playfully roasted over some hot coals but, in sheer terror, extinguishes the barbecue with her urine. If you have gotten this far, then you already know your tolerance level for this kind of Asian grindhouse exploitation. But 13 Steps of Maki, despite its quasi-pinku moments, is too stylized and absurdist to take seriously plus the male characters with the exception of Tetsuya are so completely odious and disposable that Maki becomes the most honorable and likable character in the film. In fact, the world of Maki isn’t just misogynistic, it’s misanthropic and men don’t fare any better than women. As proof, consider the ending where Maki is the last person left standing.
Etsuko Shihomi appeared with Sonny Chiba in several other non-Street Fighter features such as Getkitotsu! Aikido (The Defensive Power of Aikido, 1975), Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess (1976) and the sci-fi opus Message from Space (1978). Chiba even makes a brief cameo appearance in 13 Steps of Maki as the heroine’s brother, who is living in Los Angeles but appears to her in a snowbound dream sequence.
As to what the original Japanese title means, I am clueless but, as mentioned in the subtitled dialogue, it might have something to do with Maki’s philosophy of life which embodies some unspecified 13 levels of wisdom. The secondary part of the title – The Young Aristocrats – is equally ambiguous because no one in this movie could be considered an aristocrat unless street creed qualifies but maybe that’s what the manga creators of the original comic strip intended. Unfortunately, 13 Steps of Maki arrived on theater screens in Japan as the gekiga craze (mangas and films which combined neo-noir crime stories with violence and sex) began to decline in popularity and fade away after 1977.
13 Steps of Maki: The Young Aristocrats is not currently available in the U.S. on DVD or Blu-ray but you might be able to still stream it from the Cave of Forgotten Films website, which has a very nice, English subtitled print of it.
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