Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler

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“Goddess of gamblers.”

wgb2Nami (Kaji) – or, to give her character’s full name here, Nami the Crimson Cherry Blossom – is still the same ice-cold, vengeful warrior as before. Though for this sequel, for some reason, she has switched to rather more traditional attire, in the shape of a kimono. She encounters Hanae, trying to escape a Yakuza sex-trafficking gang, to whom she has been sold by her father(!). Nami rescues her, subsequently wins Hanae’s freedom in a card game, and returns her to Dad. Turns out he can shed some light on Hoshiden, the man who killed Nami’s own father in a gambling spat, years earlier, and for whom she has been searching ever since. To find her target, Nami needs to embed herself deep in the murky, Ginza world of gambling and prostitution, helped by former friend Miyoko (Kagawa), now part of Hoshiden’s organization, and rival pimp, Ryu (Chiba).

This is slightly better than its predecessor, though is still hampered by too much reliance on gambling. It doesn’t help that the cards here are not the ones familiar in the West. As a result, we only know how the game is going by the reaction of the participants. Imagine watching Casino Royale with no idea of how poker works. It’s like that. When not actually gambling, things improve, and interesting to see Chiba play somewhat against type. Ryu is more stammering comic relief than the typical Chiba hero, though this dates from 1972, a couple of years before his star-making role in The Street Fighter.

As in its predecessor, this isn’t exactly action-packed. The opening confrontation, between Nami and the Yakuza gang on the bridge, looks like it’s about to explode… Right up until she pulls a gun. That’s not exactly very samurai (or geisha), is it, Ms. Kaji? From there until Nami and Ryu storm Hoshiden’s headquarters, it’s restrained, with more drama than swordplay. However, it is better at sustaining interest than part one, helped by aspects such as Ryu’s noble approach to prostitution. As he says, “We don’t force you or watch what you do. Our motto is clean, virtuous and classy,” prompting the sarcastic retort from one of his whores, “Well, you sound like Governor Minobe!” [The socialist governor of Tokyo at that time]

These elements help tide viewers over the card-playing scenes, until all sword-swinging hell finally breaks loose. This is rather at odds with some of the broad stabs at humour previously attempted. The “how to use a bidet demonstration” scene sticks in my mind there, and not exactly as an iconic sequence of comedy. It doesn’t sit easily in a storyline kicked off when a daughter is sold into sex slavery by her own father, and the ending of the series with this entry suggests the intended market was equally unimpressed.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Meiko Kaji, Sonny Chiba, Junzaburo Ban, Yukie Kagawa

Rica 3: Juvenile Lullaby

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“Carry On Raping”

rica3The third and last installment depicting the adventures of mixed-blood juvenile delinquent Rica (Aoki), has very much run out of ideas and is playing out the string: it’s no surprise the series ended here, all but taking Aoki’s career with it. As in the previous installment, it starts off with her confined to Aiyu Reform School, but it isn’t long before she has busted out. The storyline here focuses again on her half-black friend Hanako, whose daughter has run away. Unfortunately, she has actually been abducted by a gang, who are selling her on to a Western pornographer, who will pay a high price for a Japanese virgin. Rica herself falls foul of the gang, whose leader has no tolerance for Americans or Amerasians, due to an earlier incident where his girlfriend was raped by GIs and later killed herself.

Which all might be interesting – or, at least, okay – if this were executed straight, for intensity. Unfortunately, they got a new director in, Yoshimura replacing Kô Nakahira at the helm for this one, and he appears to have had a very different vision of the project.  For some reason known only to the film-makers, large chunks of this are obviously played for comedic relief, such as the sequence where they try to gang-rape Rica, only to be knocked out, one by one, through having a winch dropped on their heads. Throw in music which appears to have strayed in from Benny Hill, and you have something that has failed dismally to make the cultural transition over time and space – and that’s not even getting into the astonishingly obvious use of blackface for Hanako. It would take a special kind of talent to pull this kind of political incorrectness off, and even speaking as a viewer who is about as far from PC as imaginable, Yoshimura comes up woefully short. If you can make me cringe with embarrassment for the heroine, you’re doing… something. Just not what I want.

There are redeeming elements, led by Aoki’s continually smouldering portrayal of the heroine, who has a chip the size of Stonehenge on her shoulder against society, and takes no shit from anyone, be it her cell-mates in reform school, street punks or pornographic film-makers. When the film is pointed in the right direction, it’s by no means terrible; it’s just unfortunate that this tone is never sustained for long, before another wacky interlude destroys any atmosphere. It’s also a shame Aoki appeared in only one other movie, 1974’s Gakusei yakuza, since she has a striking look that could have sustained a longer career. This isn’t much of an epitaph.

Dir: Kôzaburô Yoshimura
Star: Rika Aoki, Jiro Kawarazaki, Taiji Tonoyama, Kotoe Hatsui

Rica 2: Lonely Wanderer

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“Black and white and red all over…”

rica2Our mixed-blood heroine is back, albeit with a slightly-different spelling of her name, a C replacing a K. But she’s still wading through criminal shenanigans from the get-go, as she escapes from reform school and gets informed that her similarly cross-bred friend, Hanako, is in trouble. The bearer of the bad news is shot dead before she can provide details, and when Rica heads to northern Japan, her train journey leaves a trail of dead bodies, of those apparently intent in making sure she doesn’t find out the truth. Turns out Hanako was providing entertainment on a ship, which was sunk by criminals, and one of the gangs responsible, under their female boss Yukie Shimamura (Tonoyama), is obliged to tidy up the loose ends – Hanako is now confined to a mental hospital. The local police, certain members of whom have ties to the gang, are not exactly enthusiastic about investigating any of this, but there’s clearly someone (Minegishi) on Rika’s side, as she finds herself receiving assistance and protection, from a source whose motivations are initially opaque. However, as the corpses continue to pile up, how long will it be before Rica becomes another one of them?

I’m not sure if the makers are taking this one seriously or not. Some aspects, such as Rica’s train ride, have an avant-garde and almost surreal approach, told without dialogue and instead utilizing a series of deliberately jarring cuts, between Rica and close-ups of the sun-glass wearing men who are following her. It’s unusual, effective and memorable. But then, there are other moments which are so ludicrous as to be completely laughable. For example, one fist-fight between Rica and a man trailing her, ends with him pulling out a short sword and committing seppuku. Why didn’t he – and this is just a casual suggestion – stab her with the freakin’ knife. There are also several too many song and dance numbers, mostly courtesy of Rica’s transvestite sidekick, though she herself also gets to strut her stuff on the stage at one point. and there’s more than the usual amount of casual xenophobia.

Against this, there’s no doubt that she seems to kick ass with copious frequency, though the fight scenes here fall more into a category I’d label, “enthusiastically amateurish.” It’s also nice that she’s going up against a female adversary. Shimamura herself makes for an intriguing character, since she’s following in her father’s footsteps, despite severe misgivings about having to keep the promises he made. The story does build fairly nicely, wobbly through its shakier moments to a final confrontation that ties up the loose ends, yet still leaves things open for a sequel. And, what’s this sitting in my viewing pile? Part 3? Despite some undeniable misgivings about the story here, don’t mind if I do…

Dir: Kô Nakahira
Star: Rika Aoki, Ryunosuke Minegishi, Taiji Tonoyama, Mizuho Suzuki

Legend of the Poisonous Seductress: Female Demon Ohyaku

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“I’ll no longer be a man’s toy, even if it kills me. I’d like to kill all men who abuse women with power and money.”

female-demon-ohyakuWell, you can’t argue with a title like that, can you? This proto-pinky violence film has many of the elements later developed more fully: a wronged woman is sent to prison, only to escape and seek retribution on those responsible for putting her there. In this case, it’s a period setting with part-time circus performer, part-time prostitute Ohyaku Dayu (Miyazono) finally getting the courage to break away from her sordid lifestyle, with the help of honourable thief Shinkuro (Murai). He’s planning a raid on the local mint, to steal the raw gold they use, and punish corrupt local officials.

However, a treacherous colleague betrays them, for a bureaucratic promotion, and Ohyaku is sent to prison – and, not even a women’s prison. It’s a men’s prison, that doubles as a gold mine. Fortunately, she falls under the protection of Bunzo the Iron Barbarian, which keeps her safe until she can work her wiles on the warden and his bisexual wife (Mishima), the latter of whom is obsessed with getting to tattoo Ohyaku, Our heroine chooses the Hannya demon as the subject – for good reason, as she eventually escapes jail to set about her revenge, and also complete Shinkuro’s raid.

The first and last third of this are truly effective, doing an excellent job of setting up the characters and resolving all the plot threads respectively. You can’t help but empathize with Ohyaku, her predicament and the steely resolve, maintained through some extreme tribulations, to take revenge for her lover – who is nicely drawn as well, Murai coming over as both charismatic and moral, despite his chosen profession. However, it sags badly in the middle third, from her arrival at the prison until her escape; it’s a section which either should have been shortened considerably, or needed more to happen.

Despite being made as late as 1968, it’s shot in black-and-white, which gives it a retro feel. It’s certainly a lot tamer, particularly in terms of nudity, than the technicolor tidal-wave that would be unleashed a couple of years later. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, enhancing the impact of things like a trickle of blood down Ohyaka’s forehead. Some of the torture on view is certainly imaginative, such as being hung by the neck, with your feet just touching a metal plate enough to stop you from strangling. Then a fire is lit under the plate… Damn. Also of interest, the presence of the legendary Tomisaburô Wakayama, best known as the hero of the Lone Wolf and Cub series (a.k.a. Shogun Assassin), as a sympathetic gang boss.

The first in an apparent trilogy, this manages to overcome the weak middle section and leave me interested in following Ohyaku’s subsequent adventures. Miyazono may not have the impact possessed by some of other other pinky violence stars, yet the better-than-average script helps balance that out, and this has stood the test of time better than many of its era.

Dir: Yoshihiro Ishikawa
Star: Junko Miyazono, Kunio Murai, Koji Nanbara, Yuriko Mishima

Bloodbath at Pinky High, Part 2

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“Pinky violence = serious business”

bloodbath2Following on more or less directly from the events of the first part, this sees Maki the Lone Wolf seeking revenge for the death of Midori as she fought against the principal and his reign of terror. Now in charge is Ranko and her gang, who stepped in to occupy the power vacuum, to “keep peace and good order” in the school – along with hunting down the remnants of Midori’s faction. Ranko captures Maki, but our heroine escapes with the unwitting help of Chiaki, one of Ranko’s Demons, and joins Momonga and Third, the last girls standing of Midori’s gang. Chiaki also allies herself with them, knowing Ranko will blame her for Maki’s escape. But can she really be trusted? And can Maki defeat, not only Ranko, but the hardcore delinquents she has recruited to join her, the very worst drawn from schools across Japan: Rakish O-Gin, Kiriko the Praying Mantis and Rinka the Parasol.

This is definitely better than the predecessor, mostly because it focuses on Maki. As noted in my previous review, she did a better job of capturing the pinky violence attitude than Midori, and we see that again here – the spirit of Midori shows up to guide Maki at various points, and the difference in their performances is obvious. There’s also more going on in terms of storyline and characters. Chiaki has a subplot about an ailing sister who yearns to see Chiaki become successful, and Ranko’s henchwomen are memorable villains in themselves. In particular, Rinka is a pitch-perfect Gothic Lolita, all frilly dresses and dark eyeliner, but carrying an umbrella which is also an automatic weapon. As the onlookers say while she’s fighting Maki:
    A machine-gun parasol? Is she really just a schoolgirl?
    She is majoring in technical subjects...
It’s also impressively gynocentric, with little or no male roles whatsoever, and the ones present are little more than drooling, sex-mad imbeciles, easily exploited for the benefit of the female characters.

I think it’s perhaps less obviously a parody, and that works in its favour. Not that it’s any less subtle; for example, early on, Maki’s method of attack is entirely focused on ripping open the tops of her adversaries. But rather than driving the joke into the ground, the makers let it go, and her fights against the higher-level minions are much closer to what you saw in the seventies. You don’t need to have seen part 1 to follow the story here, and the movie even works on its own, rather than requiring significant previous knowledge of the genre. It may be forty years late, but it’s one of the most-entertaining pinky violence films I’ve seen.

Dir: Toshiya Kominami
Star: Akari Asahina, Yoko Fujimura, Saya Kobayashi, Aoi Hozumi

Bloodbath at Pinky High, Part 1

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“Oh, look: their tops have come off…”

bloodbathIt’s important to realize that you need to be familiar with the pinky violence genre that this lovingly replicated and parodies, in order to get the most from it. If not, this will seem over-wrought, incredibly over-acted and more than slightly ridiculous, not least in the way that bras are apparently an unknown item in Japan. But, if you’ve seen enough of the movies that inspired it, you will appreciate from where it’s coming.

“I make my formal greeting. I was born and raised in Chicken Valley. My father was a poultry farmer. From age seven, I slaughtered chickens, 444 in total. By name I am Red Malice, Yumi the Cockscomb.”

Yeah, it’s like that. The heroine, Midori – a.k.a. Invincible Midori, the Wild Chrysanthemum – used to be a big shot, but now just wants the quiet life for her and her friends at her school, even though she could run it if she wanted. “It’s a mess, what’s the point? This way, I can do what I want,” Midori says. But, as you can imagine, she isn’t left in piece. For instance, there’s Maki, who has been trying to defeat Midori since they were both children. But worse still is Ranko and her Demon Gang, who operate as the strong arm of the principal and pimp unwilling members of this fine educational establishment out to his lecherous friends. There’s an uneasy truce between Ranko and Midori, but that is shattered after Harue seeks protection from the former, and her plight reminds Midori of exactly why she dropped out of the gang business.

From there, things escalate in the way they usually do, with Midori honey-potting a politician and the principal, then using the photographs to foment rebellion among the other students.  However, the principal retaliates by turning to his brother, head of the Inagaki Gang, who retake the school while Midori is busy dealing with Maki, setting up the final, explosive battle. In other words, it’s basically a pastiche, gluing together the tropes familiar from just about any example in the field, and turning the dial on them all, just a little bit higher. Most obviously, it’s almost de rigeur in the originals for the heroine’s top to be ripped open when she fights. Here, with refreshing honesty, that’s virtually the opening move. The main weakness is probably the lead (Hoshimi, I think – though since this doesn’t appear to have an IMDb entry, I’m kinda guessing), who is kinda bland and colourless, especially beside the actresses playing Maki and Ranko. This is the kind of thing where the performers need to throw all inhibition out the window: when that happens, you can certainly see where they’re going. However, it only happens intermittently, rather than with the consistency necessary to be truly successful.

Dir: Toshiya Kominami
Star: Rika Hoshimi, Asuka Misugi, Saya Kobayashi, Yoko Fujimura

Rika the Mixed-Blood Girl

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“Nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and breasts. In other words: quite a bit”

rica1Aoki appears to have streaked like a star across the pinky violence firmament, appearing only in the trilogy of which this is the first, and one other film, Gakusei yakuza, before returning to the streets whence she came. Or I like to think that was her origin, anyway, and this is less a dramatic work, than a documentary depicting her life. Sharing the same name, Rika is the child of rape, a GI impregnating her mother before being deployed to Korea, and it’s not long before one of her mother’s boyfriends/customers [the film is sketchy on this detail] has taken a similar approach to Rika. She ends up heading an all-girl gang, but is sent to a reformatory after an opposing, male gang leader accidentally dies during a fight with her. But it’s not long before our heroine escapes, only to find some rivals have taken advantage of her absence, and the rest of the gang has been abducted and are about to be sold off to Vietnam. The boss offers to sell them to her instead, and Rika blackmails her father into paying up, only for the women to be sold anyway.

There’s another plot thread where she witnesses a pickpocket stealing documents about a waterfront reclamation project. Then there’s one about her going back to the reformatory, being involved in another fight which leads to the death of the warden, Rika’s escape, and her search for the real murderer. Or a friend, Hanako, who has fallen for a GI, about to be shipped out to Vietnam. These storylines drift in and out without much regard to logic or coherence, generally being discarded without apparent further thought, whenever the makers turn their attention to the next gaudy bauble. That’s the main problem here: it is less a film, than a collection of scenes, with a severe lack of narrative flow, to the extent this feels almost like a four-hour movie edited into 90 minutes.

However, Aoki brings the necessary earnestness to proceedings: while a little short of the true mistresses of the pinky world, like Reiko Ike, she is not bad, especially considering her apparently limited (spelled “non-existent”) acting experience. Helping things out, some of the violence is spectacularly excessive, even for a time, place and genre that specialized in spectacular excess. For instance one bullet to the back of the skull results in arterial spray out of the victim’s forehead, like a novelty soda syphon. Rika also carves off one enemy’s forearm, marches up to his boss, and if not quite slapping him across the face repeatedly with the detached limb, comes damn close. This kind of madness keeps the film consistently entertaining, even allowing for its faults and flaws, which are no less obvious. By the end – which has Rika crashing a wedding and lobbing fireworks around, before whizzing off on her Electra Glide [or some similarly cool bike, I’ve no idea] – I was kinda sad to see the character go, if not the lazy screenwriting. Parts 2 + 3 will stray across my eyeballs onto this site in due course, I’ve no doubt.

Dir: Kō Nakahira
Star: Rika Aoki, Masane Tsukayama, Yoshihiro Nakadai, Masami Souda

Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Challenge

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“In which Reiko Ike is shown the ropes. Lots of ropes…”

If the first Queen Bee movie was a fairly effective romp through the genre, that’s a lot less the case fot the follow-up, with Ike largely floundering around, as Maki, the leader of the Pearl Gang, who finds herself embroiled in a battle with another crew, the Black Lilies and their leader, Yuri (Kazama). Their spat is interrupted, when the Kuroji clan of yakuza throw their weight behind the Black Lilies. However, the triumph of the Lilies is short-lived, as they find out that they are about to be forced into life as prostitutes, for the benefit of their new allies, ending their life of freedom in the ‘hood. There are also subplots in which Yuri’s former boyfriend, Eizo wants to be a top racing driver, bringing him into conflict with the yakuza as well, and a suitcase filled with stolen guns.

Particularly early on, it’s no more than a series of vignettes, as we follow Maki and her crew as, for example, they attempt to swindle a monk who cheated a friend of hers, or pay a visit to a hot spring, where they are “voyeured” by a man wearing scuba gear. Oh, hold my aching sides, for I fear they may split. Meanwhile, the conflict between Maki and Yuki is decided by a game of chicken where they lie, head-to-head on the street, and someone drives a truck over them, until one of them faints. This is neither about as exciting as it sounds, i.e. not very. Though we do get introduced to a fairly new concept in sexual violence: rape by carbonated beverage. So, there’s that…

The main problems here are two-fold: the film takes too long to get to any significant meat, plotwise, and Suzuku seems overly keen on the sexual sadism. Now, it may seem odd to complain about that, considering the genre of pinky violence, but it definitely seems more of the focus here, and seems pretty graphic, too. If you’re coming to these films looking for empowering portrayals of strong women characters (as I am), what feels like lengthy scenes of bondage are probably not what you’re after. Ike doesn’t get the chance to get out of second-gear until the finale, which comes only after a badly-botched effort to extract revenge on the Kuroji mob. That comes about 70 minutes too late, to make this one a keeper.

Dir: Norifumi Suzuki
Star: Reiko Ike, Hiroshi Miyauchi, Chiyoko Kazama, Akiko Koyama

Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Counterattack

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“Blue is the color; extortion, theft and other anti-social activities is the game.”

Reiko (Ike) is leader of the Athens Gang, a low-level all-girl gang, who specialize in car thefts and rolling naive salarymen with the lure of hot sex. They’re part of a hierarchy, which includes a male gang under whom they loosely operate, who are in turn on the fringes of a Yakuza group. There’s also a motor-cycle gang and its leader (Taki) who don’t obey anyone, and that independence is really what Reiko wants, even though her group is obliged to follow certain rules, such as not getting attached to any man. Things are disrupted by the return of former leader Jun (Kagawa) from reform school: will Reiko be able to hold on to her position? It’s just one of a large number of plot threads here: you also get the blackmail of a pop star; a hitman agreeing to one last mission; a gangster estranged from his wife and daughter; sex on motorcycles for no apparent reason; a journalist with a nose for scandal; and, of course Reiko failing to follow her own rule about no attachments.

That’s more of a problem than a benefit here, as the threads are of significantly varying interest. Obviously, I’m not averse to see Jun and Reiko brawl for control, and the heroic muck-raking writer is actually an interesting figure, cheerfully admitting to what he does, but also believing he genuinely makes a difference by exposing sordid sex scandals. While I didn’t realize how hierachical Japanese crime was, there are too many moments of earnest drama, that slow down what needs to be a fast-paced romped through the seedy underbelly of criminal life, and a couple of moments that are just laugh-out loud bad, such as when Jun asks for a farewell song from another gang member. What I want to know is, was the full orchestra she gets, hiding in a closet?

Despite the titles, which imply some kind of sequel, this was the first in a seven-film series, four directed by Suzuki. At this point, he still seems a little uncomfortable with the style, and there isn’t the necessary consistency of tone to provide a smooth ride. Ike and Kagawa are both good in their roles, however. Right from the first encounter, and the traditional girl-gang greeting, their interactions are a nicely-crafted mix of tension and politeness, and you know it’s only a matter of time until things finally kick off. When it does, this is indeed memorable. Otherwise, there’s just a bit too much filling, at the expense of the meat.

Dir: Norifumi Suzuki
Star: Reiko Ike, Yukie Kagawa, Keiko Yumi, Shinsuke Taki
a.k.a. Queen Bee Strikes Again