Sukeban Deka: season one

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“String theory for beginners.”

sukebandeka4Probably the only TV series ever with a credit for “yo-yo coach” – Masaya Taki, should you be concerned about such things – I must confess to having thoroughly enjoyed this. It is, of course, a concept that’s entirely idiotic, but it’s executed with such serious intent that you can’t help but be swept along with the earnestness of the production. There are no sly winks to the cameras here: everyone, but in particular Saito as Asamiya Saki, is deadly straight-faced about their mission. And that’s absolutely the only way this kind of melodramatic soap-opera (“Who is Saki’s father?), crossed with high-school angst and not-exactly realistic martial arts should be played. A moment’s acknowledgement of Otherwise, it would collapse under its

To start by filling you in on the background that took place before the show starts, Saki’s mother was sent to death row, after being framed for murder. To save her from being executed, Saki agrees to become “Sukeban Deka”, which roughly translates as “Delinquent Girl Detective”. Under the supervision of Jin (Naka), she goes into various educational establishments over the course of the 24 episodes that follow, uncovering malfeasance by those in charge and, not infrequently, the pupils too. But what distinguishes this from 21 Jump Street, say, is Saki’s weapon of choice: a yo-yo that pops open to reveal her official badge, but can also be used to knock people out, disarm them and even, courtesy of the string, as the equivalent of a pair of handcuffs.

For instance, the opening episode takes place at St. Anna High, where poor students are being bussed in to raise the school’s academic grade – but are then being forced to sit examinations on behalf of rich students, who are the ones that make the school profitable. Some subsequent stories demonstrate surprising social awareness for 1985, covering topics like bullying, competitive pressure and corporate bribery, but there are also more outrageous or exploitable elements, such as black magic, student-teacher relationships and high-school swimsuit models. Saki, however, doesn’t care, facing them all with the same expression of grim determination. Most of the episodes in the first half take place at Takanoha-Gakuen High, Saki’s old stomping ground, where the new queen bee is Miyako Yumekoji, who doesn’t take kindly to her predecessor’s return.

sukebandeka2In the second half, however, the structure changes. From about #11 on, instead of individual stories, there’s an increasing emphasis on a story arc involving a trio of girls, the Mizuchi sisters – daughters of a legendary Japanese industrialist. Initially, the girls seem intent merely on taking over Takanoha-Gakuen – though have no qualms about shooting Saki when she gets in their way. She initially manages to turn them back, but they then call big sis Remi (Takahashi), back from the United States, and she becomes the Big Bad for the rest of the first season. Saki has to survive a stint in reform school, and also deal with disturbing hints dropped by the patriarch of the family, that he had a close, personal relationship with her mother. [Remember the “Who is Saki’s father?” plot thread mentioned – that’s what we have here] Our heroine succeeds in taking him down, by broadcasting a conversation he doesn’t know is being recorded, and happiness beckons for Saki – unfortunately, Remi is having none of that.

Obviously, if you’re expecting anything like Go-Go Yubari from Kill Bill, you are going to be extremely disappointed. This is a television series, likely aimed at the contemporaries of Saki, and needs to be viewed as such. However, given that limitation, it’s remarkably engrossing, and does a very good job of telling a complete story inside little more than 20 minutes, as well as developing its characters. Sure, Saito will never be confused with Rina Takeda, but she gives it all she’s got, whether engaging in yo-yobatics, or spitting out her trademark introduction (something that, sadly, is also discarded during later episodes – even if it makes sense, given the longer story arc means she doesn’t need to introduce herself) with wonderful intensity.

The passage of this delinquent Asamiya Saki: what path of ruin do I follow? Now heading into the age of decadence. If I could laugh, I’d rather laugh. However, bastards like you, who don’t think anything of making students take exams illegally in the name of money… My soul ain’t sunk that low!

It takes a special level of deadpan talent to be able to unleash a slice of ripe Cheddar like that, and sell it with enough conviction that the reaction in this viewer – not exactly the intended teenage, Japanese, girl target audience, remember – is more “You go, girl!” rather than a derisive snort. It’s an interesting contrast to later entries, which had more of a team quality about them, with multiple yo-yo wielders. Here, Saki is a lone wolf, almost on her own: she has no parental guidance and Jin is interested only in practical help, furthering the success of her mission, rather than offering any personal support. The nearest thing she has a friend is schoolmate Sanpei Nowaki (Masuda), and he spends most of the show in a state of blithe ignorance about her real purpose. But I was particularly impressed by the final episode, which manages to kill off a surprising number of major characters, and leave even the fate of Saki and Remi uncertain. Subject to contract negotiation,. I imagine.

There are certain questions that remain opaque. It’s not quite clear how Saki becomes such a mistress of the flying cylinders either, or even why such a weapon was chosen. It doesn’t appear standard for the department, as another special agent shows up in one episode, and he’s entirely yo-yo deficient. Maybe such things are explained better in the 22-volume manga series by Shinji Wada on which this is based. It’s the kind of show where you need to have a willingness to accept such things for what they are, and if you with the flow that results from the (admittedly, fairly barking-mad) idea, everything else will seem perfectly natural. While it’ll probably be a while before I get round to the second season, it’s something to which I am looking forward.

Dir: Hideo Tanaka
Star: Yuki Saito, Koji Naka, Yasuyuki Masuda, Hitomi Takahashisukebandeka3

Yo-Yo Girl Cop

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“Yo-yo. Girl. Cop,” said Chris, burdening those three words with sarcasm, as only she can, and giving me one of those sidelong glances, heavy with additional meaning. Hey, what can I say. This was an unexpected revival of the series, from 2006, with the lead played by pop singer Matsura. She is a wild-child coerced into undercover work by Kazutoshi Kira (Takeuchi, from Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy), to save her mother who is being held on espionage charges in the US [in a nice touch, Mom is played by Yuki Saito, who was the first live-action Sukeban Deka, in the original TV series]. Her mission – should she choose to accept it – is to go into a high-school and uncover those behind the threatening Enola Gay website, a neo-terrorist URL that now has a counter on it, with less than 72 hours remaining. She befriends Konno Tae (Okada), the meek victim of relentless bullying, and also encounters the school’s queen bee, Reika Akiyama (Rika Ishikawa – shown right, and another pop singer, like Okada part of the v-u-den group) and her clique. Can she work out what’s going down, and pull the plug on it?

The movie has a distinctly split-personality. Early and late, it has the straight-laced but extreme camp aspects you’d expect, with much meaningful staring, po-faced declarations and radical costuming decisions. However, for most of the middle, such angles are all but discarded for an earnest examination of contemporary social realities in Japanese educational establishments, with special focus on the problem of bullying. It isn’t bad, on its own terms – and handles the dehumanizing nature of the Internet particularly effectively – yet appears to have come from an entirely different film, and the two aspects fail abjectly to mesh, resulting in a startling unevenness of tone. Fortunately, Matsura is surprisingly good in the role, with a gutter-mouthed toughness quite at odds with her background in the entirely artificial world of J-pop idols.

Fukasaku’s father was the director of the infamous Battle Royale, a film still unreleased officialy in the US, but the son brings an entire bag of other influences to this work. There’s the ticking clock intertitle of 24, the Bond-inspired opening credits, Hannibal Lecter’s mask, used to restrain our heroine before her recruitment, and a good chunk of the central plot appears borrowed from Heathers – or, probably more likely, Suicide Circle [a.k.a. Suicide Club, a film most renowned for its opening scene]. When it moves onto its own territory, this is somewhat less effective: if Fukasaku had decided whether or not he was going for serious drama [and given the yoyo-esque aspects and its ancestry, I’d have recommended going with “not”], then the results would likely have been better. Instead, you get something that, while having its moments, won’t quite satisfy trash fans like ourselves [though it wasn’t as bad as Chris feared], and anyone else will likely give this a wide berth.

Dir: Kenta Fukasaku
Star: Aya Matsura, Riki Takeuchi, Yui Okada, Shunsuke Kubozuka

Sukeban Deka 2: Counter-Attack from the Kazama Sisters

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Perhaps the most startling thing here is the amount of political subtext, albeit likely somewhat unintentional. Saki Asamiya (Asaka) is part of the student police force, but feels they are overly brutal, beating anyone who “isn’t a straight arrow”, to quote Asamiya. This leads her to quit, heading off for a spot of slow-motion horse-riding more befitting a feminine hygiene commercial. However, she returns, teaming up with her sisters, when she discovers that her erstwhile colleagues are staging terrorist attacks, and blaming them on a group called the Outcast League, a with the aim of strengthening their position and gaining even greater powers. Asamiya joins the League, only to find the full force of the law now turned on her.

From a post-9/11 and Patriot Act world, this has acquired a weird resonance that, presumably, was nowhere in the creators’ minds at the time. This reminds me somewhat of Demolition Man, in which Stallone teamed up with those beyond the pale, to take on the authorities; here, the head of the League is a drug-dealer; that he is portrayed even vaguely sympathetically, is remarkable for this kind of movie. Unfortunately, the other aspects of the film are a great deal less interesting, and Asaka’s deficiency as any sort of credible action heroine are painfully obvious – she doesn’t get to do very much except look stern and repeat the same yo-yo throw over and over again. I was amused by the scene where she and her sisters are tagged with grappling hooks, swept off a balcony and towed along a river for a bit, before Asaka somersaults out of the water to land – completely dry – on the deck, to battle the bad guys with highly-mediocre martial-arts.

The movie also slows to a crawl for about twenty minutes after she teams up with the League, though Things do perk up somewhat down the stretch, with the student cops launching an assault on the Outcast League compound [shades of Waco here!], starting with water hoses and escalating up to a flamethrower-equipped tank, against which our heroine’s yo-yo proves ineffective. However, she escapes and has to catch a lift from a conveniently passing Kodak blimp – no, I couldn’t make this kind of stuff up – in order to stop another of the fabricated terrorist attacks. There, we learn the answer to the burning question of the day, “Is it possible to bring a light-aircraft down, using only a yo-yo?” Though if you’ve read the synopsis to the previous movie, you are probably a good way along towards working out the answer.

Dir: Hideo Tanaka
Star: Yui Asaka, Kosuke Toyohara, Minako Fujishiro, Yuma Nakamura

Sukeban Deka: The Movie

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This film was made between season two and season three of the television series, and represents a passing of the torch from Saki, SD #2 (Minamino) to SD #3 (Asaka), in preparation for the upcoming TV show. Saki has just about given up her life as a detective, but finds herself dragged in when she, literally, bumps into someone on the street. He turns out to be an escapee from Hell Castle, a reform school for wayward kids on an island near Tokyo, and she discovers that Principal Hattori (Ibu) is training the pupils to be a brainwashed army for an upcoming coup d’etat [the word is exactly the same in Japanese, incidentally]. She goes to her bosses with the information, but the investigation is quickly killed from above, for reasons I’m sure you can guess. So, it’s up to Saki to put together a team, sneak onto the island, rescue the inmates and stop Hattori. He turns out to be a nemesis from the TV show, though that back-story will, for obvious reasons, be lost on the vast majority of Western viewers.

It’s entertaining enough, with some great moments: probably none quite surpasses the one where the girls stealthily make their way, by rubber dinghy, onto the island, and remove their camouflage to reveal… their sailor-fuku school uniforms, a moment of beautiful surrealness – more of this would have been welcome. Almost at the same level is the sequence where our heroines apparently decide to have a meeting in a gravel-pit and are attacked by a helicopter, which they have to fend off by yo-yo. The martial arts of Minamino are nothing too amazing, though she performs credibly enough, and Tanaka at least keeps the camera in one position, and lays off editing the fights with a weed-whacker [even if this may simply be a result of the era, rather than a conscious stylistic decision]. Also worth noting, the manga creator, Wada, cameos as a street yo-yo seller.

The main weakness is that the movie doesn’t really seem too concerned about giving any of the girls much personality – it compares badly in this area to something like the Charlie’s Angels film [in honour of which, I almost titled this piece, “…and then there’s the yo,” but thought better of it!]. This is perhaps a function of its origins on television: with the characters already established there, the makers may not have felt there was much point in rehashing the territory. It’s hard to blame them for this – they likely didn’t foresee the advent of DVD, or that anyone outside Japan would ever watch the movie – yet it undeniably does hurt things, from the viewpoint of a Western audience.

Dir: Hideo Tanaka
Star: Yoko Minamino, Yui Asaka, Masato Ibu

Sukeban Deka

“The String Cheese Incident”

Rarely has the phrase, “Only in Japan,” ever been more appropriate. It’s not just the notion of a delinquent schoolgirl, taken in by the government and turned into a secret-agent of sorts. That, alone, is odd, but not particularly memorable. No, it’s that her weapon of choice is a yo-yo, which lifts this into the realm of the call-sign, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. [Contrary to popular belief, the toy was not inspired by a Phillipino weapon, as has often been claimed – the yo-yo appears on Greek vases dating from well before the birth of Christ. Never say this site is not educational.] Combine that fairly ridiculous aspect with an absolutely straight-faced approach to the subject matter, and you’ve got something which has definite potential to be a trash classic, and was obviously the inspiration for GoGo Yubari in Kill Bill.

The title, Sukeban Deka, roughly translates as “Delinquent girl detective”, and was created by manga author Shinji Wada, running in 22 volumes from January 1976 through to December 1982. It was, to some extent, a fortuitous accident: the publisher was expecting a detective tale, Wada was working on a high-school story, and the two concepts ended up getting welded together. The heroine is more or less the same in all incarnations: Saki Asamiya, the trouble-making schoolgirl who ends up in prison, and eventually becomes an undercover spy for the government, though in the manga, it seems this only takes place after a fair amount of babes-behind-bars shenanigans. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll largely be glossing over both the manga and the TV show, and concentrating on the three feature films. The first two of these were spin-offs from the TV series, and appeared in 1987 and 1988, while the third reached cinemas almost twenty years later.

However, let’s start with some discussion of the TV series, albeit only because I somehow ended up with three episodes of the second series on laserdisc, about fifteen years ago. This ran for 108 half-hour episodes over three series between April 1985 and October 1987, which starred Yuki Saito, Yoko Minamino and Yui Asaka respectively. These appear to be different characters, albeit with the same name, suggesting that “sukeban deka” is a label perhaps more akin to the “Double-0” tag, with Saki Asamiya being the equivalent of James Bond. There was apparently also a TV movie, with the catchy title of Sukeban Deka III: shôjo ninpô-chô denki: san-shimai mottomo kiken na tabi: yattsu no shi no wana, which was screened in April 1987.

This appears to be episodes 34-36 of the second series, and having watched them, I feel I can convincingly state, with little fear of contradiction, that I have little or no idea what is going on. #34 takes place mostly in the woods, with Saki apparently possessed by something that causes her to attack her friends. Also roaming the woods is a samurai, and another schoolgirl, who possesses fangs, and leaps to the attack accompanied by cat noises. There is a fair amount of largely-unconvincing fighting, ending when Saki has her memory jogged by a small trinket, apparently breaking the curse placed upon her. To say any more would probably be…unwise.

It is, however, a masterpiece of comprehensibility compared to parts #35 and #36, though I was distracted by the arrival of a family friend, and so I must admit, my attention was largely diverted. If I had to hazard a guess – and you would probably need to use pliers and a blowtorch to get this out of me – it appears to be something to do with an after-school justice club, whose activities somehow land Saki in jail by the end of the episode. There is also a metal mask of some sort, whose eyes occasionally glow red. Please note, I am simply reporting these things.

The final episode has Saki’s two friends wondering what happened to her, while Saki sits in jail and stares at the metal mask on her bed. This does not exactly make for enthralling television, in any language, but things do perk up towards the end. There’s a roof-top battle in which Saki wears the mask and, along with her two colleagues, fights the bad guys until one of them shoots hooks from his sleeves, which attach to the mask and rip if off her head, to the ground below where someone then runs off with it. I imagine it probably has some kind of power, but what it is, I’ll probably never know.

[Below, you’ll find links to further reviews, covering the first series, both the contemporary feature films, and the 2006 revival. Thankfully, these did at least come with subtitles.]