Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sukeban Deka (1987) Movie Review

Transition has been in the air for former yo-yo cop/ seifuku-clad avenger, Saki Asamiya, but the implications of this bear a far greater challenge than she ever could have imagined. A would-be dictator, and his army of followers have taken control of a remote private school, and plot greater threats for the future of Japan (and possibly the world). More than done with it, Saki has little choice but to join up with several generations of her former detective life(including the sister of one of the students held prisoner) to infiltrate the prison school, rescue the hostage students, and save tomorrow! And if the preceding paragraph sounds like a recipe for fun, I wouldn't harbor any blame. The first full-length feature of Shinji Wada's Delinquent Girl Detective saga has been a review long in the putting off, and now in a time of mutual transition, it's time to put this wild child out into the ether.

I suppose the best way to preface the remainder of this review is to summon up a little history regarding the SD franchise, and its enduring cult appeal. First appearing via Hakusensha's Hana To Yume, Sukeban Deka's unique brand of often brutal action amidst the confines of a high school drama universe has long been a part of popular manga lore. The tale weaved shares the revelation that Wada, under pressure to concoct a new series received two conflicting suggestions (one being a hard-hitting detective tale, all the while he was developing a high school story), the mangaka took a hard left and combined both. The concept of a lone schoolgirl being picked to become a brutal crime-fighting machine for a secret government agency seems almost atypical for the era. But it was this completely bizarre concept decision that gave way to what became  SD's signature; Saki Asamiya's designated weapon in her war against the terrors of school life? A yo-yo.

Add this to a neverending gallery of bullies, freaks, terrorist organizations, and even cultists, and you have one of the most lovably absurd allegories for adolescence imaginable. So when SD ended its run after twenty-two volumes, things went silent until a popular live action TV series resurrected Saki Asamiya, pals and rivals for a solid run between 1985 and 1987 to the amazing number of 108 episodes. One of the biggest secrets to its success lied in the reveal that the Asamiya moniker was something of a "Bondian" code name for those co-opted for this role which initially went to exceptionally skilled/dangerous "delinquent girls", who also assumed the same close-combat weapon. Series one featured Yuki Saito in the title role which was a significant success in also launching a popular idol singer career for her. Then came the more friendly-faced Yoko Minamino, who's run in the lead granted her an expanded idol popularity which eventually led to this first feature film which in many ways functions as a bridge between second and third generation (series) of Sakis(The third being the smaller, more inexperienced yet plucky Yui Kazama played by Yui Asaka). And as a transitional tale, Sukeban Deka is as hilariously over the top as one can expect from the franchise.

The film immediately informs us that Sukeban Deka No. 2 (Minamino) has long earned her wish of returning to normal life, and is now a civilian prepping for college entrance exams, which is of course thwarted by a disturbing run-in with what looks to be a fugitive boy on the run from a group of elder shadies (why their abduction vehicle of choice is a public transit bus remains a mystery). It turns out that the young man, Saki has stumbled upon and is briefly captured with is a student of Sankou Gakuen, a secluded oceanside private school predominantly aimed at trouble students. Being isolated from the rest of Japan, the fortified campus is now apparently under the auspices of a dangerous megalomaniac with fascisistic tendencies, running the school with a militaristic iron fist. With students tortured, injured, and even killed, even Saki's old superiors at the shadow police agency she once worked for cannot intervene due to treacherous names amongst the higher ranks. Even when it is discovered that the brutal headmaster is in fact a once thought to be dead would-be revolutionary, their hands are tied, which only forces Saki to undertake a dangerous operation outside of any legal channels.

And almost immediately, the film remains true to the television series in how it balances some pretty fascinating and goofy extremes to entertaining effect. Having the usually black seifuku wearing Saki with hair ribbon and pink sweater as she is not only tortured with a ridiculous barrage of electric shocks, but also kicking holy arse is pretty hilarious in itself. Even as Saki amasses old friends including the ever reliable Biidama O-Kyo (played by fellow idol singer and fan favorite, Haruko Sagara), Yukino Yajima (Akie Yoshizawa) and newcomers Megumi Kato(Ayako Kobayashi) & Sukeban Deka 3, Yui Kazama (who's entrance makes for one of the film's most hilarious decisions- making her a successor to anything more than a doorstop. Her cries for her enemies to fight fair & square as they pummel the girls in a quarry with heavy machine gun fire undoubtedly wins the chuckle prize) the stakes in their mission are raised upon arriving at the school, only to discover that the cold mania that is headmaster Hattori, is complimented by...You guessed it. A MACHINE BODY complete with metal arrow launchers built into his arms.

But Saki is not as outmatched as one might expect as she is given one last gift by her concerned caretaker, Nishiwaki (Keizo Kanie); a triple weighted version of her already heavy yo-yo, complete with shoulder harness designed to theoretically cushion the recoil of her crushing blows to enemies. Concept notwithstanding, it does create tension as it becomes quickly evident that every time she uses it, it runs the risk of irreparable damage to her! And the fact that she and friends not only face a metal and stone stronghold, but an army of seemingly brawler-style video game army of drones at Hattori's disposal, makes for one incredibly tired and beaten looking heroine by the finale.

Other laughably funny elements include; often inappropriate music editing which largely consists of Ichiro Nitta's bombastic cues from the original series, the aforementioned bus action scene (exact change), the choice "landing" moment where the delinquent girl squad infiltrates the school, somehow revealing perfecly tailored and cared for seifuku complete with skirts underneath their waterproof suits (which were bright silver & pink complete with PANTS by the way). Another extremely funny moment is what seems to be a mission briefing happening as characters sample some of Saki's rice cooking skills! In the truest hyperbolic sense, the film wavers recklessly between being aimed at younger audiences, or those looking for a specific tone of action adventure trash. Again, the film reminds me of what may have inspired Kenta Fukasaku's contributions years later. When people assume Battle Royale was something of a first, one might want to point them in this direction. Sometimes, it's only Japan that could deliver something so innocent, and yet so visceral and violent. It isn't terribly bloody, but safe this is not.

But a large part of what makes it work for me, is Minamino who ultimately plays matters as straight as possible, all the while such absurdity is happening via her or the villains. The extremes are often so taut at both ends, and knowingly so, it becomes more endearing than exasperating. Being a product of the idol salad days of the 1980s, the film walks the thin line between cuteness and brutality the likes no other culture can manage. Sukeban Deka for all it's extreme thuggery and violence, is a tokusatsu action series at heart, so asking for a film like this to make sense is merely an invitation to insanity.

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