&: Diary (12)

(November 11th, 2019) I know I've told the story before, probably even in another one of these entries, but whenever I fly out of PEK, I think of the time that I was escorted to my flight by junior members of the Datong Public Security Bureau. They were both in plainclothes, jeans and windbreakers, and when they tried to take a nap after our meal at the Real Kungfu, a waitress came by to scold them, and they didn't even bother trying to use any limited authority they might have had, but instead waved her off, like any cranky man in his early-40s would have: "What's it to you? He's still eating, isn't he? Go yell at those people over there, instead. Give me a goddamn break." The two PSB men slept and I watched those country girls, all with shiny black bangs, all braless in their red polo shirts, wiping down the tables after the lunch rush. When it was time for my flight, they walked me over to the security gate and were again reprimanded, this time for trying to sneak through, by a skinny girl in loose-fitting fatigues, who looked like a child soldier manning a roadblock after her rebel faction seized the presidential palace and raided the armory for belts and berets. But today, I'm unescorted, so I can get a ham-and-cheese and iced Americano from Costa and try to figure out one single article in an old issue of Dushu I found at the bottom of my bag while packing again.

Another observation I am not making for the first time: when I fly back to Tokyo, I am always struck by its disorganization and its chaos. Why isn't there a direct train line from Haneda to a larger hub? Why do I have to transfer at Hamamatsucho? This isn't an important criticism. I probably wouldn't notice, flying in from KIX. But I mean that my eyes are always dazzled by the scenery of Tokyo: advertisements all over the place, glowing shop signs, everything seems to be under construction or renovation and there are hundreds of square feet of signage telling travelers and staff about detours and safety precautions. But then, once again, conversely, Tokyo seems dreary compared to Beijing. Once you enter the first tunnel from one section of the station to another, surrounded by men that have changed from their Cool Biz summer-weight suits to the warmer uniforms of early winter, tramping in lockstep, nine o'clock at night and still on their way home through the bowels of a Yamanote Line station.

(November 12th, 2019) I was thinking, with the Bookworm closing in Beijing, how there was a distinct sort of expat-in-Beijing group identity, although that faded five or six years ago. There's that wonderful parody of David Blum's "Hollywood's Brat Pack," which namechecks the Bookworm (and also Jenny Lou's and April Gourmet and Element Fresh)... I always had a chip on my shoulder, living way out in the middle of nowhere, cities with millions of people that nobody cared about, like Datong or Dalian or Nanjing, or even Guangzhou. If I hadn't been invited last year to do an event at the Bookworm, thereby welcomed into what was left of that Beijing clique, and if I hadn't drank at a hutong bar with ***** *** *** **** ********* *** ****** **** **** ***—well, that cooled some of the burn of being shut out for so many years, lost in the wilderness. But it makes me think about the group of expatriates that hung around Tokyo in the early-2000s, around the same time as you had ***** ****** *** ****** ******** in Beijing, and the very different role they took, far less political, and more engaged with a local cultural scene, even sometimes making a name for themselves in that scene, often even publishing books in Japanese, while remaining mostly unknown to the wider world. This is comparing two very different countries, but I can't help but wonder if the slow exit of all privileged expatriate drifters and the closure of their Beijing haunts is not the sign of, say, creeping authoritarianism, but, like, some cultural confidence, a sense that there is no longer a need for what turned out to be mostly hostile foreign elements in Beijing—and it is creeping authoritarianism, perhaps, but also the liberal elements in China's capital that fostered the livelihoods of those people and those places simply moving on, either forced to abandon their liberal principles or realizing that it's all a bunch of bullshit. But also, this is just bullshitting here, and maybe I don't understand the function of these people and places or who was funding them... Just bullshitting here, okay? And I could also throw in, like, the diminished role of Beijing in culture? Like, all those years in Guangzhou or Nanjing, there were plenty of writers and artists and musicians doing interesting work in interesting spaces, but usually very self-contained, or feeding into regional scenes, while Beijing was increasingly seen as a place to go and make a living as a culture worker. This seems like a problem not so much with creeping authoritarianism as it is a problem that other global capitals have, with financialization and neoliberalism or whatever, a housing market that squeezes out interesting people and places. Again, this is just bullshitting.

Returning to Tokyo, I say once again: I would move to Beijing in a heartbeat, even now, for the right deal. But living in an East Tokyo slum and surviving off freelance checks is better than any offer I've gotten for a job in Beijing. There's nothing like a long morning walk through Matsugaya to Asakusa (not real Asakusa which looks like Disneyland now, but the southern half, which I suppose is actually Kotobuki) to put things in perspective. Maybe this place will stay the same long enough. Maybe Tokyo will slip underwater. Maybe tourism really has peaked and they can stop building hotels. Maybe a populist firebrand will rise to power and close key sections of the city to tourism except on weekends, and put up blocks of social housing instead of new apartments, and Taito Ward will organize production teams to finish the reconstruction of Sanyabori Park, giving porn-addicted incels and precariously-employed girl bosses the opportunity to mingle and form relationships with each other... Probably not. You know, racial nationalism and weak neoliberal reforms are the worst form of politics ever invented, and best case scenario for Japan would be something like Orbánism, rather than waiting for another real estate boom and the invention of robots to mitigate the need to import labor from Nepal and Southeast Asia. Fuck it. Maybe I'll move to Hanoi and watch the place go to shit from afar, or maybe I'll go back to Guangzhou. Maybe I'll stick around. Who knows? The walk from Matsugaya to Asakusa makes me want to stay, at least, and a late lunch of hamburg steak at a café that seems, in the absence of regular customers, to have been turned over by the owner to an expanding collection of house plants, and a stop at a supermarket up the street (Maruetsu is being renovated) that somehow still has soft, plump Aichi figs but also imported Italian ricotta.


&: Diary (11)

(November 3rd, 2019) I was reading Lasch on confessional literature, and, of course, he says, "the popularity of the confessional mode testifies, of course, to the new narcissism that runs all through American culture," but he draws a line between self-disclosure that helps one to to achieve a critical distance from the self and then "self-disclosure to keep the reader interested, appealing not to his understanding but to his salacious curiosity..." which is usually self-disclosure left "undigested, leaving the reader to arrive at his own interpretations." I'm thinking about the artform of doxing right now, and not the actual act or the skill involved assembling the materials, but how they are presented, and how it differs from the self-confession, autofiction confessional (or more likely, for this example, I guess you would compare the presentation of materials from a doxing with a self-curated social media account, since that makes much more sense). I wonder if it's an internet age impulse to self-dox, to inoculate against your enemies doing it for you—but no, Lasch is right, it's just narcissism, most of the time. That goes for Marie Calloway and Daniel Lord, at least, to name two millennials that have spread their lives across the internet. I can tell you this: everything I've ever done, I've talked about it on the internet. I mean... almost everything, I think. There must be something. It might have been posted under my own name or anonymously on a message board or in an IRC channel. But I guess most of it, hopefully, is buried in fiction, which is mostly an unpublishable private literature. And the question of doxing, it makes me wonder this: since I have said—somewhere or in some form—nearly everything that I have ever done, what is there that I don't want anybody else to know? What information could be held over my head? Of course, that goes back to the art of doxing, and the curation, where even reasonable facts could be used for harassment. But no, what is there, really? What could really ruin me? I have the urge to write here what my guesses would be. I know I've admitted some of them before, somewhere on the internet. How narcissistic, indeed, to imagine that anyone would ever bother digging them up.

I have become less confessional, at least in these entries. I need time to go by. I am happy to give a detailed breakdown of my moral failings at twenty or twenty-five, but maybe I'm smart enough not to record more recent transgressions, or maybe it's a product of working for myself, not having a day job, and being, in a very, very minor way, a public figure. It could be that I have enough experience turning experiences into some kind of literary product that I am hesitant to spill my guts "undigested" here and now; it could be that I realize how banal any dark-ish thoughts or experiences are, without some kind of artistry applied to them; it could be that I've become dull and reliable as I've aged; it could be that I sense there's not much of a readership for the things I want to say; and it could be that I have found a way to process or even enjoy things by myself. I couldn't tell you.

The problem before was that when I wrote undigested work anonymously, it seemed to be good, and when I finally digested it, I was lying. I go back to things I wrote on the internet, a very long time ago, like an entry, here, more than a decade ago, about going to Lianyungang, in which I said I had met a Russian woman and went bowling. That is not what happened but it is based on some fact. A friend that went to Lianyungang with me did, as I recall, meet a Russian woman, but I believe she might have been a missionary of some sort, and I probably saw a bowling alley, but what actually happened on that trip is that I put a cinderblock through the Plexiglass door of a bar, where I had drank a bottle of tequila and spent most of the night blackout drunk, trying to fuck a chubby Colombian girl. It makes me cringe, thinking about the falsified version of the trip. I would often tell the story to friends, about how I tricked my friend into getting into a taxi, then went back to the bar, but, yes, it probably wouldn't work, just writing it out, even if it was digested beyond self-disclosure. It's fine to adjust the facts, but I ended up with something untruthful and dull. Just like the Beijing story, where I show up in the city and the country for the first time, and I have a fairly wholesome time exploring the city, and that's what I wrote down, when, in fact, I flew to Beijing, panicked and missed my flight, and invested most of the money I had just made selling my 1992 Chevrolet Beretta GT in two prostitutes that worked in the hotel spa that the black taxi took me to. I was fat and depressed and still full of paroxetine, huffing and puffing through a paid threesome in a country I was scared shitless to be in, and then I spent the rest of the time there in my hotel room, only occasionally leaving to buy cigarettes and Coca-Cola. That story is more truthful and has more possibility.

And then, also, sometimes I hesitate to write something down, even in a heavily digested form, because I think nobody will believe it. When I wrote about an extended stay in a rural Shaanxi juliusuo, it pained me to have people speculate that I had made the whole thing up. This goes back to doxing and the private fantasy of being savagely doxed—nobody ever doubts that! Looking at the horrific treatment that ***** ******** received, with chat logs and nude pictures leaked, one day, when she is middle-aged, I guess, looking on the bright side, and she is finally out of a detention facility for the crime of drawing policemen as pigs, she can look back on her dirty little exploits and her perfect, young body, and she'll have that, and nobody can ever doubt her credibility. And maybe the problem is with oversharing but also overexplaining. Maybe I should just let these thoughts go...

(November 4th, 2019) I don't have a thing about shoes or feet but this still doesn't need any explanation: I bought ****** a pair of white Air Max because I wanted to fuck her while she wore them and press their crisp leather sides to my cheeks. I bought ***** a pair of Gucci Jordaan horsebit loafers (this is not a sexy shoe but still) mostly because I wanted to fuck her while she wore them, on the bed in our suite, with her skirt still on, and for other, more practical reasons. Instead, we took a taxi into the city and walked over to eat crayfish at Hu Da and she tracked the soles across dusty early-winter late-night Gui Jie sidewalks. In the morning, ***** woke me up and **** ** **** while I was half awake and half hard. I didn't bother telling her to put the shoes on. I had already forgotten about them. She **** **** *** * **** ******* *** ***** ** **** *** **** *** **** ***** ***** ****** * ****** ** *** ****. I went to take a shower, after, she stood outside, inspecting herself, nude, in the mirror **** ** *** ***** ** *** *****. She said: "I'm skinny again." She had already eaten a hotel breakfast of bacon and eggs, and showered. I was in China to pick up an envelope and for a few meetings but taking ***** is a good excuse to leave the hotel. We walked through Wudaoying and I bought her tanghulu and a fake oversized cashmere Chanel pullover and fake stretchy Acne Blå Konst jeans and she wore them out of the store with her old clothes in a bag. and I took her to the Confucius Temple (I'd never been there before and I never went to Tiananmen or Qianmen until I walked by one time last year with Nick Stember, and I've still never been to the Great Wall) to pose in front of the statue of the Sage, and we sat under seven hundred year old cypress trees, drinking yogurt out of glass bottles. If I was alone, I would have laid in bed, watching RT and drinking Diet Coke until I was forced to leave.

(November 6th, 2019) Smoking a cigarette outside of a public bathroom on an alley somewhere between Guozijian and Fangjia Hutong, a man in his sixties or seventies asks me, "Where are you from?" I answer and he lights a cigarette and we stand for a while talking. I offer that I have been coming to Beijing for many years and the area has change immensely. I managed to find a topic he was passionate about and he began running through a list of recent demolitions. I took a guess at his accent—Henan, I said, and I was right—and he told me how he had come to Beijing fifteen or so years prior, following after his daughter, who had married a man that was involved in a construction business. The family still rented rooms in the neighborhood. He was not concerned with the demolitions erasing some historical character of the neighborhood but because they would eventually drive his family out to the suburbs. Like the Jiaodaokou policeman in Michael Dutton's "Building a Gift of Politics," the history of the Henanese contractor's son will not be recorded.
Gesturing across the room, out the window and over to the street in front of the police station, Liu smiles before breaking into a chortle: "D'you know what that lane, that one out front of the police station, was called during the Cultural Revolution?" he asks rhetorically, "Well that one was called Study Chairman Mao Lane!" A huge grin appears on his face. ...
Whatever brings a community together is sacred, says Bataille, and renaming streets was part of a series of ritual and often violent activities that would tear the community apart yet bring it together. This was affect built upon a violent division. It was built on the power of class struggle, a force that would drive groups apart yet, paradoxically, cement even more intense, passionately and tightly the group that struggled together against an enemy. "Could there be classes without a Church, without a sacret, without sacrifice? Could there be a society without spiritual power, radically separate from temporal power?", asks Roger Caillois.
"Nobody knows about these things anymore, and if you want to look them up you can't because there are no records", explains Liu Zhengxian as he offers up even more examples of absurdly revolutionary street names produced during the Cultural Revolution. He shakes his head, ruing not the name changes but the lack of recorded history. It is as though the lack of records has robbed him personally of his own time and place and in many ways, it has. ... The "rectification of street names", which saw the revolutionary ones taken down and the traditional ones returned, has been, in many ways, the rectification of China. Yet there is more to disinterring Liu's stories than correcting the historic record. These evocative tales, snippets of excess, and slogans of ultra-leftism shed light on moments of political intensity, of sacrifice, of devotion and extreme exuberance.
And in Dutton's Beijing Time, written with Hsiu-ju Stacy Lo and Dong Dong Wu, the anecdote appears again and Liu laughs about the name changes: "It is embarrassed laughter, confused laughter; it's cover-up laughter, laughter designed to paper over the fact that in these days of rampant market development, the rectification of names in the Cultural Revolution seems almost too absurd to be believed. ... Here we sit, in a suburb trying so very hard to resurrect its distant past but simultaneously trying just as hard to bury and erase its more recent one."

And the man I spoke to somewhere between Guozijian and Fangjia Hutong didn't laugh but changed the subject. "Are those American cigarettes?" he asked. "Japanese, huh?" He said: "But, look, nobody can beat China now, right? We were beaten by so many countries, even the Japanese," and he gestured at my cigarette, "but now nobody can beat us. We don't want to interfere with other countries, either." And he went on for a while on that topic.

I tried to write a book about my old neighborhood in Tokyo and was told by two editors that the manuscript had the beginnings of a good book but lacked the voices of local people. Without even trying, standing in an alley in Dongcheng, I already had a man-on-the-street anecdote.

(November 7th, 2019) These must be the trips I fantasized about taking, all those years I spent in the country eating shit, going to jail, living off potatoes pulled from baskets in front of neighbors' doors in a six story walkup in Dalian, and always going back to do it again. I'm not sure if I ever did fantasize or dream about rising above extreme poverty. I didn't, I'm sure I didn't—I would have put myself in a more comfortable position long before I did. But whatever. I often worry that I've lost all perspective on the country because half the time I'm here on somebody else's dime, usually in a big city. But I guess, you know, most of the people in the small community of foreigners that make a living writing about China spent their formative years in Beijing, living much like this, while I was, of course, of course, keeping it incredibly real, goddamnit. So, yes, listen, I can spend the day ferried around in a car hired by ***** and go for ****** ** **** ******** ** ******* *** *** ***** *** ** **** ******** **** **** ** ****** ******** ********** *** *** *** *—well, fuck it, you get the picture. And there's a certain pride in it, for me, since a couple years ago, I was still working as a ********* *** ** * ********* ** ********* ******** ** * ***** and trying to find a way to make a living without breaking my body down. But I realize anybody reading this will either find it all ridiculous or not something that they could relate to. I probably shouldn't bring ***** with me on these trips, since it puts me in a good mood rather than a nostalgic, contemplative mood, and I do things like get drunk on champagne at ******** ****, overlooking an octopus sculpture advertising Panerai watches at ********** ***, sitting a few empty tables away from a couple that was so in love that they sat side-by-side, the man's hand so tightly clasped on his girlfriend's thigh that he could sniff it contentedly while she slipped away to the bathroom, and another couple who sat across from each other on a narrow two top and fed each other spoonfuls of panna cotta and mango ice cream and cotton candy grass (the panna cotta was shaped like a bunny). And I would comfort myself by saying, Well, how arrogant of me, to assume there is anything to be written about Beijing, by me, at least, and it's better to simply enjoy it, and the truth is always more interesting.


&: Scenes from sukeban films (Ike + Sugimoto)

There's something about the seven or eight films that Ike Reiko and Sugimoto Miki made between 1970something and 1970something invite you to write your own story over top of them, like a blank screen for projecting whatever ideas you want. They have a dreamlike quality. I mean. There are people that you dream about, and you can dream about them for years, even if you haven’t seen them in a decade, two decades, and they pop up again and again, always themselves but recast in different roles. I still dream about ******, all these years later, and sometimes it is the present and sometimes it is ten years earlier or ten years in the future, and we might still be together or she might be a prison warden or a waitress or a remarried and living in Nipawin, but—like Reiko and Miki, trapped forever in 1972 or 1973—she is perpetually young, perpetually beautiful, eternally the same. I wake up each time I dream about her and wonder: ******, where are you now? ******, are you still beautiful? Ike Reiko, where are you now? Sugimoto Miki, where are you now? I know roughly where ****** would be, but I couldn't answer the same question about Ike Reiko or Sugimoto Miki. I find myself studying the faces of older women on the subway, the glamorous women that get off at Higashi-Ginza as I ride out to Shibuya, or peering down from a pedestrian overpass on Omotesando, looking through the zelkova... Ike Reiko would be sixty-six years old but perhaps it is too optimistic to imagine her as still glamorous, still living in Tokyo. She retired from acting before I was born. There is not much to go on, with her later biography. Is there any truth to the rumors of drugs and gambling? Did she get married? Did she have kids? Sugimoto Miki would be the same age, too, and she left the business even earlier than Ike Reiko, supposedly marrying a businessman and becoming a preschool teacher. It doesn't really matter. Like ******, the only place I ever see Sugimoto Miki and Ike Reiko are my dreams—and these pink films are like dreams, aren't they? They resemble dreams, to me, in form and tone, with plots that meander or never really make sense, and then sudden bursts of action, dominated by violence, sex, and torture.

The pink movies are from another time, the mid-late Showa so distant it might as well be a dream. They were meant to represent reality intensified—you couldn't put blood and guts on TV and it would be another decade or so before everyone had a VCR. The pink films brought In another age, maybe Ike and Sugimoto would have been bigger stars, or maybe they would have disappeared onto the roster of some back alley production company's roster, starring in monster movies or, well, hey, maybe doing AV, right? But in the early-1970s, the big production companies forced out the smaller players and started making their own pink films. Nikkatsu kept making gangster flicks and employing Imamura Shohei, but their Romanporno series was what paid the bills when respectable people stayed home to watch TV. The pink world was inhabited by onsen voyeurs and promiscuous danchi wives and horny shoguns. Toei launched their own pink series and put all their best legitimate talent behind it, so even though the films were churned out with tight deadlines and tighter budgets, they are often technically sound, and often beautiful and strange and compelling. Nikkatsu directors. They had stars. Nikkatsu had Miyashita Junko and Katagiri Yuko. But Ike Reiko and Sugimoto Miki are immortal because of another Toei innovation: they figured out that the best way to combine softcore pornography and bloody beatdowns was to center the films on female gangsters. These are the sukeban films.

There are other films that could be put in the sukeban category (I’m thinking of Half-Breed Rika, Criminal Woman: Killing Melody, some of the Stray Cat Rock films, especially Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss, and maybe even the Female Convict Scorpion series) but, to me, the ones without Ike Reiko and Miki Sugimoto do not count. The two women starred together in most of the Girl Boss series and most of the films in the Terrifying Girls' High School series. These are the films I’m talking about when I talk about the extended dream that the two actresses are trapped in.

There is a scene midway through Terrifying Girls' High School: Women's Violent Classroom (1972) that I think comes close to summing up the genre: high school girl boss, Michiko (Sugimoto Miki) directs her clique to bind their teacher, Yoshioka Keichi (Naruse Masataka ) and then directs three of her bosozoku friends to kidnap and rape his girlfriend in front of him, and then, out of nowhere, Yuki (Ike Reiko), arrives to stop the rape and formally challenge Michiko to one-on-one combat—and cut to a knife fight on Venus Bridge, overlooking Kobe.

The rape is eroticized and fetishized, with the camera over the shoulder of one of the three young thugs as he uses a heavy pair of scissors to cut the clothes off the woman and then teases her nipples with the cold metal handle. Her panties are ripped off and tossed to one of the members of Michiko’s clique, who sniffs them and passes them to another girl to cram in the mouth of Yoshioka Keichi. The setting of the film is modern, but the rules that govern the gangs are from an earlier time. When Yuki bows to make her jingi o kiru introduction to invite Michiko to a one-on-one fight, or taiman, she’s abiding by the codes of her contemporary criminals but also the rough men of earlier times. Their fight on Venus Bridge is conducted according to the rules of chivalry films, or ninkyo eiga, but they can be traced further back to the jianghu. But, forget about that. I’m not a sophisticated viewer. I miss most of the subtleties. I’m watching without subtitles and relying on my weak Japanese.

Forget about that. This is not a reading of the films, since I contend that there's not much to read into them. The idea that they represent "communal feminism" or "spaces of social and sexual transgression" or are "subversive cinematic expressions of Japanese gender" or a "feminine counter-gaze" isn't convincing to me. These films sprung from the mind of studio executives and were executed by their directors with as much artistic integrity as they could hold onto, and they are fantasies. They're dreams. And so this is the most reaction, rather than a reading. It's just the story that I have laid over the films, fueled by my own fantasies. Ike Reiko and Miki Sugimoto have the most captivating faces I have ever seen on film. The sukeban films are an extended love story between them, told mostly through their eyes and the glances they share. The lovers meet and are parted, over and over again. This is not an analysis, and even if it was, it barely rises above slash fiction.

In this film, the key moment is shortly after they face off in the classroom. All other action seems to end and it seems to fade into the background. Over Michiko’s shoulder, we see the bosozoku thugs making a hasty retreat. The eyes of Michiko and Yuki meet. Those two faces, even if you have never seen these films, perhaps you can already guess their temperaments. Sugimoto is hard and vindictive. She is a lone wolf, sometimes, but also a brutal leader. Ike is the soft, feminine aspect. She is a convincing seductress.

The scene on Venus Bridge is part of the extended dream. High above Kobe, they might as well be two immortals in heaven. They roll on the ground and slap each other and grapple, but everything is communicated in their glances. It must have been intended as an erotic scene. There is no other explanation. And there is no romantic subtext here, or in any of the Ike-Sugimoto films, but look at their eyes… Maybe knowing the plot would help, but maybe not. These are the same faces that both women wear in a dozen other films, and they begin to feel real, and it’s hard not to think that they might reveal something of their true selves. That’s wishful thinking, maybe. That’s voyeurism; that’s trying to peer through the drapes.

The scene ends with Michiko producing a knife and tossing a twin switchblade to Yuki. The two women draw each other's blood. That is how relationships are sealed. There is a bond between them. They rule it a draw. Yuki runs from the bridge, dropping her wallet. Michiko picks it up and finds a newspaper clipping in it. Michiko learns that Yuki was orphaned as a child. They are bound even closer.

It's all part of the same dream. In a film shot a year later, Girl Boss Revenge (1973) Kanto Komasa (Sugimoto) falls afoul of the yakuza after robbing a card game. She is chained up and tortured. When she is freed by a junior member who takes pity on her, she repays him by seducing him. The camera slowly rolls down her bruised body. We have just seen her face in suffering (and nobody suffers like Sugimoto Miki), and now we see it in a type of ecstasy. Her body has just been stamped on by the yakuza wife who pried off one of her nails with a hairpin, but now she is in the arms of a man who cradles her on the dusty floor of a warehouse. But the man who she repays with her body is Maya's (Ike Reiko) one true love. She stumbles in to find them.

The scene is almost silent. The best Ike-Sugimoto scenes are silent. Ike Reiko's face seems to betray something—is it some inauthentic acting, the strangely stagey look she gives when she catches sight of Komasa, nude on the warehouse floor? She parts her lips, as if she is about to speak, then purses them and seems to shudder. Maybe it's meant to seem inauthentic. Maybe Maya is signaling something to Komasa, or trying to summon up a feeling that she doesn't really feel. Maybe there's an understanding. The two women share something intimate again. Not blood this time, but the same lover. And when Maya is betrayed by the same man and tortured in the same way that Komasa was, it is Komasa who comes to save her and to plan revenge.

The characters repeat. Maybe not in name but in type and temperament. The scenes repeat. Maybe not exactly but in form and tone. Ike and Sugimoto meet again, this time as Nami and Sachiko in Girl Boss Guerilla (1972). Once again, Sugimoto's Sachiko is a hard woman who makes her living in the jianghu, traveling from town to town, winding up this time in Kyoto. Once again, Ike's Nami rules with charm and is a seductress who has her heart broken. They meet in combat and earn each other's respect and form a bond.

When Sachiko is caught by yakuza thugs, it is Nami who saves her. She arrives with a rifle, gesturing for Sachiko to be freed. They let her go and Nami gives herself to the gangsters, beaten with the butt of her own gun, then raped by an underboss. It is Nami's own brother that allows her to be raped, and it is Sachiko that finally gets revenge, planting a bundle of dynamite and a timer in a Nissan Gloria driven by the yakuza leadership. And I only vaguely remember the plot of the film, which I seem to recall involves a boxing match being thrown, and has an extended scene of a woman being tattooed... It doesn't matter. That could be another film. The scenes repeat, the themes repeat. These are dreams. I appreciate a vignette, pulled at random, just as much, separated from the rest of the film.

The film closes on Sachiko leaving town with the original crew of bikers that she arrived with, but forget that, and it closes with a lingering look between Sachiko and Nami, one of them up on the mountain road and the other down by the stairwell where the two women bonded after their fight. Maybe the glance is more complicated than I imagine, but it's hard not to see it as the two women looking longingly into the middle distance and thinking of each other.

&: Scenes from sukeban films (first attempt)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (detour, unexceptional readings of '70s pulp cinema)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (bloodletting, youth in revolt)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (communal feminism is in the eye of the beholder)


&: Scenes from sukeban films (communal feminism is in the eye of the beholder)

In pinky violence films enforced sex is frequently eroticised and female bodies are segmented and fetishised, either via bondage setups or filming techniques such as close-ups or low-angle shots. Cameras zoom in or pan over half-open mouths, breasts, napes, feet, women's faces writhing in pleasure (or pain during S/M-style tortures). Furthermore, many scenes suggest the characters are undressing, bathing or engaging in sexual activities oblivious to men who spy on them. Considering the above, these films substantiate Laura Mulvey's (1989) argument of the male scopophilic gaze as objectifying, fetishistic and voyeuristic. At the same time, however, pinky violence films also feature sequences in which heroines look back at their attackers with fiery, menacing gazes that terrify and act as preludes to revenge. They look into the camera, sometimes holding a blade or pointing a gun, not just as male characters, therefore, but also at complicit spectators. ... If the representation of female violent agency, resilience and will to overpower male antagonists does not obliterate the ... sexual objectification ... it certainly takes on (thanks to the hybridisation with horror and crime-action films) an unusual dimension and dynamism compared to the more stereotypical representations of celluloid heroines as enduring, sexually passive and meek. (This is from: "Sexing Up Post-War Japanese Cinema: Looking at the 1960s/1970s 'Pinky Violence' Films," by Laura Treglia in Pornographies: Critical Positions [2018])
And, well, I would argue, and not as expert, even the "counter-gaze" is meant to be erotic, as well, even if it signals a coming revenge plot. It seems to function much like the shot in gonzo porn, when the director requests the leading lady—and the plot, when there is one, usually suggests coercion, or at least hesitancy, and, yes, sometimes even anger—to look him in the eye, which is a request to stare directly into the lens of the camera and up at the viewer, the "complicit spectator." But the problem with applying this idea to these early-'70s films is: it is often the case that nobody is punished, and it is often the case that the woman being abused is not a heroic outlaw figure but simply a minor character. In the dozens plus rapes and suggested rapes that open Konketsuji Rika《混血児リカ》(1972), to take a film with no shortage of sexual violence, there are no fiery gazes and the only punishment meted out is to a man that attempts to pick up Rika in a bar shortly after she is raped by her mother's boyfriend... And in Terrifying Girls' High School: Women's Violent Classroom《恐怖女子高校 女暴力教室》(1972), rape is even employed as a tactic by the girls themselves, as when Michiko 迪子 (Sugimoto Miki 杉本美樹) directs her clique to bind their teacher, Yoshioka Keichi 吉岡敬一 (Naruse Masataka 成瀬正孝), and has his girlfriend raped in front of him.

The scene is all the more disturbing because we have an early scene of Michiko returning home to argue with her family which prompts her to retrace the moment that she thinks set her on a dark path to juvenile delinquency. She stands at a chainlink fence, reliving her own rape. Later she forces her teacher to stand in the same position. The rape of young Michiko is played against a soundtrack of shrieks and moans, there is a lingering upskirt as she struggles with her attackers, and we see her bra ripped off and her breasts fondled.

And in the same film, Sumiko 澄子 (Ema Ryoko 衣麻遼子), leader of the rival gang in the school, tortures a member of Michiko's gang by putting out cigarettes on her breasts. After Sumiko hangs up, the camera goes in for a closeup of her burnt flesh.

Or the many scenes of sadistic sexual torture in Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom《恐怖女子高校 暴行リンチ教室》(1973)...

But so, taking another step back to where we started, and away from the detour into sexual violence, returning to the counter-gaze, and "radical representations of female sexuality" (that's how Martin Huisman puts it, in a paper on Meiko Kaji revenge films)... Let's pause here and turn to the examples that Laura Treglia cites on that same page: Ocho お蝶 (played by Ike Reiko 池玲子, who should appear further along in this piece, too) in Sex and Fury《不良姐御伝 猪の鹿お蝶 》(1973) in one of the most stunning scenes ever filmed, featuring a nude Ocho flinging a hanafuda into a man's eye before jumping out of the bath to cut down dozens of men in a snowy courtyard, and then Sasori in Female Prisoner Scorpion. These are rare examples and very different films than the Terrifying Girls' High School or Sukeban series...

And I flip to "Pinky Violence: Shock, Awe and the Exploitation of Sexual Liberation" by Alicia Kozma in the Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema (2011), which gives a reading of the sukeban films that differs completely from my own and beginning with the history...
Western feminist-led organizations... led a series of efforts in Japan in the late 1940s in order to help Japanese women liberate (read: westernize) themselves by working to overcome what they considered to be the culturally bred tendencies that disabled them from fully participating in society and government (Garner 2004: 216). An allegiance formed between western feminists, the occupying Allied forces and politically astute Japanese feminists to advocate for the political and civil rights of Japanese women (Garner 2004: 215). As a result of these and other efforts, Japanese women were given the right to vote in 1947, and a new Constitution developed by the occupying Allied authorities included an equal rights clause and a revised Civil Code allowing women new spousal, property, education and equal-pay rights. Thus, by the late 1960s, when Pinky Violence films would make their first appearance, Japanese women were ostensibly living in a more equitable society, affording them more social and legal freedom than ever before.
Cinematically, New Wave Japanese film-makers like Hani, Imamura and Oshima were transforming Japanese cinema by incorporating revolutionary ideas into their work: social outcasts as protagonists, critiques of social structures, uninhibited sexuality and the changing roles of women (Mellen 1976: 419–26). Combined with the new role of film as an exploration of the post-war Japanese identity, a new type of Japanese cinematic realism emerged. The low-budget, non-studio films of the New Wave, and the growing role of exploitation film, provided fertile ground for new female characterizations in Japanese film, from more prominent roles in traditional yakuza films to the female gambler movies like the Hibotan bakuto/Red Peony Gambler series (1968–1972). These social, stylistic and aesthetic changes converged in the character of the sukeban.
Kozma argues that the girl gangs "exploit normative Japanese society to survive, in the process exposing hypocrisy and validating their outlaw status." I tend to see the outlaw world of Japan as aggressively normative, the flip-side of the topside world but intimately connected to it (this is even more true in Japan than it is in, say, the United States, since organized crime groups were—and are still—frequently deployed to mete out extrajudicial justice, or for tasks like breaking strikes or intimidating rivals). The sukebanare usually presented as subordinates of larger organized crime enterprises, led by men, and the action is often directed by those men; the underworld power of sukeban is often drawn from their connection to yakuza groups, as is the case in "What is conspicuously missing from their group structure," Kozma writes, "is a rigid power dynamic, instead replaced with a type of communal feminism fostered by equal participation in all activities, democratic decision-making and a protective nature." The lack of a rigid power dynamic is undercut by the themes of devotion to the charismatic sukeban leader, rituals to seal membership, the clear divisions between groups, and the fact that the gangs are often ordered into life-or-death battles. By the loosest definition, there might be some form of communal feminism, I guess... but they still fucking torture each other. I'm thinking of a scene in Sukeban: Escape from Reform School《女番長 感化院脱走》(1973), where Matsumoto Mina 松本三奈 (Sunaga Katsuyo 須永かつ代), while Aoki Ruriko 青木るり子 (Sugimoto) is preparing to set a fire in the reform school, says, to another girl's concerns, "Let 'em die, we're getting out of here."

The idea of these films as "spaces of social and sexual transgression" or a "subversive cinematic expressions of Japanese gender" seems problematic.

Addressing the near-constant sexual violence, Kozma writes...
In order to find this nudity sexually exciting, the viewer would be forced to implicate themselves as the torturers and rapists of the characters they have come to identify as their heroes, severing their primary character identification. Based on the films’ refusal to create other characters that could engender identification, desuturing the viewer from the female hero would leave the audience in an unmoored viewing position. As such, transferring identification to allow for sexual titillation is unlikely. Therefore, male-on-female violence further solidifies the audience’s connection with the female characters through sympathy.
This perspective is tempting. I find the sexual violence of the sukeban films not just slightly off-putting but also mystifying, since they are so clearly eroticized—but often the rapes are carried out on characters with whom the viewer might not particularly identify with (like the teacher's girlfriend or the not-yet-formally-introduced characters at the beginning of Konketsuji Rika or the daughter of the prime ministerial candidate in Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs《0課の女 赤い手錠》[1974], and yes, those scenes are horrifying, still, and the viewer might sympathize, if not identify with the woman being abused), and the erotic staging can't be just written off... Rape and sexual torture is always erotic in these films. It is sometimes presented as repulsive or evil, when it happens to a virginal character or an innocent bystander, but, even then, that is often used to heighten the eroticism. The way the camera lingers on Michiko's plain cotton panties shortly before they are ripped off by a gang of rapists—well, that's not included in the edit because it's meant to horrify the viewer, necessarily.

Also, much of the sexual violence seems to be presented as punishment or corrective. Kozma calls the sexual assaults "abnormal violence," but they are never presented as such, and, in fact, become so normal that viewers might not notice they've just watched dozens of rapes in an hour runtime. When rape is "punished" by violence, it is often at the direction of patriarchal figures, like in Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs, where a gang of criminals is tracked down because they are unlucky enough to have raped and kidnapped the daughter of a powerful politician.

The sexual and gender politics of the pulp film world is more traditional and conservative than it is subversive or transgressive. Rape is what turns Michiko bad, after all, and it's what turns Rika bad, too, etc. They become bad girls because they are raped and the honorable path is cut off, rather than becoming bad girls to seek revenge for their rape. The women in the film can be raped freely because they have become something other than wife or virgin. The women can freely sacrifice their bodies (as they do in numerous blackmail schemes) because they no longer have any value.

(And we can go back to the previous discussion of the supposedly anti-authoritarian riot at the end of the Lynch Law Classroom, which I also think defies the easy reading, or Sexjacking...)

I think there is something to looking at contemporary echoes of the sukeban genre, and not Sukeban Deka, or the kitschy parodies, like Bloodbath at Pinky High《女子高生暴力教室 牝蜂の復讐》(2012) but something like the Cute Yankii Debut 可愛い過ぎるヤンキー娘デビュー series, which are the purest distillation of what's going on with the sex in sukeban movies: bad girls are punished for their transgressions, often at the hands of men representing outlaw figures like bikers or criminals, or they exploit symbols of polite society, giving freely of their bodies, which can no longer be transferred to the ownership of a husband, because their virginity has been compromised. Ijima Kuga 飯島くうが, posing on the cover of a DVD with a tiger across her belly, is an outlaw, and she is cool, but very few of the viewers are identifying with her (or they are, but for less complicated reasons)...

Now, leaving aside whether or not the pulp films are transgressive or represent a communal feminism, and let's agree that most of the sexual violence is either repulsive or mystifying, is there anything genuinely erotic in them? That's the wrong word—erotic—and I'm talking personally, now... But is it all repulsive? No. Honestly, the sadistic torture of Kanto Komasa 関東小政 (played by Sugimoto Miki) in Sukeban《女番長 》aka Girl Boss Revenge (1973) is powerfully erotic to me (and perhaps it is still repulsive, too). But I mean something more intimate, romantic, and, ideally, consentual... The lesbian makeout in the bathroom stall in Lynch Law Classroom, maybe. But also the battle on Venus Bridge in Women's Violent Classroom between Michiko (Sugimoto Miki) and Yuki 由紀 (Ike Reiko). There's something deeply intimate about it, right down to the glances they exchange...

Or even the scene in Sukeban Blues: Queen Bee Strikes Back《女番長ブルース 牝蜂の逆襲》(1971), where Jun ジュン (Kagawa Yukie 賀川雪絵) seals her devotion to Reiko 玲子 (Ike Reiko) by sucking blood from a cut in her arm.

Most of these moments involve Ike Reiko.

Sugimoto Miki has a face that is beautiful in suffering, as in her chained sadistic torture in Girl Boss Revenge or her Noriko of the Cross electric shock scene in Lynch Law Classroom, but Ike Reiko is the best at expressing a pure, orgasmic bliss. You can go watch Modern Porno Tale: Inherited Sex Mania 《現代ポルノ伝 先天性淫婦 》(1971), which falls outside of this sukeban-focused review, but features Ike Reiko bringing herself to orgasm, and then joining French actress Sandra Julien for a shower, but there is also her leafy sex scene in Sukeban Blues: Queen Bee's Challenge《女番長ブルース 牝蜂の挑戦 》(1974) or as Yuki in the final scene of Women's Violent Classroom, seducing the administrator, before revealing the chrysanthemum tattoo on her inner thigh.

&: Scenes from sukeban films (first attempt)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (detour, unexceptional readings of '70s pulp cinema)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (bloodletting, youth in revolt)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (Ike + Sugimoto)


&: Scenes from sukeban films (bloodletting, youth in revolt)

Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom《恐怖女子高校 暴行リンチ教室》(1973) opens with a bloodletting. The members of the fearsome team of student monitors charged by administrators to keep order at the school for delinquent girls are torturing Akiyama Michiko 秋山道代 (Jo Megumi 城恵美). They strip her naked, slice a razor blade across her breast, and then begin to drain her blood into a flask. She manages to break free and runs up the school's rooftop. She jumps. The police arrive and inform the principal: Best to just sweep this under the rug, so let's rule it a suicide and move on.

While most of the girl boss movies set the scene with low stakes gang warfare that spirals into chaos, there is something deeply unsettling about the opening of Lynch Law Classroom, with the teenaged girls' faces covered in red masks, and the school biology lab converted to a makeshift laboratory. It's clear the enemy here is not simply a rival boss but something more sinister.

Kazama Noriko 風間典子 (Sugimoto Miki 杉本美樹) steps off a train and gets busted trying to steal a Cedric from longterm parking, Kitano Remi 北野レミ (Ota Misuzu 太田美鈴) is arrested for slicing up the face of street tough, and Kubo Kyoko 久保京子 (Saburi Seiko 佐分利聖子) is arrested after a handjob to a trucker results in an accident. They are deposited at the school and brought before administrators before being turned over to the student monitors.

In a scene straight out of a wuxia novel, Nishida Tomoko 西田とも子 (Asano Yukiko 浅野由紀子?), sees the crucifix discovered by the monitors in their search, and she goes to find Noriko—to show her a matching crucifix, which was in Akiyama Michiko's possession when she died. Noriko realizes that Akiyama was a member of her gang, and vows to get revenge. Kitano Remi and Kubo Kyoko are quick to pledge allegiance to Noriko, and hearing rumors that she is going to challenge the student monitors, a small band assembles around her.

Maybe the girl bosses are like wuxia heroes and are mostly free of sexual desire. I don't know. At least a tenth of the runtime of all sukeban pulp movies are sex scenes, but there are very few scenes suggesting love or even intimacy. Most of the sex in pulp flicks is rape—it's either that or it's one of the girl gangsters using sex to exploit, blackmail, or otherwise trick male rivals. And there is also nothing special about the sisterhood of the sukeban heroes, either. They are female outlaws but they are outlaws first. So, there is a surprising dearth of girl-on-girl sex, and when it arrives early in this film, and Kubo Kyoko invades a toilet stall to seduce a student monitor (is that Kano Yuko 叶優子?), it falls into the second category, sex to exploit or blackmail. It's played like a porn scenario, with the student monitor resisting at first, then relenting, having a shuddering orgasm as she is fingered over the toilet bowl, but, still, there is something tender in it, and it stands out in a genre dominated by sadistic torture and rape fantasies.

Ike Reiko 池玲子 appears as Takigawa Maki 多岐川真紀, ripping through the hallways of the school on her Yamaha, then striding to the lectern to deliver a formal introduction and an invitation to one-on-one combat.

Ike Reiko and Sugimoto Miki never did much after churning out pulp films in the '70s. Sugimoto made her debut at the age of eighteen, had her final starring role at twenty-one, had almost completely disappeared by her twenty-third birthday, and announced her retirement from the entertainment industry shortly after. Ike Reiko started around the same time as Sugimoto, tried her hand as a singer, then mostly faded away, appearing on TV through the early-1980s (there are rumors of a drug arrest and another for gambling, but I can't find any Japanese-language references or contemporary news stories). I don't consider myself a devoted fan of Japanese genre films, and this exploration of sukeban might not yield much more than a deep admiration for both women. Like every great actor, they play roughly the same character in each film, but light up the screen every time they appear. Sugimoto is the quietly resilient hero, bound by chivalric codes, and Ike is a bone hard vixen, happy to cut the throat of any man that crosses her—these are not, superficially, at least, complicated characters, but both women have so much going on in a single glance or a smile that there seems to be so much more to them.

As they do in most films, Ike and Sugimoto team up in Lynch Law Classroom. Noriko agrees to the duel but explains that she has a more pressing concern—justice for Akiyama—and Maki agrees to postpone their personal score-settling (she makes her jump the Yamaha over a pile of barrels).

After pulling off a plot to blackmail school administrators, the Noriko clique is seized by the student monitors. Police intervene but they stand by as two of Noriko's crew are tortured. When they grab Noriko to give her the same treatment, she waves them off, pulls off her uniform to reveal her crucifix pendant and the tattoo on her leg. She volunteers to suffer.

I'm not a sophisticated viewer. I don't know how to write about these movies, or express what I get out of them. But the fact that they lack depth is part of what I like about pulp films. Yes, there are things going on below the surface, I know, but I do like to be hit over the head: Noriko's suffering is Christlike, and there is no way that it could be mistaken as anything else. This is Noriko of the Cross. She writhes, her face drained of blood, in a scene reminiscent of her performance as Kanto Komasa's 関東小政 in Sukeban《女番長 》aka Girl Boss Revenge (1973), where she is chained and caned by yakuza thugs before having a fingernail pried off. Nobody suffers like Sugimoto Miki.

When the virginal Nishida Tomoko is raped by a local politician, who happens to be a benefactor of the school, the plan kicks into high gear, Noriko kidnaps the politician and delivers him to the school, along with the wife of the principal. Noriko climbs down to disrupt the anniversary ceremony and order the school destroyed.

It's tempting to see the final sequence of Lynch Law Classroom as restaging the protests of the 1960s and the occupation of campuses; it's tempting, also, to say that the restaging in a '70s exploitation film is less about ideology than it is about how purely attractive images of youth in revolt could be, just superficially; and I don't know enough to explain why neither is true. But there seems to be an undercurrent in the sukeban films (and other yakuza and pulp films of the era) of grafting the traditional onto the modern—these films are absurd because nobody really lived like a chivalrous wuxia hero in postwar Japan. The Chinese were at least intentionally shredding their cultural heritage, while the Japanese lost it through occupation and modernization, then spent the next several decades in search of a national identity. Maybe there's a more conservative reading possible, even with the modern trappings, referencing the student protests, of a group of traditional outlaws revolting against predatory local lords, maybe even an authentic Japanese culture in opposition to the rapacious bureaucracy? (What are the politics of Wakamatsu Koji's 若松孝二 Seizoku: Sexjacking《性賊: セックスジャック》[1970], a ripped-from-the-headlines film based on the hijacking and diversion to Pyongyang of a JAL flight by the Japanese Red Army? It doesn't seem to be about Marxism or terrorism, at all, despite the source material, and more about sexual liberation.) (But please see: Politics, Porn and Protest: Japanese Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s by Isolde Standish)

&: Scenes from sukeban films (first attempt)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (detour, unexceptional readings of '70s pulp cinema)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (communal feminism is in the eye of the beholder)
&: Scenes from sukeban films (Ike + Sugimoto)