&: 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)