&: 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)