&: Scenes from sukeban films

(first attempt)

I used to watch the The Drambuie Showcase Revue, which was on after midnight, and was the first place I saw Eat Drink Man Woman, The Belly of an Architect, El Mariachi, A Better Tomorrow, Temptress Moon, etc. etc. My sexuality was informed by films like Bolero, High Heels, Kika, Kids, La Celestina, Malena, Quiet Days in Clichy, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! I still stay awake too late. I work at night. It's always been this way. Sometimes I have the TV going, tuned to a movie channel that shows mostly obscure arthouse films. Late at night, it tends toward Japanese X-rated films, and they have recently played a number of sukeban films, about delinquent teenaged girl gangsters. I know nothing about this Japan, which disappeared a long time ago (maybe it still exists in some pockets of Osaka?)

The opening sequence of Sukeban Blues: Queen Bee Strikes Back《女番長ブルース 牝蜂の逆襲》(1971) featuring Reiko 玲子 (Ike Reiko 池玲子) (the titular sukeban) and Jun ジュン ( Kagawa Yukie 賀川雪絵) luring a salaryman into a trap: a member of their gang, posing as a high school girl, is offered up to the unwitting office drone, who is then drugged and raped. The sukeban films are not unlike Russ Meyer's but decidedly less provocative: the girl gangsters are into traditional gender roles, and they're usually caught up in the slipstream of action set in motion by men, they are pawns in the internecine feuding of established organized crime groups, and they're deeply misogynist. The sukeban films, unlike the ninkyo eiga 仁侠映画 (so, basically, wuxia/bukyo 武侠 tales with a yakuza backdrop) or even the Mukokuseki Action 無国籍アクション (yakuza films with a more international flavor) didn't have the same obsession with codes of honor and internal politics, and were chaotic and maybe more violent.

The women and girls in the gang are bad girls. As the credits of Sukeban Blues roll, we are given clashing images of the good girls, at work in factories and looking after their families, and the bad girls, abusing inhalants in an Osaka slum or stealing purses at a pachinko parlor. They are not virgins, either, I can tell you that—Reiko sends a new recruit into the bathroom to break her hymen before she is allowed to join. Flip back to that sequence, and the girls are threats to the stable family. The salaryman was wary at first, Reiko approaching him as he left a train station, but he was tempted away... There is a moment, as he caresses the high school girl that she suddenly, violently spreads her legs, scaring the poor man. Thank God he was only drugged and robbed! They are outlaws but still governed by the same gender roles that govern the shadow world of crime and delinquency, so a preying on civilians is permitted but not preying on the patriarchs of the underworld.

In a scene in Sukeban《女番長 》aka Girl Boss Revenge (1973), Kanto Komasa 関東小政, played by Sugimoto Miki 杉本美樹 (I wish I knew for sure, but her name, and the name of Ike Reiko's 池玲子 character Maya 摩耶 must be an allusion to two characters of the same names in Gate of Flesh《肉体の門》[1964], a film based on Tamura Taijiro's novel about runaway teens that turn to prostitution in bombed-out postwar Tokyo—one even has the characters 関東小政 tattooed on her breast: "When she thought about the fancy pan-pans from Yamanote who sometimes invaded her turf, and how she would now be able to pull one into an alley and startle her by baring the 'Kanto Komasa' tattoo in the light of the moon and neon signs, Sen's breast tingled with fighting spirit." [This is from Tamura's novel, translated in "The Japan Communist Party and the Debate over Literary Strategy under the Allied Occupation of Japan" by J. Victor Koschmann in Legacies and Ambiguities: Postwar Fiction and Culture in West Germany and Japan (1991)]) reveals a tattoo on her inner thigh, shortly before she robs a gambling spot following a police raid coordinated by a girl gang accomplice. The yakuza group targeted in the robbery discovers their men tied up by Komasa's accomplices and the next time we see her, she is suspended from chains in a garage. We see her writhing.

Komasa looks drained of all blood. Her lips are so pale.

But it is theatrical torture. The moaning is so poorly dubbed that it feels like watching a German porno flick dubbed into English, with the voice actors moaning in a cheap home studio somewhere...

It is pure pornography. I mean: it is meant to be erotic and we—the viewer, or maybe just me—never worry for the safety of Komasa, nor do we really pity here. Her tanned skin is oiled, then misted by a stage hand. Her face seems drained, but there is theatrical blood spattered across her neck. The camera pans down her body.

Her tattoo is revealed again. No longer a symbol of her fleshy feminine power, but fleshy feminine power vanquished.

But no man can be as cruel to a woman as a woman can be to a fellow member of her gender. When Komasa, unbowed, spits in the face of the yakuza boss, his wife pops an 8-track into the stereo of the Buick and walks to where she hangs. She pulls out a hairpin from her immaculate coiffure and goes to work, prying up Komasa's fingernails. (*****, who I watched the film with, wondered at the lack of lesbian sex in the film, but this comes as close as possible.) The yakuza wife, seeing that Komasa has finally succumbed, gives her a measure of relief, releasing the chains, so that her feet finally touch the cold concrete of the garage.

&: 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 (Ike + Sugimoto)