&: 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)