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Friday, December 15, 2006

Justin Reviews 'Sukeban Deka: Kôdo nêmu = Asamiya Saki'

Sukeban Deka スケバン刑事 コードネーム=麻宮サキ, I'm disappointed in you.

I'm disappointed because a movie that contains both Morning Musume and leather-clad school girls flinging yo-yos and chemical weapons at each other ought to be a masterpiece by default - but as mentioned in my previous review of D.B. Weiss's debut novel Lucky Wander Boy, 'ought' can be a misleading word. Just as that book - which I expected to suck at least mildly - turned out to be awesome, so did Sukeban Deka take me aback with its relative shittiness. Don't get me wrong, the movie is certainly competent, but only in an incredibly soulless and professional way, with even signifiers that usually result in instant joy - katanas, sailor uniforms, bombs, etc. - here evincing only a bland tedium.

Okay, Sukeban Deka is far from being an outright abomination - but it's not good, either. No, this is a very bad movie, most definitely B-grade, but it doesn't approach the surreal greatness that the best films of its kind offer. The screenplay could have been written by a fourteen year old, but not in a good way. Remember Asia: The Movie, Swifty and I's satirical script? The Sukeban Deka screenplay is maybe a notch above that in terms of complexity and depth. Imagine far, far too many deep-focus zooms, lots of posing, and people screaming

"I'm going to kill you!"

"No, I'm going to FUCKING kill YOU!"

for a little over an hour and a half, and you'll get the idea.* The really sad thing is that even the starring presence of first-tier MoMusus can't really redeem it.

Let's talk about those MoMusus for a bit. Under any circumstances, Aya Matsuura would seem woefully miscast as any kind of 'sukeban' or 'delinquent', and I can't say the film offers much evidence to the contrary. Matsuura pulls off 'hardcore' better than you'd expect, and is willing to get durrty in a few scenes of brutalization, but she's still a pretty one-note actress. She doesn't make the title character, Saki, all that sympathetic, and seeing her mow through legions of cops and gangs doesn't have the zip or lightness it should. If I'm watching a fairly slight young girl in a school uniform take on multiple ripped adult males, I'm already dropping a pretty high suspension of disbelief, but the movie doesn't seem to realize this, and most of the fighting and action is dragged down by leaden choreography. Again, Matsuura is competent, but I'm still trying to imagine Mikitty or (my favorite) Hitomi from Melons Kinenbi in this role. SO much cooler! As for Rika Ishikawa...okay. Rika is GREAT in this, but I'll get to her in a bit.

The storyline, based on the manga, is about the heroine being taken from the streets of NYC with her mother, a former intelligence agent, to be recruited for the Japanese government. Going undercover as a high schooler, she's given a deadly yo-yo (the only logical choice for high school violence, really) and assigned the codename Asamiya Saki, her mission to root out a gang using an internet site to take advantage of bullied kids by selling them explosives. High school bullying has got to be about the most played-out theme conceivable in Japanese entertainment plotlines, but here all the hoary old standards are trotted out again: the 'dull' girl who cuts herself, the otaku club members, etc. - while the devious website plot is straight out of second-string J-horror. Everyone takes it all pretty seriously. In all honesty, I'm not familiar with the manga or the earlier televised versions, so I can't say how this compares in terms of faithfulness - but I get the feeling the earlier stuff wasn't intended to be this dark. The direction doesn't help much, with the opening scenes being uniformly under-lit imitations of night-time New York. As the backstory is tediously explained, we get shots of Saki tied to walls and her mother starving on the street. Fifteen minutes of drabness and Matsuura in chains isn't as appealing as it sounds, and a quarter of an hour in I was checking my watch: when is this movie going to actually start?* The only redeeming bit is Saki's superior's hilariously understated yet perverse and insistent expression as he hands her a school uniform. The movie picks up a bit with its relocation to Japan, where the high-school plotline gets underway. Here, we have the saving grace of Rika Ishikawa as the bad girl. JESUS FUCK YES. Ishikawa's usual personality and high pitched voice are here subordinated to delicious evil. Remember the evil French-educated weatherwoman in Weatherwoman? Remember how hot she was, and how much you wanted her to win? Ishikawa's character, Reika, is the same. Asamiya Saki might be a hardass bitch with NYC street cred, but evil R(e)ika has simmering contempt. The scene where she introduces herself to Saki is a masterpiece of corrosive evil roiling beneath a frozen mask of civility. SO HOT. That Ishikawa doesn't seem to take the movie entirely seriously is much to her credit - if only the director had learned something from her! There's a great scene where Reika - a former Sukeban Deka herself who went over to the dark side - corners the main villain after helping him out. As he pretty much ignores her, Reika's mask drops as she heartbreakingly asks:

'Won't you hold me tonight?'

In this single line, Ishikawa somehow injects more poignancy than exists in the rest of the entire movie. Is she not evil at all, just - misunderstood? Would a more attentive boyfriend be enough to set her back on the straight-and-narrow? The movie hardly seems equipped to deal with character issues of this complexity. At least there's a later scene where she appears in leather hot pants to bust Saki's ass. HURT ME MORE CHARMY OH FUCK!!!!!!!

The main villain - some random gang boss - has the greatest motivation ever: boredom. Like a cut-rate Kakihara from Ichi the Killer, he's more than willing to throw away his life just to have some fun. I wish they'd written a better story for these characters to inhabit, because I feel like they really could get up to something interesting and amusing if only their options weren't so limited by the mundane plot. Maybe it isn't really a cool idea to blow up ugly kids lacking personal style, but the movie could do a better job of convincing you of it.

This film tries too hard to be dark, which doesn't make sense since it's about high-school girls fighting with yo-yos. Any serious treatment of this theme is going to be automatically self-sabotaging, but Sukeban Deka bizarrely tries to be Battle Royale, or Blue Spring*, or something, when a lighter tone and some more whimsy would have benefited it greatly. Apart from Charmy Ishikawa, the only other thing Sukeban Deka has going for it is some great aerial views of Hachiko Square in Shibuya, the HMV visible in plain sight. These scenes - sadly limited to the film's opening, in which Melon Kinenbi's poor Masae Otani explodes - only made me miss Japan more. In a scene towards the end, Saki calls her mother back in the U.S., who asks her what she's doing in Japan. 'Come back to New York!' she yells over the phone.

No, girl, forget NYC: Shibuya's the place to be. You don't even need a razor-edged yo-yo to kick it like it's hot.

*in nihongo, admittedly. 'urusei' doesn't quite have the same sting as 'shut the fuck up', despite what the Eng-subbers here seem to think.

*The NYPD wearing distinctly Japanese-style police helmets is also a laugh and a half.

* Blue Spring, incidentally, is the best movie yet made by man.