This article was originally published on Moviepilot.com on 23-06-2017
Japan is known for its unique and often awe-inspiring cultural traditions, but it’s also known to go to great lengths in order to preserve male fantasies. Recently, this has been explored in Kyoko Miyake’s Tokyo Idols, exposing the unfortunate truths behind the infatuation of female pop bands in Tokyo and the extremities of the phenomenon. Although we have exposés such as Tokyo Idols showing western audiences how stereotypes are often developed into something marketable within Japan, it can still be hard to know their source of inspiration. However, a greater understanding of Japanese entertainment’s common tropes often results in a better viewing experience – whether it’s through outrage or appreciation.
A great example of this is the prevalence of delinquent school girls in Japanese entertainment, which ranges from anime and manga to television and film. What’s surprising about this juxtaposed stereotype is that this, unlike the pop stars seen in Tokyo Idols, did not originate as an extension of male fantasy. In fact, the truth is simultaneously troublesome and empowering.
In the early ’70s, violent all-female gangs known as ‘sukeban’ could be found on the streets and in the schools of Japan. Posing a very real threat, these youths would carry chains and conceal razor blades (their most popular choice of weapon) underneath their uniformed skirts. Just as the punk movement saw youths customizing leather jackets and denim jeans with pins and patches, sukeban groups would take their school uniforms and give them a gang-influenced makeover.
This iconic image had a huge impact on Japanese youth culture at the time, thanks to its powerful defiance of the traditional patriarchal society in which it was founded. In fact, the movement became so popular among young working class women that the number of girls actively participating in these gangs grew to tens of thousands in the 1980s.
Naturally, this compelling influence soon found its way into mainstream media. When the subculture emerged in 1972, these gangs caused a social crisis and the impact these powerful figures had on Japanese entertainment has been enormous.
How Sukeban Worked: Upholding A Code Of Justice
Sukeban (スケバン/女番/スケ番) translates as “delinquent girl” or perhaps more literally “girl boss”. Their defiant actions caused such a stir that they were even described as “omens of downfall” by Japanese police. This was not only due to their iconic image and their rejection of societal norms, but also because of the organized manner in which they ran individual crime units.
The sukeban image was synonymous with (although not limited to) drug abuse, theft and violence against the general public and rival gangs. That being said, there was a ‘code of justice’ among sukeban groups. Just like the Cosa Nostra and the Yakuza, these high school girl gangs had hierarchal systems in place to protect and serve their counter culture. If a member committed a minor offense, showed disrespect to the gang or seduced another member’s boyfriend, they could be sentenced to having cigarette burns forced onto their skin by fellow gang members. However, this ruling might not have been commonly put to use, as the girls were notoriously loyal to their groups.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the striking image of high school girl gangs rejecting a patriarchal society caught the attention of Japanese filmmakers and manga writers throughout the ’70s and ’80s – putting empowered (although often relentlessly unforgiving) female characters in the spotlight. Since its inception, the counter-culture movement has been influential in the development of anime, manga and Japanese movies and TV. Alicia Kozma, author of Pinky Violence: Shock, Awe and the Exploitation of Sexual Liberationspoke about how this came to be, explaining that,
“They became representations for the social, cultural, and political dichotomies that Japanese society was experiencing at the time … On a broader, more universal level, the idea of women ‘behaving badly’ has always been appealing to audiences, specifically because it is a challenge to the way women are universally taught to act. Seeing this type of resistance to those expectations is thrilling for most and cathartic for many.”
It seems that the sukeban image offered immeasurable intrigue to the Japanese audience, albeit for varying reasons. Some would find their acts of defiance empowering, while those who had struggled with real sukeban gangs throughout high school were upset by their popularity and glorification in entertainment. Nevertheless, their appeal to storytellers was unavoidable thanks to their strength of character, the poetic nature of their rebellion and their potential on-screen sex appeal.
Throughout the 1980s, the gangs featured in seinen and shōjo manga. Titles such as Sukeban Deka and YajiKita Gakuen Dōchūkioffered characters that were often celebrated by readers. This ranged from sukeban-focused manga to titles that featured a sole delinquent with close ties to the movement through their actions, fashion sense and rigorous code of justice. For example, the initial purpose for Sailor Moon‘s Makoto Kino was to be the leader of a sukeban gang, which explains her school uniform and the manner in which she enjoys violence, thriving in moments of conflict.
However, the most famous literal impact sukeban had on the big screen came with what would be known as ‘pink films’, a cinematic movement that was heavily inspired by the country’s violent subculture.
Pink Violence: Sukeban’s On-screen Exploitation
Most notably, director Norifumi Suzuki became known for his seven-film sukeban-inspired saga starring Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto. Having had significant success with the series, he also took inspiration from the real life girl gangs for Terrifying Girls’ High School. These films became known for the intensity of their leading characters and the authenticity of their productions.
“It was a type of radically female solidarity that was not only uncommon for film at the time, but film at any time … Because the women cast in the film were usually not professional actors, wore their own clothes in the films, did their own hair and makeup, it has a type of authenticity that is both deeply felt and exceedingly rare.”
– Alicia Kozma (Author of ‘Pinky Violence: Shock, Awe and the Exploitation of Sexual Liberation’)
As you might expect, these titles were both welcomed and met with controversy, based on each audience member’s view of the real life gangs.
“For middle-class women, sukeban in the media were a welcome relief from chirpy, babyish idols such as Matsuda Seiko. For girls in working class schools who were bullied by real sukeban, they were a source of fear and distaste, similar to how Japanese view yakuza. At the same time, also similar to the yakuza, they were admired for having their own code of ethics and for the value they placed on loyalty to the gang.”
Sukeban-inspired features would even go on to become the staple genre for Toei Company, the studio responsible for titles such as Lynch Law Classroom, Girl Boss Guerilla and School of the Holy Beast.
These titles would take sukeban culture to an extreme, often including taboos in a surrealist environment that pushed the gangs’ codes of justice beyond anything witnessed in reality. Take School of the Holy Beast for example, which focused on Yumi Takigaw as her character joins the Sacred Heart Convent nunnery in order to discover the truth behind her mother’s disappearance.
While at the nunnery, Yumi meets a lesbian mother superior and a number of lecherous archbishops. The convent is ruled with ultraviolet disciplinary punishments, and even encourages “masochistic rituals such as self-flagellation“.
The film is perhaps best known for a scene in which a group of nuns are armed with rose-thorns. The infamous moment shows the exploitative nature of these films, which can also be seen in Lynch Law Classroom, Girl Boss Guerilla and many others.
Despite the subculture’s divisive traits, their influence can still be seen today. Perhaps most famously, audiences have seen inspiration from sukeban gangs when watching Chiaki Kuriyama’s portrayal of Takako Chigusa in Battle Royale and Gogo Yubari in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1.
Chiaki Kuriyama: Translating The Sukeban Movement For Western Audiences
As Hollywood’s resident celluloid DJ, Quentin Tarantino surely cast Kuriyama thanks to her terrifying portrayal as Chigusa in Battle Royale. The famed director holds the film at such high regard that he even called it his favorite movie to have been released since becoming a professional filmmaker in 1992.
“If there’s any movie that has been made since I’ve been making movies that I wish I had made, it’s [Battle Royale].”
– Quentin Tarantino
Throughout the film, which is based on Koushun Takami’s book of the same name, Chiaki Kuriyama embodies the ruthless subculture of the sukeban in a different manner to what can be seen in Lynch Law Classroom or Girl Boss Guerilla. As Chigusa and her fellow classmates are selected by the Japanese government to take part in the dystopian society’s annual event, the school children are forced into dog-eat-dog death match. When introduced to the ‘game’ known as Battle Royale, ‘Girl #13’ Takako Chigusa shows what she is capable of.
In Battle Royale, Chigusa’s beauty makes her a constant target, and she is able to fend for herself despite being thrust into an ultra-violent environment.
“When she refuses to team up with him, Kazushi Niida threatens to rape her and attacks her. She gouges out his eyes and crushes his penis and scrotum, finally killing him with her issued ice pick.” (Source: Wikipedia)
Thanks to Tarantino’s adoration of this powerful performance, Chiaki Kuriyama became another embodiment of the ‘girl boss’. Her Kill Billrole is brief in comparison to her performance in Battle Royale, but is just as memorable, violent and synonymous with the sukeban movement.
“The young girl in the schoolgirl uniform is O-Ren’s personal bodyguard, 17-year-old Gogo Yubari. Gogo may be young, but what she lacks in age, she makes up for in madness.” – Beatrix Kiddo, ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’
These are the words of Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo as she steps forward to take on Gogo Yubari during the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves. In a way, it’s the perfect introduction to the sukeban for western audiences, given that Kiddo cautions the audience not to underestimate the young and beautiful gang member.
It’s likely that as Japanese entertainment becomes increasingly popular in the west, we’ll be seeing further influence of the sukeban in the entertainment we consume. Considering the harsh reality of these fierce gangs, it’s important that audiences know where the movement started and how this counter culture came to be. In fact, a year-old article about the sukeban suggests that we should, first and foremost, applaud the phenomenon for its progressive movement.
“Despite the reputation for crime, sukeban culture was centred in a belief system that above all else brought girls to the front. The long skirts can be seen as a reaction against the sexual revolution of the 60s, a means of protection by which girls could show that their existence wasn’t defined by the desires of male onlookers”. – Claire Marie Healy (Dazed)
Although it’s difficult (if not impossible) to justify the glorification of violent gangs, Healy raises an interesting point. These groups firmly challenged the status quo and were, in many ways, victims of an imbalanced society to begin with. Their influence on Japanese entertainment should not be underestimated, along with their powerful social message of defiance that continues to be heard, seen and read about by the masses.