Sukeban Deka - Codename: Asamiya Saki (Japan 2006)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 5/19/07
Alternate Title: Yo-Yo Girl Cop (American release)
Director: Kenta Fukasaku
Cast: Aya Matsuura, Rika Ishikawa, Riki Takeuchi, Yui Okada, Erika Miyoshi, cameos by Yuki Saito, Tak Sakaguchi (?)

After an absence of nearly fifteen years, the world of "Sukeban Deka" gets revisited with a modern facelift by filmmaker Kenta Fukasaku ("Battle Royale II" (2003) ). While I applaud his effort and vision, I'm a little at odds with his execution. Without the benefit of subtitles and a sound cultural grounding, the film is almost completely inaccessible, and a large part of the narrative takes place via online chat rooms and text messaging. This is quite possibly the most boring mechanism I've ever seen to advance a plot, unless you really have a fetish for watching teenage girls type and text each other. Since the details of the plot are completely opaque, I'm just going to fumble around and try my best to summarize the proceedings. First of all to set the tone of the film, we're treated to a scene of a young schoolgirl, beaten and bruised, stumbling through the streets of downtown Tokyo in handcuffs with a time-bomb strapped to her chest. Oddly, no one takes notice of this peculiarity, and she doesn't make much of an effort to ask for help or alert people to the impending danger. When her time is up, all that remains is a charred yo-yo - the badge of the Sukeban Deka. Next we jump to New York City where an extremely violent girl named "K" has been captured by the police. She's being deported to Japan and comes under the care of Riki Takeuchi, who sports a ridiculous limp and terrible hair. What happened to his remarkable trademark mullet? And what's up with Japanese mentors having limps? I've seen this character device way too many times for it to be even remotely interesting anymore. Anyway, he appears to give her an ultimatum: become a Sukeban Deka and infiltrate a terrorist organization, and in return her mother will be released from prison. (okay, I'm stretching here...) She reluctantly agrees and goes to school as an undercover agent named Asamiya Saki (from the original series), amusingly in the classic Sukeban Deka uniform which immediately sets her apart from everyone else (as if she needed help with being ostracized).

At school she befriends a tortured soul named Tae (Yui Okada) and butts heads with the school's queen bully Reika (Rika Ishikawa of Morning Musume). It seems that there's an online cult called "Enola Gay" that is counting down to some horrific event that involves strapping time-bombs to students with homosexual tendencies, but the actual motives are lost on me. In the end, the bombings appear to just be a diversion while the cult performs a bank heist. Who knows? When Tae's troubled past comes out and she ends up kidnapped with a bomb strapped around her waist, Saki has to pull out all the stops to rescue her. Donning a super-cool kevlar schoolgirl uniform and armed with a high powered yo-yo, Saki infiltrates the terrorist's headquarters and goes toe-to-toe with a leather clad Reika, who also knows the deadly art of yo-yo. After a fierce yo-yo battle, she faces the rest of the gang who are armed with guns and swords. But little do they know that they're no match for Saki's yo-yo skills. After some bizarre revelations and confused emotions, the gay students are rescued and Saki gets to talk to her mom on the phone. In parting, she finally cracks a smile and asks Riki if she can have her yo-yo back, implying that she's ready to tackle another case.

Kenta Fukasaku is shaping up to be a very interesting director. He tends to challenge himself with projects that he's not quite ready to do, as if he's desperately trying to prove himself. I see a lot of similarities to BR-II, both in theme and execution. More than anything the film seems to be a commentary on the pain and horror of adolescence, and the ever increasing pressure to be popular and not deviate from the norm. Indeed, the central theme seems to be how society shuns and torments outsiders, and Saki is the only one with the skill, courage, and determination to oppose the system. She is truly an individual in a world that prizes uniformity. Technically the film looks great and is exceptionally well made. The cinematography is excellent, but often ruined by awful editing decisions, as if Fukasaku were trying too hard to be hip and cool instead of being smart. The visual effects are satisfactory, but the digital explosions tend to be very tacky looking. The action sequences are very cool and exciting, but again, poor editing turns them into teases of what they could have been. The yo-yo sequences are excellent, employing digital technology to great effect. However, that has the unfortunate side effect of losing the ultra-campy feel of the original series. Like the other "Sukeban Deka" films, this one is deadly serious, but it lacks the sense of absurdity that made the other films so endearing. It's as if this film were trying to legitimize and rationalize its wacky premise instead of embracing it. I'm not sure if it entirely works, but I still enjoyed it. The film also pays homage to the original in several ways, and probably many more than I picked up on. The strangest and most overt scene is when she gets introduced at school and everyone cheers as though they recognize and revere her name. Very odd.

What really holds the film together is actress Aya Matsuura, who broods and glares her way through the film with such fierce intensity that it burns a hole through your soul. She's awesome and utterly believable, and her eyes alone can out-act anything Hollywood has to offer. She handles her action scenes with confidence and flair, and she doesn't run or punch like a girl which makes her physical performance all the more convincing. Rika Ishikawa clearly has fun with her "bad girl" role, but I was surprised to hear that she has such a high pitched voice. Not what you would normally associate with a Japanese villainess. (of course, being a J-pop artist I should have expected this, but it still came as a shock) And last but not least, this film has one of the coolest title sequences I've ever seen, which unfortunately sets high expectations that the rest of the film can't follow through with. Still, if you're an old school SD fan, or you like intense schoolgirl action, or just appreciate Japanese weirdness, "Sukeban Deka - Codename: Asamiya Saki" offers a nice deviation from the norm.

Notes on the domestic release: Alright, I haven't actually watched the American version yet, so I'm just going to comment on the marketing. For whatever reasons, they decided to drop the "Sukeban Deka" connection with the American release and just call it "Yo-Yo Girl Cop." Normally I would berate the domestic publisher for such a stupid decision, but apparently this came directly from the Japanese producers. Are they purposely trying to distance themselves from the source material, or are they just looking for more of a mainstream international audience? What I can attack the American publisher for is the statement on the box cover saying "From the creator of Battle Royale," which is a blatant lie. While it's true that the same studio produced it, that statement is just as accurate as saying that "Casino Royale" is from the same creator as "Spider-Man." Technically they're both from Sony Pictures, but that's the only connection they have. With this movie, the truth is that it's from the creator and director of "Battle Royale II" (which was truly awful), or even "From the son of the creator of Battle Royale," and the sleazy marketing people are hoping that the American public is too stupid to figure that out. Shame on you Magnolia Home Entertainment. Still, I'm both pleased and impressed that it made it to the States in such a timely manner and that they left the box art intact - that's nearly unheard of.