This week, Mike Dent joins the TokuNet Film Club for a guest review of the 1987 film, Sukeban Deka: The Movie.
With the release of Space Sheriff Sharivan: Next Generation, I found myself thinking back on the Metal Hero series and how sometimes it is criminally underrated. Well, that and thinking back to a particular franchise which is connected by a tangential thread. Or in this case, a yo-yo thread. Okay, I know that was lame but bear with me on this one.
Sukeban Deka (lit. “Delinquent Girl Detective”) was one of the hottest Japanese dramas of the 1980s and, arguably, one of the most influential in creating a whole subgenre of action drama. Based off of a shoujo manga by Shinji Wada, Sukeban Deka told the story of Saki Asamiya (played by Yuki Saito), one of the baddest high school girls in Japan. To combat the rising wave of violent delinquency and high school corruption, the mysterious Dark Director forces Saki to become an undercover cop with the promise of her mother’s freedom from death row. Her signature weapon is a steel composite yo-yo which, in her hands, is as deadly as any gun.
Following the ending of the 26-episode TV series, the series continued in Sukeban Deka II: The Legend of the Girl In The Iron Mask, featuring Yoko (played by idol Yoko Minamino), a mysterious young woman who is freed from captivity and takes up the name of Saki Asamiya. The series concluded with Sukeban Deka III: Ninja Girl Romance which, boiled down, is Ninja Star Wars. No, not like the Message From Space TV series, the season is literally one big Star Wars ripoff with ninjas. Right down to their mentor being named Yoda and the use of Ancient Ninja Lightsabers against “The Emperor”. Why am I going on about this series? Because I’m going to be reviewing the first film tie-in for the franchise, Sukeban Deka: The Movie. Bridging the gap between Series II and III, the movie was the final send-off for Yoko and her team. It also managed to rip off James Cameron’s Terminator and blow a lot of things up in the process.
Sukeban Deka: The Movie takes place several months following the climactic final battle in Sukeban Deka II. Yoko has finally settled into a peaceful normal life and prepping for college entrance exams. But trouble can’t seem to leave her alone as she crosses paths with a young man on the run from men in black suits. She soon learns that the boy has escaped from Sankou Gakuen, a private school located on the remote island known as Hell’s Castle. There, delinquents are being trained and brainwashed into becoming a mindless army. One that Sankou’s principal aims to use to stage a coup and take over Japan. With Yoko’s former boss unable to help, our heroine must rally up her old friends, along with a couple of new ones, to break into Hell’s Castle and stop the coup.
Part of the charm of Sukeban Deka is how increasingly over-the-top it gets as time goes on, and it’s ability to play all of the chaos straight and dramatically. Again, this is the franchise that gave us Ninja Lightsabers; anything is possible. Whether it be Yoko’s friend “Marble O-kyo” with the ability to flick glass marbles with pinpoint accuracy, or the scene in the movie where Yoko takes out a helicopter using a yo-yo, no one bats an eye. It’s like an inverse Kaiketsu Zubat situation: Whereas Zubat worked enough that you could’ve removed the Zubat Suit and life would have gone on, Sukeban Deka feels like enough of a monster sans tokusatsu hero show to where you wonder why Saki isn’t flipping a switch in the yo-yo to activate some power armor. In this movie, however, that wish is finally granted.
In the climax, Yoko is given an upgrade to her steel composite yo-yo. Dubbed the “Super Yo-Yo”, it’s so strong that it requires shock absorbing armor which can only take 60% of the recoil. And if she uses it too much, the Super Yo-Yo will literally rip her arm to shreds. And her final opponent? Terminator-Ripoff Robot Principal. It does not get any better than this, folks.
Also, if the looks seems familiar, it should: Yoko’s armor in this movie, along with motifs from from Saki were heavily homaged in the anime TV series, Kill La Kill.
Aside from the near-superhuman feats, what also makes it easy to think that Sukeban Deka is a stealth tokusatsu hero project is the involvement of several Sentai and Metal Hero directors. For this movie, we have series regular Hideo Tanaka. It’s thanks to him that the movie feels more like a cross between a hot-blooded cop drama and a Metal Hero episode. Which makes sense because Tanaka had previously worked on Japan Action Club-fueled projects like The Gorilla 7 and all three Space Sheriff series (along with both Shaider movies). While the action was always prevalent in the TV series, the drama and intrigue of the students involved atook up more of the screentime. In the movie, the restraints are off and almost 70% of the movie is elaborate action sequences with a seemingly non-stop climax. Backing this up is a fantastic, rocking incidental score by Dennou Keisatsu Cybercop composer and Sukeban Deka TV series regular, Ichiro Nitta. It’s a fantastic blend of synth, brass, and strings that you’d come to expect from Nitta, but every battle track just gets you so pumped whenever it blasts on screen. It’s good enough that I’ve been after the out-of-print soundtrack to this movie for years.
But at the core of Sukeban Deka is our heroines. The series revolved around teenagers having to fight for survival in a corrupt system, but what was always unique about it was that you had strong young women leading the charge. The girls here are all relatable and believable…well aside from the Deadly Marble-Throwing and Yo-Yo Fights. Though, they’re able to take down entire mobs of soldiers, they’re still teenagers at the core. As most of these roles were filled by up-and -coming idols, acting ability is all across the board, but not bad enough to take you out of it. Case in point: Our leading lady, Yoko. By the time of Sukeban Deka: The Movie, Yoko Minamino had managed to come into her own, but she still had her tendency to struggle in expressing rage. The end result is like watching the nicest person you know try to act tough for the first time ever. This should have totally backfired for Minamino here, but instead it works in her favor. Coming from a period of peace, this inability makes Yoko look more anguished about returning to the fighting. It’s enough that I’d argue this was the best performance of her tenure.
But regardless of Yoko’s emotional journey, for me, it’s Yui Kazama (played by Yui Asaka) who steals the movie. Yui is the lead character from Sukeban Deka III who is not only the “Great Sukeban of Kyushu”, but was also raised as a ninja. And no, she doesn’t get to use the Ninja Lightsabers in this movie due to the events happening early on in her series timeline. She appears about midway through the movie as unofficial backup from the Dark Director, and then proceeds to get into an argument with a helicopter. This is where Yui wins me over, regardless of her short amount of screen time. Compare her to her predecessors: Saki from the first series was filled with angst because of her predicament. Yoko was supposed to be tortured and saddled with a burden but always came off as the tranquilly badass girl next door. And then there’s Yui who will randomly jump up a tree because she feels like it and make faces at you for not joining her. She’ll become your favorite as soon as you see her in action, guaranteed. And don’t worry, she gets her own movie too featuring Garo‘s Masaki Kyomoto as her arch-nemesis.
Sukeban Deka: The Movie exists as a fun ride for anyone with free time on a Saturday night. It’s one of my absolute favorite franchises to come out of the 1980’s and this film still manages to hold up after all these years. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen a single episode of the series, either. You get a high-speed recap to bring you up to speed and the rest you can figure out along the way. Sadly, the R1 release from Media Blasters is out of print and a bit hard to find. But if this massive amount of gushing about it isn’t an indicator, it’s worth the trouble to find.
Now if only we could get Koichi Sakamoto to helm a reboot flick for this series. Because we could use a miracle after the last attempt.