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Friday, Sept. 29, 2006

Return of the 'delinquent girl cops'

Ask fanboys everywhere what got them into Japanese movies and the answer is probably not going to be Ozu. Instead, you're more likely to hear names like Suzuki, Miike, Fukasaku and other makers of what used to be dismissed as trash-for-cash genre pics. Their favorite past era is probably not the 1930s to 1950s, when Ozu and other Golden Age masters flourished, but the 1960s and 1970s, when the Japanese film industry entered what many thought at the time to be its creative death throes.

Sukeban Deka: Code Name Asamiya Saki Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
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Aya Matsuura wields her killer yo-yo in "Sukeban Deka." (c)"SUKEBAN DEKA: CODENAME ASAMIYA SAKI" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Kenta Fukasaku
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Sept. 30, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

My own introduction to Japanese films was through Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa -- Akira, not Kiyoshi -- but I've also written books about yakuza and Nikkatsu Action movies, which include appreciations of two icons of what might be called the kick-ass-chick genre, Junko Fuji and Meiko Kaji. So who am I to look down my nose at Kenta Fukasaku's "Sukeban Deka: Code Name Asamiya Saki (Yo-Yo Girl Cop)," Toei's revival of a popular 1980s franchise about an undercover girl cop, whose weapon of choice is a yo-yo.

We're talking camp, aren't we? But in the best examples of the genre -- the "Hibotan Bakuto (Red Peony Gambler)" series for Fuji and the "Shurayukihime (Lady Snowblood)" films for Kaji, the heroines defeat their male foes with sword moves more worthy of gap-mouthed awe than sardonic winks.

The "Sukeban" franchise began life in the more degenerate 1980s as a hit manga, which morphed into a live-action TV series, anime series and films. By this time, Japan was deep into the idol era and the first three "Sukeban" heroines were all popular idols of the day -- Yuki Saito, Yoko Minamino and Yui Asaka. So if camp was not always a prime element in the series' appeal, cute certainly was.

The fourth, Aya Matsuura, is a J-pop idol, as is Rika Ishikawa, who plays her deadly rival. But instead of cute, Fukasaku and his collaborators, including action director Makoto Yokoyama and (I am not making this up) "yo-yo director" Takahiko Hasegawa, are more into cool, as defined by Hollywood, Hong Kong and Quentin Tarantino.

This, the first "Sukeban" movie in 18 years, brings to life a common teenage fantasy of defying various adult authority figures, putting the fear of God into one's enemies -- and doing really neat stuff with a yo-yo. Its opening is adolescently primal: a teenage girl named "K" (Matsuura) is judged so violently dangerous by the authorities in New York, where she is living more or less on the streets, that they deport her to Tokyo. There the local cops chain and bind her as though she were Hannibal Lecter, nabbed after his latest gourmet meal of human flesh.

Detective Kira (Riki Takeuchi), a National Police Agency cop with a limp, a growl and a ratty trench coat, becomes her keeper and offers her a deal: freedom in exchange for working undercover at a local high school, which has become a hotbed of bullying and various sorts of thuggery. The violence, the cops believe, has been inspired by a Web site called Enola Gay (named, significantly, after the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) that instructs visitors in bomb making, torture techniques and other extracurricular subjects.

Then a countdown clock appears on the site's screen -- and the cops worry that its anonymous owner is planning something big -- similar to the bomb explosion that ended the life of a previous undercover deka (detective). "K" agrees to become the replacement -- and the cops give her a deadly yo-yo that doubles as a badge, a school uniform that turns out to be different from everyone else's (just the way to go undercover) and a new name -- Saki Asamiya. Kira also tells her that her own mother had been a sukeban deka ("delinquent girl cop").

Once in the classroom, Saki finds Reika (Ishikawa), a honey-haired beauty, and her girl gang bullying the sweet-tempered, Osaka-accented Tae (Yui Okada). Saki rescues Tae from these tormentors and their male allies with a devastating display of kicks and blows and thus gains a friend -- and informant. Tae tells her that another bullied girl (Erika Miyoshi) tried to blow herself up with a bomb the year before and is now a vegetable in a nearby hospital. Saki realizes that a mysterious hand is behind this and other nastiness, belonging to one Tokiro Kimura (Shunsuke Kubozuka), a genius tech nerd with a soft voice, hard eyes and taste for explosive games. Somehow Saki has to stop him and his evil fellow plotters before the clock hits zero.

The action is fast and furious, somewhat in the style of Fukasaku's apocalyptic epic "Battle Royale II," but where that film was a patchy-looking pastiche of "Saving Private Ryan" and "Battle Royale," the last hit of Kenta's late father, Kinji Fukasaku, "Sukeban Deka" is something that aspires to coolness -- and achieves it more often than not.

The climatic battle may trade in cliches, including the warehouse setting and the bad aim of the bad guys with automatic weaponry, but it also has plenty of propulsion and invention, mostly in the slick yo-yo moves of Saki and her showdown opponent.

As Saki, Matsuura is all cold, kick-ass business, but with a sympathetically human side as well. As Rika, Ishikawa is a worthy adversary -- a mean girl to the nth degree, but also a tough, savvy fighter, with an agenda all her own. Finally, Kubozuka, the bad boy of the Japanese movie business, is all but unrecognizable as the ethereal Tokiro, with his air of deadly degeneracy. A career as Japan's Christopher Walken awaits -- or at least another "Sukeban Deka" sequel.

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