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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Yo-Yo Girl Cop: Shojo-Inspired Fun Hidden Beneath Corporate Lies

One last live-action adaptation of a manga for the time being, so let's end it as it started with another Japanese production. While shojo manga is nominally a world written & drawn by women, there has been the occasional man that has entered the genre. Osamu Tezuka essentially created it, for example, while Leiji Matsumoto originally started his career doing shojo manga. Without a doubt, though, the most successful male shojo author is the late Shinji Wada, creator of Sukeban Deka (literally "Female Delinquent Detective"). While he made numerous manga until his death in 2011 due to coronary artery disease, his 1976-1982 series, totaling 22 volumes, about a female delinquent who becomes an metal yo-yo-wielding undercover government agent is easily Wada's legacy; if you ever see someone in anime or manga that fights with a yo-yo, it's likely a Sukeban Deka reference. Naturally, such an iconic series would be adapted into other media, but while it only ever saw a two-episode OVA in 1991, the series is just as iconic by way of its live-action productions.

First up were a trio of TV dramas that ran from 1985-1987, totaling 108 episodes. Following that were two theatrically-released movies, 1987's Sukeban Deka The Movie (starring the second TV series' lead) & 1988's Sukeban Deka The Movie 2: Counter-Attack from the Kazama Sisters (starring the third series' lead), both of which saw release in North America on DVD by Media Blasters. After all of that, & the mentioned OVA, Sukeban Deka more or less stayed in hibernation for the next 15 years when it came to new productions, minus the single-volume manga Sukeban Deka if Wada did in 2004. That all came to an end in 2006, though, when a third theatrical film, Sukeban Deka: Code Name = Saki Asamiya, was released in Japan. Apparently produced due to strong DVD sales of the TV series at the time, I honestly didn't even know this film existed in the first place... And then a few months back I noticed it on the store shelf of my local FYE (yes, they do still exist). Having been renamed Yo-Yo Girl Cop, which is honestly a little too on-the-nose for my tastes, this movie was actually brought to DVD in North America back in 2007 by Magnolia Pictures, of all companies; hell, it was even given an English dub, alongside the original Japanese with English subs. So how is this movie in the first place?

After a ruffian of a Japanese girl is arrested & deported back to Japan from New York, due to her mother's illegal status in the country, not to mention the mother's involvement with a Chinese spy, the girl is given a chance at saving her mother from jail time. Seisen Academy has some sort of involvement with The Enola Gay, a web forum that is linked to a series of student suicide bombings, and secret society Organization K wants to use the girl as its new special agent to figure out what The Enola Gay's true purpose is. Armed with a metal yo-yo, & with only 72 hours to spare until her mother is tried in America, the girl infiltrates Seisen Academy using the same code name that her old predecessors had used back in the day, Saki Asamiya.

With so much history preceding this movie, it's not too surprising that Yo-Yo Girl Cop is (technically) a far-sequel to what came before it. Luckily, though, it's a connection that's only referenced to in extremely vague ways. For example, Saki's mother is often recognized as a former agent by Kazutoshi Kira, Saki's middle-aged & unofficial partner in all of this, but nothing specific is really brought up. Instead, the old days are more or less brought up as a legacy that the new Saki is continuing, and is something that fans of the series will be able to acknowledge, but at the same time is welcoming for newcomers (like myself). There's also a little bit of jabbing at the concepts of Sukeban Deka, like having this Saki be essentially ineffective at using a yo-yo for most of the film, until the climax (where she's suddenly using it in combat like a pro), or even questioning why exactly Organization K uses teenage girls for its investigations. Still, the film more or less manages to balance being recognizable to pre-existing fans of the series with being a working introduction for newcomers.

Probably the most important thing to note about this film, however, is that it is not what you may expect it to be based on the DVD cover, not to mention how it advertises itself. Magnolia, in no doubt an attempt to help sell the movie here in America, advertised the movie on the back cover as having "Intense Non-Stop Action!", & even puts a Japan Times quote touting how "The action is fast and furious", but the movie isn't really that kind of flick. True to its shojo manga roots, Yo-Yo Girl Cop is mostly a character drama, mixed with some sense of mystery, with some sprinklings of action here & there for fun. The story is about softening Saki's heart to an extent by her befriending the shy Tae Konno (though she remains a sukeban all throughout), as well as being a pretty blatant anti-bullying allegory with the whole Enola Gay website plot. I'm not complaining about this by any means, because I do think it works well on the whole, but I just want to point out the misconception that I think most of the reviews for this film back when Magnolia released it had in them; they all expected an action film, as advertised, but got a character drama instead.

In that regard, then, the movie does succeed for the most part as a character-focused piece. Saki is a foul-mouthed delinquent (which the English subtitles maintain by liberally adding in swear words of all harshness), but deep down inside she does care for others & wants to do right by them, whether it's her mother, who she's taking up the job to save from jail, or her new friend Tae, whose past of constant bullying (& her old friend's attempt at suicide bombing a year prior) has her nigh suicidal herself. There's also Reika Akiyama, the most popular girl at Seisen whose constant egging on of Saki isn't simply because she's the typical snotty bitch; her secret isn't all that hard to figure out, honestly. Probably the most entertaining character, though, is Kira. In a movie featuring a bunch teenage girls of various attitudes, there's this hard boiled & sarcastic cop who's one part grizzled veteran, complete with some vague secrets & a bum leg, and one part comic relief in how blunt he can be with Saki. Easily the best character scene in the movie is when Saki visits Kira at his super-messy apartment, and the two bond slightly over "Parent-Child" rice. While he isn't revealed to be Saki's father exactly, though it certainly hangs that idea over that scene pretty well, he is shown in this scene to be the perfect father figure that Saki never really had in her life, and it helps cement how great of a character Kira is. The major villain of the film is relatively simple, especially when you find out what his overall goal is, but winds up being so over-the-top in the finale that he's enjoyable on the whole.

Now, all of this doesn't mean that the film is devoid of any action & that Magnolia was advertising a bold-faced lie. It's just that, aside from the previously mentioned snippets throughout the movie, you don't really get any major action until the climax. The snippets mainly consist of a scant few moments where Saki beats up some random police or delinquent schoolmates, and there's absolutely no real yo-yo action until the end of the movie; she does weild it at times, but nothing in terms of real offense. Luckily, while the yo-yo itself is almost always portrayed as CG when it's easily visible as thrown, the action revolving around Saki's (sudden) skills at hurling her metal yo-yo at foes is generally well done, especially when Saki gets into a fight with a fellow yo-yo user (again, it's pretty obvious who she fights). When the action goes down in the climax, it keeps your attention & is a lot of fun to see in motion, but it is best to not think of it as anticipating the climax. Instead, it's simply a fun spectacle of a payoff to all of the character drama that lead up to it.

Sadly, the action wasn't the only thing Magnolia fibbed about on the DVD cover, though the severity of this lie comes down to how exactly you would define the word "creator". On the bottom of the front cover, Magnolia put down "From the Creator of Battle Royale", but this movie did not have the involvement of Koushun Takami (the author of the original novel) or the late Kinji Fukasaku (the director of the film adaptation). Instead, this film was directed by Kinji's son Kenta Fukasaku, who wrote the screenplay for his father's film adaptation & would go on to write & direct the sequel, Battle Royale II: Requiem, after his father only managed to film a single scene before passing. While I guess one could say that the man who wrote the original Battle Royale film could be considered the "creator" to an extent, this is really nothing more than an attempt at gaining even more sales by using a well known name. The fact that this movie came out five years before the BR films finally saw their first ever official North American release in 2012 just shows how infamous those two movies were. Anyway, Yo-Yo Girl Cop marks the junior Fukasaku's third time as director, and while not perfect his vision is handled well & works for the movie. The only major flaw with Fukasaku's vision is the somewhat heavy use of shakey-cam, sometimes when a fixed camera would have sufficed just fine. Luckily, this was only really a factor in the first half, as I can't recall seeing it used to any extent in the latter half... Or at least it wasn't used in any way that detracted, or maybe I just got used to it in the end. Regardless, Fukasaku was a fine choice for this film, and while not a visual masterpiece by any means it still looks fine visually.

The cast relied on a heavy use of pop singers for the major females, which could be a bad idea if the girls were bad actors, but thankfully it actually works well here. In particular, the movie uses idol singers who were associated with Hello! Project (Morning Musume, Berryz Kobo) at the time, with Aya Matsuura (formerly part of the duo GAM, with Miki Fujimoto) leading everyone as Saki Asamiya. Only her second (&, so far, final) film role, Matsuura honestly pulls off a good performance, performing her own stunts (at her insistence) & coming off like a relatively believable delinquent. She also co-performs the ending & insert themes, "Thanks!" & "Shinkiro Romance" by GAM, which are both relatively traditional pop songs. Following her are the original three members of v-u-den, Rika Ishikawa, Yui Okada, & Erika Miyoshi, as Reika, Tae, & Tae's old friend Kotomi Kanda, respectively. Ishikawa's Reika plays an appropriately pompous rival for Matsuura's Saki, while Okada's Tae is fittingly awkward & depressed; Miyoshi doesn't have much to do, though as Kanda is mainly an emotionally bereft girl for most of the film. Essentially stealing the show, though, is easily legendary yakuza movie actor Riki Takeuchi, whose Kira is simply a perfect match for the character. Shunsuke Kubozuka (Shuuji in the SaiKano movie) plays the major villain, "Romeo", and he mostly stays calm & mysterious for most of the film, until the climax requires him to go all over-the-top bonkers; it surprisingly works. Finally, there are two returning actors from the old Sukeban Deka productions, with Yuki Saito (the original Saki Asamiya) playing Saki's mother, & Hiroyuki Nagato reprising his role as Inspector Kurayami, the head of Organization K.

Magnolia did also give Yo-Yo Girl Cop an English dub, but it's honestly not all that great. I sadly can't find much in terms of who voiced who, outside of IMDb listing Nicole Dionne as Reika & Derek Wade (Nataku in Soul Hunter, Yahiko in ADV's Samurai X dubs) as "Romeo", but overall it's a case of wasted potential. While there are a couple of good performances, like for Kira or Tae, most of the other actors feel like they're being held back from really going all out. This is especially true for who voices Saki, who sounds as if she's just on the verge of pulling off a good performance, but something keeps holding her back. Kurayami is easily one of the worst, though, simply sounding absolutely off the mark. It's also almost as if some of the cast tried to make their characters sound Japanese, but without being stereotypical about it, with the end result being kind of wooden performances. Overall, just stick with the Japanese audio; the English dub is far from the worst, but the constant feel that it could have been much better sucks.

I cannot speak for how this film is received by Sukeban Deka fans, since this was my first real experience with the franchise, but I found Yo-Yo Girl Cop to be pretty enjoyable. While most of the English reviews at the time it first came over here seemed to decry how little action there was, I went into the movie knowing that it was based on an iconic shojo manga, so the focus on character drama didn't bother me, and the fun action in the finale was a nice payoff. The use of Hello! Project singers could have easily bombed hard & turned this into an unwatchable mess, or at least a "so bad it's good" kind of flick, but all of the girls pulled off respectable performances, which definitely helped everything out. Without a doubt, Magnolia really stretched the truth when it came to promoting this film on the DVD cover, some might even call it blatantly lying to the buyer, but at least it was a good film; just don't go with the English dub. At the very least, I am now interested in checking out some more Sukeban Deka eventually in the future; Media Blasters last did a double-pack for the 80s movies, while ADV handled the OVA adaptation.

Quite honestly, though, I don't know what's weirder... The fact that we got this film over here via Magnolia Pictures, or the fact that the softcore porn parody Sukepan Deka/See-Through Panty Detective: Virgin Name = Saki Moromi also saw release here in North America via Cinema Epoch under the name Yo-Yo Sexy Girl Cop.

Yes, that indeed did happen. No, I will not watch or review that movie.

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