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Japanese schoolgirls with unusual weapons battle nonstop ninja warriors
"Sukeban Deka III" (1986) is the third live-action TV season in the popular manga-based series about "delinquent girl cops" operating undercover in high school and armed with lethal yo-yos. This one has three crime-fighting high school heroines, the Kazama sistersYui, Yuma and Yukaas opposed to the single heroine, Saki Asamiya, of the two previous seasons (and the recent movie from 2006 starring Aya Matsuura that was retitled YO YO GIRL COP for U.S. release). I'm intrigued by the visual design of this series; it's got one foot in modern-day Tokyo, with plenty of scenes of the girls at school and at home, and location work in the streets and public places of the city, and one foot in traditional Japan as it offers a steady stream of ninjas, monks, princesses, temples, shrines, and scenic natural locations, with the action often switching abruptly from one mode to the other. The cinematography is often quite striking, offering clean and precise compositions captured by deep focus lens work, making expert use of color, decor, and architecture. There are frequent well-lit closeups of the attractive cast members, especially the three actresses who play the Kazama sisters. They're beautiful, but in a natural, down-to-earth way, as opposed to the super-cute ("kawaii") idols that seem to predominate in current Japanese pop culture.
There's also a lot of action, with at least one major fight scene in every episode, usually between the girls and assorted ninja attackers, on location in Tokyo or in forests and mountain sites outside the city. The backgrounds are always dramatic, whether in the streets of Tokyo at night and hillside cemeteries by day, or a foreboding forest full of towering trees with snaking roots and a picturesque waterfall in the hills. Each girl has her own weaponYui has the yo-yo, Yuma has long needles and strong thread, and Yuka has metal origami cranes with razor sharp beaks. The girls are all quite spunky and tend to do their own stunts, even if they're not terribly convincing as skilled fighters. In one memorable scene, Yui in her school uniform wields her yo-yo in one hand while holding her book bag and the hand of the little boy she's protecting in the other, all while fighting off a small army of ninjas in a fight that starts in a park after school, with innocuous park-goers switching instantly into ninja mode for the ambush, then moves into various back alleys, and ends at a sprawling loading dock at night on the Tokyo waterfront. The staging is usually quite imaginative, if highly improbable, with lots of upward leaps and impossible flips and karate chops that don't look particularly effective.
Yet at the same time, there's an aura of realism to the proceedings, rooted as it is in so much location shooting and the everyday activities of the girls at school and home, not to mention the utter conviction the cast members bring to their roles. Which helps them put over the abundant drama on display throughout the series. Yui is constantly squabbling with her sisters and her mentor (who works undercover as a teacher at the high school and is named Yoda). She slaps her sisters and gets into shoving matches with them and even hurls her yo-yo at them and the mentor. There are moments of genuine tragedy as well and frequent visits to grave-sites and shrines, with shots of burning incense.
The lack of subtitles in the Japanese-language tapes I saw (covering episodes 25-32 and 37-39) makes it difficult to try and describe much of a plot. Most of the action in later episodes, from about episode 30, is centered around a very young princess in lavish royal robes and her loyal costumed entourage and the battle over a princess doll that is some kind of coveted object. Yui gets hold of one such doll that was stolen by a ninja from the princess's hidden chamber (the location of which I was unable to figure out) and she guards it jealously, especially after she finds a kanji (Chinese character) on it that matches the one that appears on her forehead when she's in full fighting mode. One dramatic confrontation has Yui and her sisters on a barren field while the little princess and her crew stand on a cliff and look down, trying to retrieve the doll telekinetically, while Yui and her sisters use their more earth-bound weaponry to counter them. Yui is quite impressive in fighting mode, with her studded red arm guard on her left arm and a matching head band, with protective chain mail under her long-skirted school uniform, not to mention her ever-present yo-yo which she repeatedly hurls out in battle with great fury, as if it's capable of doing a lot more damage than it ever really does.
There were three "Sukeban Deka" spin-off movies, the second and third of which were based on this particular season of the show. I've seen the second movie ("Counterattack of the Kazama Sisters") and it is more firmly rooted in modern Japan, positing a fascist youth group that tries to take over the government, with Yui infiltrating it and then aiding a commune of young people offering the only resistance. It's not nearly as interesting as the TV series and, despite some elaborate stunts involving a motorboat, a blimp and a private plane, looks much more cheaply made, with sillier action scenes and none of the artful camera-work of the TV episodes.
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