“Sukeban Deka: The Movie” – A.J. Hakari

You wouldn’t think it’d be hard to make an entertaining movie about secret agent schoolgirls who kill people with yo-yos. Granted, it’s not the most accessible of genres, but it leaves itself open to revel in loads of silly action and self-parody, a la Charlie’s Angels. Yet the one franchise that cornered the market on Japanese teens clobbering foes with childrens’ playthings has yet to fully realize its cheezy potential. Like its successor Yo-Yo Girl Cop, the manga-based Sukeban Deka: The Movie maintains a straight face no matter how far-fetched the story gets, a mistake that costs the film many a good thrill, not to mention its sense of humor.

Something evil is brewing at Sankou Gakuen High, and it’s not the cafeteria’s mystery meat. On the surface, Sankou Gakuen is the ideal educational institution, a school for whipping academic misanthropes into shape. But within its walls, the diabolical Principal Hattori (Masato Ibu) is secretly training the student body to serve in a coup designed to overthrow the Japanese government. Luckily, two pupils have escaped Hattori’s clutches and delivered proof of his evil scheme to the one person who might be able to help: Saki (Yoko Minamino), a schoolgirl with quite a history behind her. Once employed as a secret agent, Saki has retired from service and wants nothing more than to live a life of normalcy. That all goes out the window once she gets wind of Hattori’s plans, leaving her no choice but to rally her fellow comrades and prepare for an assault on Sankou Gakuen that will decide the country’s fate once and for all.

Around the time Sukeban Deka: The Movie came about, the art of translating comic books to film hadn’t been mastered. Budgets were miniscule and production values often nonexistent, but worst of all, filmmakers just didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Too often did they go about their duties with a lack of passion, taking a traditional action movie setting and jamming in elements from the comics wherever they saw fit. These early adaptations especially pale in comparison to the likes of Iron Man and The Dark Knight (i.e. films that actually tried), and it’s in their humorless company that Sukeban Deka: The Movie ultimately finds itself. It’s a property for whom silliness is its bread and butter, the one thing it needs to thrive and provide viewers with a few guilty thrills. The film’s very concept is just silly enough to buy into, but only as long as it’s willing to let its disbelief stand by the wayside. Unfortunately, this is something the makers of Sukeban Deka staunchly refuse to do; you know a movie’s in trouble when you get zero enjoyment out of watching Saki take down a helicopter with a freakin’ yo-yo.

As you can imagine, removing the camp factor from a property like Sukeban Deka works as well as tossing a dolphin into the Mojave. But the fun doesn’t stop there, for the film makes no efforts to clue in those uninitiated to the franchise on what they missed. The story does fine for a while, but when side characters enter the fray without warning and plot twists arrive with zero relevance, you’ll be dying to have a scorecard on hand. Not only do things get confusing, you find yourself not even caring all that much. Sukeban Deka appeals most to those who’ve followed the manga or TV show that preceded it; everyone else is left wondering what the big deal is. There’s no emotional investment in any of the characters, aside from Saki, whose story plays a little something like “La Femme Nikita: The Teenage Years.” Minamino plays her well enough, with equal amounts of spunk and derring-do, but you couldn’t care less about her homogenous entourage. The only other actress worth remembering is Yui Asaka, and that’s just because she took over as heroine for the sequel.

Despite what looks to be my immolation of a bona fide stinkburger with cheese, Sukeban Deka: The Movie is actually pretty competent. The action sequences maintain some of the film’s loopy charm, and for B-movie fare, the acting is fairly tolerable. Nevertheless, I look at Sukeban Deka and see all the things it could’ve been, how it could easily have assumed position as king of the brainless action mountain instead of wasting its time trying to mean something.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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