Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Pinky Violence Collection - A Review

Back in the 1960's, to counter declining theater attendance in Japan, independent movie studios like Toei introduced pinku eiga or pink films, a form of softcore exploitation films that became very popular in the 60's and 70's. Unlike its hardcore Western counterpart, these pink films were intended for theatrical release and have to conform to strict Japanese screen censorship laws, which prohibits the depiction of genitalia and pronounced sexual activity. Using the genre´s required sex scenes as a form of titillation may be its primary objective but as this new genre grew, it eventually matured into adding some form of character and story development as well. In any case, even offering big helpings of nudity and sex is sometimes not enough to lure skeptical audiences back. To further spice things up, gore and violence was later added into the mix, which, by most account, seems like a natural fit for the exploitation film scene.


So, in the early 1970's, Toei Studios came up with a sub-genre of pinku eiga that has become known as "Pinky Violence". This new sub-genre of tough-girl exploitation films features unbridled nudity, gratuitous violence and even scenes of bondage and sadomasochism. The executives at Toei figured that by jacking up the "blood and breast" quotient in their films, it would give audiences what they could not see on television. In 1968, Toei achieved some success with their "Red Peony Gambler" films with actress Junko Fuji. When rival studio Toho released the now-famous female revenge film Lady Snowblood, Toei decided to up the ante by creating an ultra-violent film that features even more sex and nudity.
Reiko Ike
Toei essentially had two types of "Pinky Violence" films: one is the sukeban (delinquent girl boss) films and the other, the "Elder Sister" films. Toei´s continued success could be attributed to two of the more famous actresses from this genre, the irresistible Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto (Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs). While Ike helmed the two "Elder Sister" films to great acclaim, she also teamed up successfully with Sugimoto in three other famed sukeban films, Girl Boss Guerilla (Sukeban Gerira), Terrifying Girls' High School (Kyoufu Joshi Koukou Bouroku Rinchi Kyoushitsu) and "Criminal Woman – Killing Melody" (Zenka Onna Karoshi Bushi). Ike, the more beautiful of the two, has a classical beauty that is better suited to the period era "Elder Sister" films while Sugimoto has the intense tough chick look that serves her very well in the more modern sukeban films.
Miki Sugimoto

Films from this particular genre almost always follow set plot points that are often recycled and tweaked ever so slightly every now and then. For example, the yakuza gangs, which are mostly entirely made up of men, are often depicted as caricatures that essentially label them as lecherous dim-wits or misogynistic morons who would readily sell out their own mothers for a pack of smokes. The street-wise all-girl criminal gang is also a recurring theme in many Pinky Violence films, where the underdogs are almost always sexy but deadly groups of girls who are capable of going up against the traditional male-dominated yakuza establishment. Most of these characters, especially the male ones, typically behave in an over-the-top and exaggerated manner. Of course, in these films, all the female protagonists are expected to suffer through varieties of sexual humiliation--most likely some forms of bondage or torture--before they return to outwit the gangsters by using not only their voluptuous bodies as bait but most importantly, their brains as well.


After releasing the two Reiko Ike "Elder Sister" films, Sex and Fury and Female Yakuza Tale on great DVD packages earlier (complete with beautiful video restorations), specialty arthouse studio Panik House Entertainment is back with a unique 4-movie DVD set that would make 70´s Japanese exploitation films fans salivate in anticipation. This loaded DVD set, titled The Pinky Violence Collection consists of the following four films:


"Criminal Woman – Killing Melody" (1973) (Zenka Onna Karoshi Bushi)
"Delinquent Girl Boss – Worthless To Confess" (1971) (Zubenko Bancho Zange No Neuchi Mo Nai)
"Girl Boss Guerilla" (1972) (Sukeban Gerira)
"Terrifying Girls´ High School – Lynch Law Classroom" (1973) (Kyoufu Joshi Koukou Bouroku Rinchi Kyoushitsu)


Let´s now take a closer look at each of these four movies:


"Criminal Woman – Killing Melody"
The one and only movie directed by Atsushi Mihori, "Criminal Woman – Killing Melody" is perhaps the best among the four movies included here. Helmed by both Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto, this film further advances the girl gang archetype that is so prevalent in the sukeban series of films. It opens with Maki (Ike) foolishly trying to assassinate a Yakuza figure but instead ends up in jail for the unfinished deed. The film then quickly switches to the prison where Maki is incarcerated. There, she gets acquainted with three of her other cellmates, Yukie, Natsuko and Kaoru but runs afoul of the nastiest inmate in the prison, resident bad girl, Masayo (Sugimoto). A woman´s prison seems to be the most ideal setting for exploitation films (remember "Caged Heat"?) but here it does not quite live up to expectations. Featuring only a knife fight between Ike and Sugimoto in the muddy prison compounds, the film then fast-forwards a few years to the day that Maki is released from prison. Having spent her many years behind bars thinking about how to exact revenge on Oba Industries (the yakuza organization responsible for her father´s death), Maki´s determination is as fired up as the first day she went to prison.

Partnering up with her three former prison mates, Maki devises an ingenious plan designed to bring down Oba Industries--by secretly pitting it against a weakened local rival, the Hamayasu clan. Maki´s specific plan is to rile up Tetsu (Takeo Chii) (the mad dog son of Hamayasu´s old leader) and to prod him into attacking Oba´s interest, which would definitely generate a response in kind from Oba. However, Maki´s quest for revenge isn't quite that simple or straightforward. A little bump in the road emerges when her old rival from prison, Masayo, turns out to be the Oba boss´ girl. Things get a little complicated when Masayo is able to recognize one of Maki´s girls when they try to pull a fast one on the Oba gang. What ensues is a pretty nifty story that is fast-paced and chock full of exploitation film staples like nudity, sex, catfights and torture. With "Criminal Woman – Killing Melody", director Mihori is able to craft a wholly enjoyable and creative story that successfully merges the sexually explicit elements of exploitation cinema with touches of drama and even some comedy.


Without a doubt, the irresistible Reiko Ike carries this film on her slender and sexy shoulders, with an undeniable screen presence that lights up every scene that she appears in.


"Delinquent Girl Boss – Worthless To Confess"
Possibly the weakest of the four films, "Delinquent Girl Boss" offers plenty of melodrama but substantially dials down the exploitation elements--to the point where the main star, Reiko Oshida, doesn't even show any skin and we get very few of those outrageous and unrestrained moments that Pinky Violence films are famous for. The fourth and final installment to go under the "Delinquent Girl Boss" (Zubenko Bancho) banner, this film sees the return of director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, who also directed an earlier entry in this series.

This film opens at a girls´ reform school where Rika (Reiko Oshida) and Midori (Yumiko Katayama) are fellow inmates. One day, Midori receives a visit from her father (Junzaburo Ban) whom she´s estranged from, but refuses to see him. Sad and brokenhearted, Midori´s father hands Midori´s favorite childhood toy over to Rika to pass on to his daughter. However, Midori refuses the toy and Rika decides to hold on to it. Years later, Rika, now released from the reform school, looks forward to starting her life anew and she decides to pay Midori a visit and return her toy. There, Rika learns from Midori´s father that she is no longer living there but is shacked up with a good-for-nothing louse somewhere in the city. Taking pity on Rika, Midori´s father offers her a job at his garage, which she gladly accepts. Later on, Rika finds out about the trouble that Midori is having with the local yakuza. It seems that Midori´s unemployed boyfriend is gambling away not only Midori´s already meager earnings but has managed to rack up quite a large debt as well. Now Midori´s father is getting visits from the yakuza, demanding that he clears his daughter´s boyfriend´s debt or else they would hurt both of them.

After a promising start, the second act of this film essentially lulls its audience into a false sense of melodramatic optimism. In fact, the story becomes so relatively innocuous that one would be hard pressed to notice that he or she is actually watching a Pinky Violence film. If you were expecting topless catfights and unbridled bloodletting, you would be very disappointed till this point. It is only when the final act rolls along that this movie is saved from pummeling further down into exploitation mediocrity. Featuring an all-out vicious fight between the yakuza minions and a group of samurai sword-wielding girls (all clad in shiny red polyester coats) led by Rika, this explosive final scene oddly makes up for all the disappointments thus far. Having sat through so many promising scenes that turned out to be frustrating non-events, this chaotic fight scene at the end brings the film to a memorable and very bloody close.


"Girl Boss Guerilla"
The third movie in the popular sukeban (delinquent girl boss) series, "Girl Boss Guerilla" is a thoroughly enjoyable Pinky Violence film that brings out all the best elements of Japanese exploitation films. Helmed by legendary director Norifumi Suzuki and brought to life by the beautiful and dangerous tag team of Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto, "Girl Boss Guerilla", like the other sukeban films, brings forth the ever-popular concept of notorious but sexy all-girl gangs. This time, it is a group of four motorcycle-riding chicks calling itself the Red Helmet Gang and is led by the beautiful but tough Sachiko (Sugimoto). Originating from Shinjuku in Tokyo, the gang has decided to leave the big city behind and move to Kyoto, the birthplace of one of the girls, Yuki. However, these girls run straight into trouble with the local girl gang, setting up a large scale all-girl gang war. Sachiko is able to get the better of the local gang´s leader, Rika in a one-on-one fight for control of the city but Rika tries to renege on the deal. In steps Nami (Reiko Ike), the former leader of the Kyoto gang, to enforce the honor-bound deal made by Rika, effectively surrendering control of the gang to Sachiko. However, we´ve not seen the last of the disgraced Rika. Sachiko must now deal with not only the vengeful Rika but also the local yakuza gang that is demanding money from the girl gang. Thing get complicated when we find out that the yakuza´s leader is none other than Nami´s estranged brother, Nakahara.

After this great opening, "Girl Boss Guerilla" unfortunately gets mired in a rather uninteresting and melodramatic plot that delves into the relationship between Sachiko and her boyfriend, Ichiro, a handsome boxer looking for a break in the sport. Here we get to witness another side to Sugimoto´s on-screen persona, not the tough chick exterior but a tender lover with a soft side. While Sachiko´s love life is an unneeded distraction to the overall plot, Suzuki also saddles us with some low brow and gross-out humor that never quite works. However, like clockwork, Suzuki comes through in the end with a gruesome torture scene and the final confrontation between Sachiko, Nami and the yakuza. Another highlight is the enjoyable fight scene between Sachiko and Nami that starts on land but ends up in the river, with a couple of sexy muddied bodies in between.


"Terrifying Girls´ High School - Lynch Law Classroom"
Another Norifumi Suzuki offering, "Lynch Law Classroom", like "Girl Boss Guerilla", again features the Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto sister act. However, this time Ike gets only a small but memorable role while Sugimoto takes the lead once again. This film starts off with a well-shot and terrifying opening scene that could have come straight out of a B-grade horror movie instead of a Pinky Violence film. As the film opens, we find a frightened young girl, bound, gagged and topless inside some sort of a science lab. Around her is a group of other girls in student uniforms, with their faces covered by surgical masks and wielding scalpels. As the victim´s blood is slowly drained into a clear bottle, she suddenly breaks free and manages to escape to the roof of the building. As the other girls run after her in pursuit, a one-sided fight ensues and the poor victim is seen falling off the roof. This provides a startling but suitable introduction to the members of the Disciplinary Committee, a group of student enforcers who does the cruel bidding of the sadistic and power-hungry assistant principal, Ishihara (Kenji Imai).

This film takes place inside the ironically named School of Hope, a school for troubled girls. Ishihara has his eyes set on the principal´s post, currently held by the weak Mr. Nakata. His intention is to take over Nakata´s position right before the school´s founder, crooked politician Sato (Nobuo Kaneko), arrives to commemorate the school´s 25th anniversary celebration. To achieve his goal, Ishihara gets the Disciplinary Committee to keep the other rebellious students in line and to further seal the deal, he also supplies Sato with young girls for his carnal pleasure.


Things begin to fall apart with the arrival of three new students: girl gang leader Noriko the Cross (Sugimoto), Remi (Misuzu Ota) and Kyoko (Seiko Saburi). Ike makes an appearance as Maki, a former student and Noriko´s rival on the outside. Together, these girls prove to be more than a handful for the Disciplinary Committee and Ishihara. Featuring plenty of nudity, sex and torture, "Lynch Law Classroom" moves a long at a good clip and is able to focus on the essential ingredients that make this film such a joy to watch.


On face value, "Lynch Law Classroom" may seem like any common exploitation film that features the popular combination of repressed horny teenagers and dirty old men set inside the irresistible all-girl high school. But look deeper and you will find that it contains surprising social commentary on the corrupt nature of authority and the rise of the weak against cruel suffering and indignity. The chaotic but highly enjoyable full-scale riot at the end of the film is a fitting end to one of the best film in this excellent collection.

Video:

Panik House Entertainment has come through with stunningly beautiful transfers for each of the four movies in this collection. After gushing over the studio´s previous exploitation film releases ("Sex and Fury" and "Female Yakuza Tale"), I'm beginning to think of Panik House as the new Criterion for alternative films. It is remarkable what the studio has done to restore these cult classics from more than 30 years ago. In all the four anamorphic widescreen transfers here (measuring 2.35:1 in aspect ratio), grain is kept to a minimum and the vividly reproduced colors really pop out at you. Most of the dirt on the source material, I believe, has also been cleaned up as well. Some softness in the images persists but this is only due to the age of the material. It's hard to find anything else to complain about with these almost pristine video transfers.


Audio:
The only audio option available for all the four films is the original Japanese language Mono track. Even though it is delivered on a single channel (through the center speaker in a 5.1 setup), this Mono track contains almost stereo-like qualities, producing a deep and wide sound field that adds depth to the aural experience. I'm glad that Panik House did not go the route of producing an English dubbed soundtrack that would most certainly diminish the overall impact of these films. For English speakers, an English subtitle option is available.


Extras:
Each film comes with almost identical special features with only minor variations in content. The all contain the following:

Original theatrical trailer
Image Galleries: Movie poster and production stills (black and white and color)
Production Notes: A short but informative essay concerning the film, the actresses and the director.
Biography: Here you will find background information concerning the director and some of the stars of each film.

Also available are four audio commentaries, one for each film. The commentators are:
"Criminal Woman – Killing Melody": audio commentary by Andy Klein, editor for online website, L.A. City Beat and Wade Major, film critic for Box Office magazine
"Delinquent Girl Boss – Worthless To Confess": audio commentary by Chris D., author of the book "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film"

"Girl Boss Guerilla": audio commentary by Panik House president Matt Kennedy and Asian Cult Cinema magazine columnist Wyatt Doyle
"Terrifying Girls´ High School – Lynch Law Classroom": audio commentary by Chris D.


All four commentaries are not only very informative in terms of content but also a joy to listen to, as the participants are quite knowledgeable on the subject of cult Japanese cinema. This is the way audio commentaries should be done: recruit well-informed individuals who are passionate about the subject matter on-screen.


Packaging:
This DVD set comes in a special packaging. In keeping with the theme, the outer shell is covered in pink vinyl, with four DVD trays inside housing the discs. Also within the package, which opens like a book, are pages of information about each film. This is not an insert booklet but rather they are bound to the package itself. Also included is a CD that contains a rare audio recording made by Reiko Ike titled, "Reiko Ike Sings!". My review set somehow did not come with the CD, so I can´t say much about it.




Film Value:
It is inherently hard to justify the existence of a film genre that demeans its female characters and treats them as simply objects that exist solely to satisfy cruel men in a sexual context. However, the world is not perfect and these types of films do exist. However, rather than portray these women as the weaker sex, many of the Japanese exploitation films you see here do use women in strong roles who often use their sexuality to gain revenge against male adversaries or to fight for justice. Panik House has compiled a great collection here comprising four interestingly distinct films from the same genre and era. Some are weaker than others but in the end all four films represent an important genre in Japanese film history that I´m glad is being preserved in such a respectful manner. Kudos to Panik House!

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