The Rise and Fall of the Sukeban Girls

FEATURES|TIFFANY FONG


In the 1960s, Japan saw an increase in all-female street gangs, mostly made up of teenage girls. These gangs are called sukeban and through their fashion, petty crime and acts of violence – they rebelled against societal norms and expectations, proving that girlhood and strength could coexist.


Every subculture comes with a distinctive fashion and for the sukeban, their site of expression was on the sailor-style school uniforms known as seifuku. The students viewed their school uniforms as restricting their ability for self-expression and as a symbol of restriction. By rolling up their sleeves, dyeing their hair, lengthening their skirts, cutting their blouse to show off the waist, and wearing converse shoes, these girls utilised their style to hide weapons like knives, razors, and chains beneath their clothes.


Anyone who went to a school with strict uniform rules would know that self-expression can only be done in small acts of rebellion. However while many girls try to get away with shorter skirts, Japanese students during the 1970s lengthened their skirts instead. While the 1960s sexual liberation in the West was celebrated, the long skirts that the sukeban wore protested against the sexualisation of young Japanese girls and their school uniforms. Refusing to be objectified, they challenged Japanese expectations that women were docile and submissive, instead they demanded respect and commanded fear.


Even after their graduation some of the sukeban kept wearing their uniforms, customising them even further. Most members were girls from working class families and aware that they were unlikely to climb out of their social circumstances. These gangs, despite their violence and hierarchical structure, provided the girls with a place to belong and a way to express their dissatisfaction with society through acts of violence and petty crime.


This then leads to the question, what happened to these sukeban girls?


Due to their prevalence, sukeban began featuring in pop culture from manga to films, and these girls were portrayed in a way that appealed to the male gaze. However, it was pinku eiga that truly dismantled the subculture by completely undermining its foundations.


Pinku eiga are low budget films and the genre encompasses any Japanese theatrical film that includes nudity or sexual content. Despite these elements, the genre could be described as falling between erotica and pornography. Due to the Japanese film ethics ban on displaying genitals and pubic hair, directors had to creatively allude to sex. Pinku eiga dominated the Japanese film industry from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, achieving popular success and with several films receiving awards from the mainstream film community, demonstrating its popularity.


During the 1970s, Japan struggled to compete with American cultural imports and many major film studios produced pinku eiga to remain afloat. In 1971, ‘Pinky Violence’ became a signature genre for the Japanese major film company, Toei (yes, the same Toei that produced Power Rangers, Sailor Moon and One Piece – I take great pleasure in ruining your childhood for you). The genre had a blend of sex, violence, and humour, holding mass appeal for male audiences.


Toei’s Pinky Violence series successfully appropriated the sukeban’s strength, solidarity, and independence into a sexualised trope that appealed to the male gaze, effectively undermining their method of rebellion.


Through degradation and the sexual nature of the genre, the Pinky Violence films utilised phallic symbols and nudity to objectify these fierce, violent, and independent female characters – placing them under the control of the patriarchy. Film buffs that have analysed and reviewed these films often argue that the sukeban archetype showcased women as independent rather than submissive. Additionally, many point to the subversive tone of many of the films, featuring young antiheroes with a general dissatisfaction towards both society and authority. Tellingly, the vast amount of reviews and analysis found online about the Pinky Violence series is written by men.


Despite the extreme acts of violence that the female characters carry out on their tormentors in exacting their revenge, the overt sexualisation of female characters for the sexual gratification of a male audience sets back any progress that might have been made. What had started off as a subculture which challenged the patriarchy and enabled young teenage girls to rebel against their sexualisation was effectively undermined through pinku eiga.


By the 1980s, VCR tapes were becoming widely owned and the popularity of adult videos surpassed pinku eiga. Additionally, the tightening of censorship policies and new restrictions on ‘pink films,’ led to the end of an era. However, the damage had been done on the unique subculture of sukeban girls.