Friday, February 26, 2010

Our Top Ten Favorite Cinematic Bad Girls

The femme fatale, the wild she-cat, the rebellious teen looking for dangerous thrills, the wayward girl who's made all the wrong choices, the woman who can drink, fight and fuck as good as any man - Cinema history is chock full of these "bad girls", and this is thanks in no small part to the contributions of Japanese filmmakers and actresses. Maybe we can thank Quentin Tarantino for distilling so many of Japanese film's bad girls into The Bride, the lead heroine of his 2003 two-part opus "Kill Bill". Since then women who fronted Nikkatsu's and Toei's exploitation films of the 60's and 70's have become part of our popular film geek imaginations, but "bad girls" just don't mean boobs and blood. We at the Pow-Wow got together to compile a list of our favorite women who, yes, are bad (some downright rotten), but who never stray into full on villain territory. These are the girls who intrigue us, arouse us, and who kick our asses seven ways from Sunday. Hope you enjoy it.

10. The Black Tight Killers - Black Tight Killers

"Yasuharu Hasebe's 1966 film "Black Tight Killers" is the kind of film that puts a smile on my face. It takes what could have been a lame Z grade picture and enlivens the story by using the medium - lots of colour, sets, shadows and angles to move the story forward instead of relying on too much exposition. Of course having a whole whack of go-go dancers, guys in trenchcoats and female ninjas helps keep things fun as well. Especially those bad-ass ninjas. Even though the film is named after them, they don't really have much to do with the plot - except, that is, to lay waste to their opponents with a barrage of wicked-cool weapons. Tape measures, old 45 singles and (my all time favourite secret weapon) the Ninja chewing gum bullet are extraordinarily effective deterrents when put in the hands of these fighting machines. They aren't out for vengeance or for any specific purpose, they simply relish any chance to do battle and don't seem to tire of it. You gotta love 'em for that." BT

9. Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) - Ran

As Peter Cowie states in his new book on Akira Kurosawa, “Ran”’s Lady Kaede is the fiercest female character in the director’s body of work. The “King Lear”-inspired period epic is filled with terrible characters who remain ignorant to their long history of sins until far too late (Tatsuya Nakadai’s Lord Hidetora) or embrace the treacherous nature of the world they live in as they greedily scheme and kill their way to power (Akira Terao’s Taro and Jinpachi Nezu’s Jiro, Hidetora’s first two sons). But Lady Kaede is truly in a class of her own. Married to Taro, her prime goal is to claim vengeance for her family, who fell to Hidetora’s brutal reign. After Taro is killed in battle, Kaede quickly seduces his brother (and murderer) Jiro, then manipulates him into doing her bidding. Perhaps most heartlessly, she orders him to behead his own wife, Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), so she can officially claim him as her own. Kurogane (Hisashi Igawa), Jiro’s second-in-command and one of the few characters who keeps his wits intact, warns his lord of the danger she poses to him and, in a memorable scene, presents her with a stone fox head instead of Sue’s in a playful allusion to her true deceptive nature. Slinking in her white kimono and smoldering with equal parts seductive allure and carefully withheld fury, she confidently, calculatingly goes about the business of bringing down the family who murdered her own. By the time her spectacular final scene arrives, she deservingly possesses an air of cool triumph. One can certainly see a prototype figure for her in “Throne of Blood”’s similarly crafty Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada), but Mieko Harada’s intense performance easily pushes Kaede into the top tier of cinema’s greatest villainesses. MSC

8. Sumika (Eriko Sato) - Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers!

"Funuke Domo, Kanashimi no Ai wo Misero" ("Funuke: Show Some Love, You Losers!") begins with the offscreen death of two of the characters, antagonist Sumika's parents. Soon it becomes apparent that they are the lucky ones, spared any further exposure to their older daughter. You see, Sumika is a monster--a creature of such fierce, single-minded selfishness that her only onscreen equivalent is Daniel Plainview of PT Anderson's "There Will Be Blood". Eriko Sato ("Cutie Honey", "The Setting Sun") is no Daniel Day-Lewis, but she is terrifying in this role--a psycho-vixen who uses sadism and sex appeal in equal measure. Unlike characters who wear their vixenhood on their sleeves by fronting gangs or gambling for a living, Sumika is a failed actress/model who uses hers sparingly. A sociopath, she manipulates those around her not merely because it's convenient or advantageous to do so, but because she cannot exist any other way. She's an evolutionary anomaly, a being in whom the lizard brain developed beyond action/reaction into a smiling maelstrom of mean. Normal emotions simply don't exist in her. The film's scope is also narrow enough that she focuses the extent of her horrible skill on her immediate family, controlling each of them by whatever means get the desired result. Less pretty younger sister Kiyomi gets viciously bullied, and in the film's scariest and most charged scene, she stealthily observes Sumika seduce older brother Shinji in such a way that he's fully aware of his own powerlessness, but is helpless to do anything about it. Sumika simultaneously arouses and emasculates her own brother for what amounts to a few hundred dollars. She's not callous, she simply doesn't seem to know she has an option other than to emotionally crush her closest relatives and only friends. Reiko Ike and Meiko Kaji may have had the splashier and more iconic vixen roles, but even at their most vengeance-minded, neither approaches the measured, even casual cruelty of Sumika. There are no sly winks, no irony, and no respite; Sumika is a vixen for the global bank era, a creature devoid of guilt or conscience or compassion. EE

7. Chisato (Kirina Mano) - Bullet Ballet

If "Bullet Ballet" is Shinya Tsukamoto’s rendition of a film noir, then Chisato is his femme fatale. She’s definitely alluring and seductive in an angst ridden, suicidal kind of way. Whether or not Goda is drawn to her because of the similarities between her and his recently deceased girlfriend is irrelevant. What is relevant is that she pulls him into the dark and seedy world she exists in, and his search for the reasons behind his girlfriends suicide become entwined with his unwritten law of protecting Chisato at all costs. Does she manipulate him? Does she take advantage of him? Does she know her suicidal tendencies give him glimpses into the why of his girlfriends demise? Damn straight. But it quickly becomes apparent that she’s a beautiful wounded soul, who’s given up on life, the same as Goda. She may appear tough and hardened because she doesn’t care what happens to her, hoping for death, sometimes begging for it, but in reality she’s never been able to live. Chisato is like that dark, depressed Goth girl you had a crush on high school that seemed to radiate an aura of death, but within that aura resided a beautiful and captivating creature capable of swallowing your soul with its eyes. You wanted to help her, but you have to be pulled down into the belly of the beast first before you can both emerge into the sunlight. MH

6. Sachiko (Miki Sugimoto) - Girl Boss Guerilla

Miki Sugimoto is the street. In her brief film career (1972-77) she did play a period role or two ("Lustful Shogun and his 21 Concubines" comes to mind), but Sugimoto is a contemporary actress--she belongs in denim and leather, her hair flowing loose over her snarling face. In the hierarchy of pinky actresses she's neither the prettiest (Meiko Kaji) or the most outrageous (Reiko Ike), but she exudes a sexy, tough authenticity unmatched in the genre. Sugimoto was usually the co-lead alongside the more glamorous Reiko Ike, and somehow failed to gain the same popularity as the "Sex and Fury" star. This slight is nearly intolerable! Unlike Ike's naked swordplay, Sugimoto's nudity was never simply an invitation for the male gaze: It had a kind of fierce matter-of-factness that was reflected by Sugimoto's sneer. She was daring you to look, but promising to sock you in the eye if you did. The vast majority of her lead roles were tough girls, so it's somewhat ironic that her most iconic role as the titular Zeroka no Onna (in "Zero Woman: red Handcuffs") has her playing an undercover cop who is, for the bulk of the film, passively brutalized by the gang she's infiltrating. No such worries in her sukeban films, most notably "Sukeban Gerira" ("Girl Boss Guerilla"): She's Sachiko, badass leader of a chick biker gang that's just as tough as the guys and willing to prove it at the drop of a hat. The film's first five minutes features my favorite-ever moment in pinky violence: Sachiko's gang, furious at being flirted with by a bunch of guys on motorcycles, decides to throw a beat down culminating in Sachiko unzipping her leather jumpsuit to reveal her tattooed breast and shout about how girls can be tough too. It's audacious, sexy and scary, a great moment for any fan of '70s excess, a single gesture which both prefaced and outshone so-called girl power icons the Spice Girls. Sugimoto retired at the height of her vixenhood to become a housewife and preschool teacher. A sukeban no more at a mere 25 years old, she left behind a b-movie filmography full of bare-breasted attitude and steel-and-concrete toughness. EE

5. Taeko (Masumi Miyazaki) - Strange Circus

Masumi Miyazaki retired from the entertainment world in 1996, leaving a body of work that including several films, some nude photo albums and the Japanese edition of Playboy. 10 years later Sion Sono convinces her to take the role of Taeko/Sayuri in his Rampo Edogawa inspired mind fuck "Strange Circus". Sono fills the screen with Grand Guignol imagery and a fierce sense of traumatic glee. Miyazaki plays several incarnations of the same person, one more real than the other. But throughout, regardless of the depths of evil one of these personalities sink, no matter what Ero-guro inspired madness she permeates throughout the film, she always manages to maintain some semblance of grace and beauty. She can be one crazy, messed up chick, but man, she looks good doing it. There’s something strangely attractive about a psychosexual woman that will hack off all your limbs. MH

4. Mother and Daughter (Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) - Onibaba

Japan, the 14th-century: the country has suffered through nearly 50 years of war as two emperors, Ashikaga Takauji in Kyoto and Emperor Go-Daigo in Yoshino, vied for supremacy. Social order has given way to utter chaos. On the banks of a river near Kyoto a middle-aged woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have been reduced to brutally killing and looting the corpses of the half-starved samurai who are either returning home from or fleeing the battle front. Their is a faint, flicker hope that when their man Kichi, the woman's son and the daughter's husband, returns from the war that this animalistic existence may (possibly... maybe) come to an end, but when Kichi dies in battle and his friend Hachi (Kei Sato) returns instead these two women sink to even lower levels of depravity. Director and writer Kaneto Shindo based his film "Onibaba" on a Buddhist fable titled "A Mask with Flesh" about a mother-in-law who prevents her daughter from praying by donning a demon mask and scaring her as the daughter makes her way to a local temple. Shindo knew that prayer wasn't what he wanted to address in his film, it was lust and sex and the dark pit of our most base emotions. It's the jealousy that festers in Otowa's character towards her beautiful youthful daughter-in-law, and her desire for the handsome Hachi, that becomes the motivating factor for her to wear her demon mask. It was the frank and sometimes shocking sexuality of "Onibaba" (along with the work of Shohei Imamura, and Hiroshi Teshigahara's "Woman in the Dunes") that challenged the Japanese taboo of showing sex and nudity on screen, and there are plenty of scenes thoughout "Onibaba" that feature Otowa and Yoshimura in various states of undress. This was very apparent to international distributors, who instead of promoting "Onibaba" as the dark horror film that it was pitched it as a naughty sex film. Posters for the film promised glimpses of its "bad girl" stars' heaving bosoms rather than an examination of the black depths of the human heart. CM

3. Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) - In the Realm of the Senses

Up until this point all the women on our list have been fictional characters, but we couldn't compile a list of bad girls without mentioning one of Japanese cinema's, and 20th-century Japanese true crime's most notorious women, Sada Abe. The maid and former prostitute came to the attention of a shocked Japan in May of 1936 after she strangled and castrated her lover, Kichizo Ishida. It was a story that had everything a public scandal should have - infidelity (Ishida was the married owner of the restaurant that Abe worked in), kinky sex (Ushida had been strangled during a particularly vigorous session of erotic asphyxia), and insanity (it was rumoured that Abe cut of Ishida's penis as a way of keeping him with her after death). Abe was sentenced to six years for the crime and during her incarceration the transcripts of her police interrogation and confessions became bestsellers. Upon her release she operated her own bar where people would flock for a glimpse of this crazed sexual murderess. It just makes sense that the scandal would make it to the screen. Abe was portrayed by Junko Miyashita in Noboru Tanaka's 1975 roman porno "A Woman Called Sada Abe", by Hitomi Kuroki in Nobuhiko Obayashi's strangely whimsical 1998 "Sada", and most recently by aging sex symbol Aya Sugimoto in Rokuro Mochizuki's 2008 film "Johnen: Love of Sada". (The real-life Sada Abe actually made a brief appearance in Teruo Ishii's sado-masochistic 1969 film "Love & Crime") One actress came to personify Abe more than any other, though. When Japanese New Wave director Nagisa Oshima decided to bring the story of Sada Abe to the screen in 1976 with his "In the Realm of the Senses" he cast actress Eiko Matsuda as his murderous protagonist, but it was a terribly demanding role. Oshima famously had Matsuda and her co-star Tatsuya Fuji engage in unsimulated sex throughout the film, a decision that had it banned in numerous countries. Thankfully the film has been reassessed and is now recognized as a contemporray classic, but it effectively killed Matsuda's fledgling acting career. It's a terrible shame, because of all the Sada Abe's that have appeared on film Matsuda's was the most nuanced, being both totally sympathetic and utterly repellent at the same time, a girl who is neither good nor bad, but the victim of her own out of control passions. CM

2. Asami (Eihi Shiina) - Audition

Would Takashi Miike’s merciless masterpiece “Audition” be the horror classic it is today without Eihi Shiina’s femme fatale Asami? Absolutely not. Even had another actress played her, it is impossible to imagine that she’d have nabbed it as effectively as Shiina did – in one of her very first roles, no less. Asami first appears as the ideal woman for lonely widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), who browses over several young female applicants in an audition secretly designed for his personal matchmaking needs. Asami, a delicate-looking woman whose dancing ambitions were shattered by an injury, immediately appeals to Aoyama, and before long they begin a sweetly shy relationship. However, there is still a sense of mystery surrounding her, helped along considerably by the occasional shot of her sitting on the floor of her small apartment staring at her phone, ceaselessly waiting for him to call. The word “creepy” doesn’t quite do this unnerving sight justice, and by the film’s famous final reel, Asami has transformed into a very, very different person than the one she originally appeared to be. Again, the film’s expertly deceptive structure wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as it is without Shiina, who can pull off both disarming innocence and sadistic menace, not to mention, in true method actor fashion, actually vomiting into a dog bowl for one of the film’s ickiest moments. The final touch that makes her such a memorable bad girl is the fact that, while she discloses her feelings of disgust for men like Aoyama as she leans over him dressed in her leather apron and gloves, her exact motives are never made entirely clear. This streak of irrationality in her vicious behavior (along with the film’s similarly ambiguous quality) makes her character all the more chilling. MSC

1. Sasori (Meiko Kaji) - Female Convict Scorpion series

"Meiko Kaji's screen characters alone could pretty much fill up most of this list - the vengeful Lady Snowblood, the con-artist Nami The Red Cherry Blossom from the Wandering Ginza Butterfly films and the street wise gangster girl Mako from Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter are but a few. However, our number one slot has to go to Sasori - the Scorpion of the 4 Female Prisoner 701 films. Tough and determined, she survives rape, torture and multiple beatings (that's just the first film!) in order to collect whatever vengeance she is seeking. A woman of few words, she lets her actions speak for her and carries herself with dignity in every situation - even the hopeless and terribly humiliating ones. Even if she rarely speaks, her face says a great deal - a devastating stare of daggers with the curling lips of her sneer is enough to let anyone who messes with her know that they have very little time left. Though very sympathetic (especially when those nasty prison guards start working her over), it's not like Sasori is a good girl just protecting herself. No, she'll go above and beyond the call of duty to inflict upon you whatever punishment she thinks you deserve. She's dangerous, doesn't care for authority, doesn't trust anyone, remarkably handy with weapons and cannot be stopped. Now that is one bad girl. BT

1 comment:

fredbag said...

Awesome list! And I love the #1 choice. The Female Convict Scorpion films are outstanding!