Rage, Mentors, and Rebellions in Classic vs. Modern Sukeban Anime Girls

By: Athena Zhang Baker March 20, 20200 Comments

Content Warning: Discussions of sexism and trauma.

Spoilers: For Asamiya Saki’s full character arc (Sukeban Deka) and Uotani Arisa’s backstory (Fruits Basket).

In a country where women are often discouraged to pursue a career beyond becoming a traditional housewife, many Japanese women turned to the lives and legacies of Japan’s very own boss girls (otherwise known as sukeban or yankiis) in order to sustain themselves for many years to come. 

From the early 1960s to the late 1990s, these women were the faces of petty crimes committed across Japan and pink films showcased across the world. Today, they are respectable representations of women trying to fit into a male-dominated society thanks to anime such as Sido Limited’s Sukeban Deka OVA (1991) and manga such as Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket (2001). 

Movie poster of a young woman wielding a knife and handcuffs while a man leans over, watching her from behind. Text is in Japanese.
Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless To Confess (1971)

While old-school sukeban anime/manga girls like Asamiya Saki from Sukeban Deka OVA come across as irrational in their anger and resentment toward society (until the very end of their respective series, at least), newer sukeban anime/manga girls like Uotani Arisa from Fruits Basket often are more level-headed, using their rebellious spirit to improve their circumstances. This is partially thanks to meeting a guardian-like figure at a young age.

With today’s global culture, it’s important for girls especially to be open towards the things that they do not understand and to not be afraid of asking for help when needed. That is why, compared to old-school sukeban anime girls, new-school sukeban anime girls are portrayed as more mature and thus are more likely to serve as models to help women in and outside of Japan to become self-sustaining.

A four image gallery of sukeban girls in short uniform tops and long skirts, backs emblazoned with writing, dyed hair, wielding baseball bats

The Rise of the Sukeban

(suke) meaning “girl” or “female” 

番 (ban) meaning “boss” or “turn” 

Literally translated as “girl-bosses” in Japanese, the sukeban were women who often wore Western-style clothing such as Converse shoes, semi-modest school uniforms, and dyed bright short hair. From morning until night, these women often committed petty crimes while following strict rules of conduct, such as never going out with another girl’s boyfriend. 

After Japan’s defeat during WWII, “the country was occupied by U.S. and British troops between 1945 and 1952. The national morale was low, and the population was plagued by alcohol and drug abuse,” according to Cyn Feltousen’s The True Story of Sukeban

In response to the chaos, both teenage boys and girls across Japan formed gangs and committed petty crimes. While boys had a better chance of forming a camaraderie with existing gangs like the yakuza, girls were still looked down upon as nothing but child-bearers after joining these gangs.

According to Japanese crime writer Jake Adelstein, “What is unusual is that in the yakuza (Japan’s most notorious gang of criminals), women have no authority and there are almost no female members. That the female gangs even existed is an oddity in Japan’s generally sexist male-dominated deviant culture.”

Even if a young woman proved to an all-male group like the yakuza that she was good for more than raising a child, she still couldn’t get the role that she wanted. The reason being that a Japanese woman’s duty was (and often still is) to become a good mother, wife, and daughter, according to Lebra, J., Paulson, J., & Powers’s Women in Changing Japan (1976).  

In response to this, these girls ultimately either formed their own gang of leaders or became their own bosses called the sukeban. Some, if they decided to do so, later took their skills and beliefs and turned them to creative or productive projects, such as becoming an artist or starting a business. For example, Japan’s very own “Aretha Franklin,” Wada Akiko, began as a sukeban before branching out into music and film.

Wada Akiko on a motorcycle
Wada Akiko (Source: Ace Records)

This is not to say that none of these girls got help fitting back into Japanese society from anyone in or outside of their gangs. In Wada’s case, in order to overcome her bullying problem, she would often skip school in order to stay out late at Osaka’s entertainment districts and help her father clean up his dojo when needed. Using her physique, talents, and (ultimately) her connections, she would perform at clubs until she was scouted by Takeo Hori, the founder of the Hori Pro agency, after dropping out of school at age 17 (1968).

As word of these all-female gangs spread across Japan, movies and anime began to portray them primarily as either “aloof, male-hating Amazonian warrior women figures dressed in Japanese school girl uniforms” and/or emotionally distressed teenage girls with troubled pasts. It wasn’t until after the popularity of these girl-bosses dwindled that most of these shows and movies began to showcase these girls asking for help at young ages (either willingly or unwillingly).

Case in point: Asamiya Saki from Sukeban Deka OVA. 

Saki from Sukeban Deka holding up a badge with a stern expression

Asamiya Saki of Sukeban Deka OVA

As one of Japan’s most iconic “old-school sukeban” anime girls, Asamiya Saki is portrayed as an overly emotional, rebellious teenage girl who often acts cold towards men, such as her admirer Nowaki Sanpei, in order to get what she wants. 

While working as an undercover yo-yo cop in order to save her mother from being executed, she would often shout at poor Sanpei: “Why don’t you just shave your head and join a monastery?” At one point in the OVA, he actually does shave his head for her. 

However, despite this, she acts distant towards Sanpei. This is partly because her father was absent throughout her whole life, but it was also partly because, up until the late 1990s, sukeban such as her were by-and-large portrayed as either male-hating fighters and/or troubled teens who despised the law because of how women were treated in Japan after World War II (both of which are understandable reasons). 

Saki in a school uniform and workout gloves, a chain wrapped around her wrist as if she's caught it that way intentionally. She looks serious.

Saki eventually gains a mentor-like figure, but it isn’t until the very end of the series that she slowly learns to open up towards men like Sanpei and accept the fact that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help when one needs it. 

The moment Saki steps out of the fire with Renmi, a sociopathic socialite, handcuffed to her, Sanpei runs up towards her with happy tears streaming down his eyes. Confused and flattered, Saki at last lets her guard down. This showcases to the audience that the only way to truly solve problems like dealing with the absence of a father-figure in one’s life is by being open towards others who want to help you instead of lashing out at everyone indiscriminately.

Overall, as demonstrated by her rebellious spirit and emotional growth, Saki is a positive role model for women in Japan to follow. While she still has a long way to go, her growth nevertheless paved the way for more level-headed sukeban like Uotani Arisa from Fruits Basket, who had a guardian-like figure at an earlier age.

3/4 view of Uotani with a stern expression

Uotani Arisa of Fruits Basket

As one of shoujo anime’s most iconic “new-school sukeban” girls, Uotani “Uo” Arisa teaches her fellow audience members that while it’s important for girls to learn how to become independent, it’s equally important for them to learn to not be afraid to ask for help when needed. Serving as a kind-hearted father-figure for her best friend, Tohru Honda, Arisa is a tomboy who knows how to navigate society without giving up her rebellious nature, thanks in part to Tohru’s mother, a yanmama

After getting beaten up by her all-girl gang, The Ladies, and moving away from her alcoholic father, Arisa gets rescued by Tohru’s mother, Kyoko. Through Kyoko, Arisa learns that she can be tough and work with others at the same time. She cuts ties with her destructive gang and forms supportive friendships with her classmates instead, turning her aggression to productive outlets instead.

Kyoko carries Arisa on her back near a river at night

While reflecting on the experience, Arisa says:

“When I look back now, it’s a little embarrassing. Getting carried on her back, blubbering like a little kid, but it wasn’t for nothing… It really is great when you’re not alone. I made it to my second year of middle school, met Hanajima, and life became even more fun.”

Like Saki, Arisa had to go through a very difficult situation in order to find her place in society. Since she had a guardian-like figure at an earlier age, Arisa was able to maintain her rebellious nature without completely rejecting others. She demonstrates this balance by keeping her hair long, wearing long skirts, and defending her friends, especially Tohru after her mother passes away.

Arisa in middle school, eating happily with Kyoko and Tohru

Even though Saki ultimately found a way to contribute to society, as demonstrated at the end of the OVA, it took her much longer. Because she didn’t have a guardian-like figure growing up, it made it harder for her to know who to trust and how she should handle stressful situations. 

That’s not to say that Saki doesn’t have a chance of becoming as mature as Arisa or that her unhappiness was entirely her fault; she just has a more difficult path due to the world she grew up in. Given that Arisa lived during a time when Japanese women had more opportunities than their earlier counterparts, this made it easier for sukeban like her to open up to others and ask for help.

As showcased by Arisa’s growth, even “independent girl bosses” need to have a mentor right beside them in order to adapt to the world around them. While it’s good to not be over-reliant on that sort of figure, it’s just as good to know when is a good time to be honest with oneself during a tough situation. 

Arisa in a mask and dark uniform glares at Tohru, who is carrying a stack of papers

Productive and Destructive Rebellions

Even though both men and women are encouraged to share domestic responsibilities, this is often not the case in reality. Women in Japan and abroad are often discouraged from working outside of the home and to stifle their ambition or anger under a gentle smile. In order to overcome these social barriers, many girls turn to “new sukeban” anime girls like Uotani Arisa from Fruits Basket for guidance and inspiration.

Compared to “old sukeban” characters like Asamiya Saki from Sukeban Deka OVA, the “new sukeban are just as tough, but more mature and level-headed. Regardless of the situation, these girls knew how to open their minds to possibilities, such as learning how to trust others while also staying away from toxic people, as is the case with Arisa.

In today’s world of confusion and unpredictability, it’s important for girls especially to learn to not see bad experiences as the “end-all, be all” and to not be afraid of asking for help when needed. They can channel their anger or aggression not into aimless destruction, but into helping others and improving society as a whole. For those living inside the confines of gender roles, the “new sukeban” anime girls could provide this sort of wisdom.

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