A while ago I wrote a post called Shohjo Battle Evolution, where I went over a brief history of battling shojo in the light of a scholarly article by Hiromi Nakagawa. The other day I reread it and noticed that I was currently enjoying two of the series mentioned in the post (the Revolutionary Girl Utena anime and the Rose of Versailles manga). Nakagawa’s text illustrates how the image of the fighting woman in Rose of Versailles lacks a certain purity, for two reasons: 1) the manga doesn’t center around battling, even though the heroine Oscar is a soldier; 2) Oscar crossdresses to fight.
Utena Tenjo crossdresses, that much is clear, though I do think battling is much more central to this anime than in the Versailles manga. Anyway, I wanted to see what Nakagawa considers as the purest battling shojo around, and so I found my way to one of her examples: Hana no Asuka-gumi!. The 1980s manga is 27 volumes long, so I decided to watch the 23-episode live-action TV series instead.
The setup is simple: middle school girl gangs are fighting for control of the city. The hegemon is a group called Zenchuura (short for All-Japan Organization of Middle School Secret Gang Leaders). As the story begins, Zenchuura controls about 90% of the city’s girl gangs, and they have just laid claim to Taizan Academy. That’s where the heroine, Asuka Kuraku, studies. When her best friend dies at the hands of Zenchuura, Asuka creates her own one-member gang (=Asuka-gumi) and proceeds to battle Zenchuura. Her goal is for all the gangs to live independently, not to replace Zenchuura rule with her own.
The TV show is extremely mangaesque, and this makes it hilarious (both laugh-at-them and laugh-with-them elements abound). Think about how many situations in manga that look fine and natural in that medium would probably not translate well into a live-action. Well, it’s all there. And since there are practically no magic or supernatural elements, you just get middle school girls fighting each other with kicks, horses, swords etc.
The analogy to the Sengoku/Warring States period in Japanese history is explicitly sustained throughout. The first episode is titled “A Storm rages over the Girls’ Warring States” and it begins with a girl in samurai armor rides into Taizan Academy to declare Zenchuura rule. Zenchuura’s elite leaders are called The Uraban Ten, reflecting the Sengoku Era tendency to group domain leaders and number them (e.g. The Miyoshi Three, the Amakusa Five, the Hatakeyama Seven, the Nagahama Ten, the Okukin Sixteen). One of Asuka’s allies is a local gang leader called Nobuko Oda, reminding us of the great Sengoku warrior Nobunaga Oda. And four of the best Zenchuura soldiers are collectively known as Furinkazan (Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain) which four characters were placed on many a banner during Sengoku.
Boys are seldom shown: in only 2 out of the first 11 episodes do boys any significant amount of airtime. The same goes for adults of both genders. When they do show up, they’re as ineffective and laughable as the faculty in Utena. The show is quite violent, there’s blood and hair-pulling all over the place. Asuka’s preferred combat weapon is a gold coin, and the way she handles it’s really cool, but the coin doesn’t have boomerang-like properties so she’s always forced to retrieve it after each throw. It’s funny. Asuka’s defeated enemies most often just drop out of the story, and it’s unclear whether they’ve died or are simply hospitalized (mind you, I’ve only watched half of the show).
Every episode has a catchphrase, usually uttered by Asuka, and spelled out in big white letters on the screen. The phrases range from the moralistic (Ep. 2: Soiled hands cannot grasp anything, Ep: 10: The most important thing for humans is the trust between two people) to the trite (Ep. 3: All I need is friends, Ep. 4: I’d rather burn out than live as if dead, Ep. 11: He who laughs last laughs best) to the sort that would trouble a middle school teacher (Ep. 1: I am not weak enough to be blown away by the wind, and I am not stupid enough to stand against it, Ep. 5: You are born alone and you die alone, Ep. 7: I won’t think of what lies ahead, I will live the now to the fullest).
The series isn’t around subtitled, but I subbed two clips so you could get a sense of the phenomenon that is this show. The first clip (from episode 5) shows Asuka and her close friend Miko rescuing a girl who’s been captured by Kasuga (Zenchuura’s number two figure, the girl in the white gakuran boy’s school uniform) and Tenshi (one of the Uraban Ten). In the second clip (from episode 9), Asuka has to deal not only with Kasuga, but also with the commander of Zenchuura, a twisted girl named Hibari. You can listen to that seemingly obligatory conversation, halfway through any self-respecting action show, where the hero and the villain both reveal their motivations, size each other up, and then go their separate ways to scheme some more.
ASUKA AGAINST KASUGA, TENSHI:
ASUKA MEETS HIBARI: