Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (1972), Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972),
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973), Female Prisoner Scorpion #701’s Grudge Song (1973)
What follows are four shortish reviews written separately for the above Japanese exploitation films, each a summation of my feelings written immediately after seeing the applicable film for the very first time. The series charts the exploits of Nami Matsushima played near-wordlessly by 70’s Japanese icon Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood, Stray Cat Rock); a woman wrongfully imprisoned by her boyfriend who, over the course of four films, becomes a creature of merciless vengeance, escaping captivity multiple times and crusading silently for wronged women across Japan. Though they can be crudely inserted into the troubling sub-genre of ‘rape revenge’, I came to find something of more startling merit and sociological depth here. In fact, in combination they may make up one of cinema’s great rebukes of oppressive patriarchy. I may be inclined to dig deeper into my feelings on these films separately in the future but, for now as an overview, this is what I’ve freshly discovered as I discovered it…
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) (Shunya Ito)
First off, yes, lets address the bad. The misogyny is rife and combined with the preoccupation with sexual violence stands as a barrier to fully enjoying the film as pure entertainment. However, said violence is not without place here and it is not, from my experience, as gratuitous and pointless as in many, many other exploitation films.
There’s a gender war going on at the heart of Female Prisoner #701, Shunya Ito’s visually striking debut. There are no redeemable male characters present in the film, and as the prison life fractures, it becomes inmates versus guards. Women versus the establishment that contains them.
Witness, for instance, the menial and repetitive task of digging holes only to fill them in again. Meaningless busy work. The patriarchy lays out a routine of endless tasks that crushes spirits and distracts. These scenes also reflect class divides; the rich or prosperous controlling the poor, directing the masses in circles. An exploitation film about exploitation (not in itself unheard of).
Perhaps in comment about how society engineers women to critique one another, the only thing stopping the prisoners from overthrowing their captors is their preoccupation with Meiko Kaji’s Nami, whom they vilify to the point of mania.
Kaiji is piercing in the central role, commanding the screen and making me optimistic for the other installments. Ito’s direction is startling and I was particularly impressed with the playfulness of the flashback scenes, operating on a theatrical level with sets rearranging themselves in front of the viewer. One might expect that in a fourth-wall-busting 50’s musical, but not in a supposedly tawdry Women In Prison flick. The cyan hues of the film are very giving, the framing interesting and artful without feeling too arch. The film is aware of its own acute style, but it carries it off gloriously.
All in all this was great, especially for a genre that is ordinarily so hamstrung by its own irrelevancy. I look forward to what’s next…
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) (Shunya Ito)
Jailhouse 41 picks up where the first left off, is darker, meaner, but thrives through mutation. Nami has become a living myth at the prison and, when fortune allows, she is able to break free with the aid of six of her new disciples.
The themes of pushing against a smothering patriarchy from film one continue, but Jailhouse 41 expands to talk about myth, martyrdom and urban folklore. The escapees even have their own folk song in an eerie mid-film musical number.
Nami encounters new responsibilities as a leader too, enabling her followers, she is also the cause of their violence as well. The film gives her mythic qualities, suggesting heavily in a few sequences that she has acquired psychic abilities. It feels as though Ito and Kaiji (instrumental in the creation of her stoic character) are constructing a new legend for Japan. A modern feminist aria.
It’s behind camera pyrotechnics are initially less theatrical this time, though the bluish colour continues to unify the growing series. There is dynamism here, but it feels comparatively muted in the intensely maintained colour palette. A forest sequence even recalls the poetry of Kwaidan. While one striking scene sees Ito fly his camera repeatedly passed two of his actor’s heads, as though allowing us to zoom into their minds. Again, Nami as a newly formed psychic.
It’s a 70’s prisoners-on-the-run flick, and an accomplished one. The final scene seems likely to stick in the mind most fervently as Nami leads a crowd of inmates out into the city, each taking Nami’s knife in turn. This time it’s war, they seem to promise, and Nami’s transcending metamorphosis to a movement’s avatar is complete. Investigating this series is proving exceedingly worthwhile…
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) (Shunya Ito)
Loose and living an impoverished life in the seedy neon alleyways of Tokyo, Nami remains stoic but, following the stunning finale of Jailhouse 41, now acts as vigilante protector and elusive patron of women abused by Japan’s patriarchy.
Beast Stable is a notably darker turn for the series, but marks another pointed evolution of style and production – all the more curious and laudable as once more (and for the final time) Shunya Ito is at the helm. There’s a grittier realism at work here as Ito depicts degradation and misfortune in ways that make this the most uncomfortable of the series. The grindhouse-y elements are more overt and Beast Stable pushes to shock, especially with a difficult scene of non-consensual abortion. One really senses the future work of Takashe Miike in Beast Stable, marking it out as decades ahead of its time.
So there is still art and merit to this series of films. Beast Stable is gut-wrenchingly sad in its portrayal of prostitute Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), wrestling with the shame of her taboo incestuous relationship with her brain-damaged brother, while Nami/Scorpion herself lives on the fringes of society, lonesome and destitute while on the lam. Beast Stable shines a light into dark places, making it a valuable work; it’s surely no coincidence that matches are a recurring motif.
Again there are bravura flourishes – the staccato editing of a nightclub scene recalls Godard – but more pressingly Beast Stable removes the theatrical trappings for a tough look at struggling women. Nevertheless, I am finding myself extremely impressed by this run of movies, as much for their anger as for the technical side of things, and Meiko Kaji is simply remarkable. It may be harder this time, but it’s as worthy of your attention as the prior installments, and the sight of Kaji running through Tokyo with a severed arm handcuffed to her wrist – filmed from a distance and much to the alarm of genuine passers-by – makes for one of the greatest opening credit montages of all time.
Female Prisoner Scoprion: #701’s Grudge Song (1973) (Yasuhara Hasebe)
Yasuharu Hasebe is a great genre filmmaker in his own right (Massacre Gun, Retaliation; also available from Arrow Video), but his entry in the FPS franchise – taking over from Shunya Ito – unfortunately also marks a sharp decline in quality for the series, and features Meiko Kaji’s last appearance as the iconic Nami.
It is not that Hasebe is without nous, and Grudge Song has occasional moments of visual flair and there are concerted efforts to ape the appearance of the earlier films, but the feminist bite that propelled the last two entries especially is notably diluted here. The film is more conventional, playing to its intended role as an exploitation B picture. The sex and sexual violence are harder to excuse as neither feel integral to the film surrounding them. The story is your far more traditional thriller fare and in perhaps the biggest betrayal of the previous films, is more traditionally masculine in its gaze.
Indeed, Nami/Scorpion seems no longer to be the driving force behind the narrative for much of Grudge Song, instead she is an object of pursuit or desire rarely afforded any substantive screen time. That or she’s a witness to other cruel set pieces – especially when the film reverts back to the prison setting.
It is only at the end that she reclaims the film, but by this point it feels like something of an empty gesture. Arrow Video’s superbly presented boxset would have felt irksomely incomplete without it, but I can’t help but feel as though I’ll look back on Female Prisoner Scorpion as a trilogy with an awkward and arbitrary appendix, one exclusively for completists.