Why I Love… #92: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

Year: 1972

Director: Shunya Ito

Star: Meiko Kaji, Kayoko Shiraishi, Fumio Watanabe

A product of Japanese film studio Toei in the early 1970s, the Female Prisoner Scorpion series – known in some circles as Female Convict Scorpion – detail the misadventures of Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji), a woman wrongfully imprisoned – framed by her former boyfriend – who becomes an icon of vengeance and defiance in the toxic patriarchy that surrounds her. It’s entirely forgivable to not have heard of this unique and startling series of exploitation films, familiar mainly to those who have braved more than a mere paddle in the shallows of Japanese genre cinema. Those depths beyond can be dangerous, but they also teem with life, and few treasures match this particular set of movies.

The striking and beautiful Meiko Kaji had already fronted a series of youth films in 1970; the Stray Cat Rock films. But her role as Nami Matsushima, ak.a. Sasori or Scorpion, made her a star. Her presence across all four outings as Scorpion is astonishing. With little more than a handful of lines of dialogue over the entire series (and none in Jailhouse 41), Kaji manages to evoke incredible determination and strength. As adventurous and visually daring as the films turned out, her stoic lead suggests throwback roots to silent cinema; her piercing gaze able to cast dread or evoke tremendous pathos depending on the context in which it is thrown.

Of the four films, it is this one, Jailhouse 41 that ranks as the best in my eyes, and I’d even go as far as to call it one of my all-time favourite movies. High praise for a product that looks, from the outset, like a crude ‘women in prison’ flick designed to titillate or otherwise sate unsavoury appetites. Shunya Ito directed the first three of Kaji’s performances as Scorpion, and with his opening salvo, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, he set the tone for what would follow, only to freely mutate what that meant. The first film ticks all boxes for trash cinema of its ilk, exposing oodles of gratuitous skin. But, as Ito’s cinematic debut, it also acted as an eye-popping showcase for his theatrical sensibilities. In the film’s most bravura sequence – a flashback showing Matsushima’s back story – the set revolves around the actors to stage new scenes in new locations. Elsewhere, colours burst in a manner that makes the likes of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror Suspiria seem positively tame. The excess of the content is thrillingly mirrored in the execution, and so from the get-go the series shows huge ambition beyond the expected.

Said ambition continues over into Jailhouse 41 but manifests in different ways. We rejoin Matsushima at the prison, trussed up in a dungeon cell, doggedly sharpening a stolen spoon into a weapon. In the first film she had caused the vile Warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) to lose an eye. Now Goda forces her through all manner of indignities as punishment, but through sheer will our Scorpion never cracks. In the first of the film’s two most uncomfortable and confrontational scenes, his subjugation of her reaches its zenith. After she has made a laughing-stock of a visiting minster, Goda punishes the entire prison, but has Matsushima crucified and gang raped by the prison guards. Her enraged eye pierces the screen as the warden and other inmates look on. She maintains her intense silent rage.

Goda’s intent is to crush Nami’s spirit, but instead he cements her reputation as an avatar for wronged women. From the beginning of Jailhouse 41 there is a more mythic quality to how the character is perceived by her fellow inmates. Her rise from mortal to icon is already in ascendance. It’s by no means a straight trajectory. Soon after the rape scene (which despite its inherent ugliness isn’t all that graphic, mercifully), Nami is afforded the opportunity to escape along with a group of six other inmates. At the first available opportunity they beat her to within an inch of her life. Nami absorbs more suffering. Their reaction to what has happened to her feels like a comment on how society shames women who have been through sexual abuse, even encouraging them to turn on one another instead of seeking solidarity. How ingrained the negative connotations are not just for the perpetrator but for the victim. Taking on their attacks, Nami comes out the other side as their nominal unelected leader. The women flee together across an apocalyptic terrain, Ito presenting their scurrying escape with cyan tinged melancholy.

Ito’s sense for the theatrical and the surreal persists as Jailhouse 41 continues to explore the idea of the female as a mythic creature. The fugitives come upon an old shack in the forest. In one of the film’s more astonishing visual flourishes, the shack bursts apart in front of us, revealing the seated figure of a witch. Colours go haywire and any pretense to naturalism is abandoned. Here we enter a sequence straight out of traditional Japanese theatre, as a brief history of all the women present is foretold to the inimitable sound of the shamisen. The reality of the film has been beautifully broken and our understanding of these women has been enriched. Each carries a burden that unites them as archetypes of feminine suffering. In this capacity they are Nami’s disciples. The presence of the witch foretells Nami’s own evolution into a more mythic figure within the series. The witch recognises their shared otherness, and passes to Nami a knife which will become even more significant later in the film.

The narrative moves forward and in the main the middle of Jailhouse 41 is a chase film; the female prisoners on the run from the pursuing warden and his men. A second gang rape sequence occurs, and is arguably more upsetting than the first as it ultimately leads to the death of one of Nami’s new flock; an innocent cast aside by unthinking men who ditch her lifeless body into the river. Ito channels indignant female rage into an acute visual metaphor once more as the river runs red with blood. Eight years later Stanley Kubrick would flood The Overlook Hotel in a similar manner, but Ito’s image carries greater emotional resonance. Where the first film in this series is a riot of glorious genre box-ticking, Jailhouse 41 takes this potentially tacky material and elevates it to the point that it becomes profoundly moving.

The film’s unbridled indignation at the callousness of men, the wretchedness, the stupidity, crackles in a modern context. It feels extraordinarily prescient, especially when thought of against the backdrop of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, “Time’s Up” and #MeToo. Ito could hardly have predicted our present milieu, but he clearly saw shades of it in 1970’s Japan. With the Female Prisoner Scorpion films he offered a rebuke to those that indulged or perpetuated such inequality. This was pretty radical, especially in a genre more commonly known for its misogyny than anything even nominally progressive. Which brings us to the film’s stunning finale.

Following a doomed escape via public bus (which even I have to begrudgingly admit grates a bit), Nami finds herself the sole survivor of the escape. Reaching the city and so-called civilisation, she swaps out her blue and grey striped prison garb for her more iconic black cloak and floppy hat and gets down to the business of vengeance, stalking and then attacking Warden Goda while he is unprotected. She exacts her bloody revenge. Goda’s false eye drops to the floor and Ito explodes the movie. In it we see Nami laughing (an alien image after so much seething resentment). In turn, we discover she is not alone, and has been reunited with her previously deceased inmates in the otherwise deserted streets of the city. What’s more, it appears the entire population of the prison is with them. Back in their convict outfits, they run together and the witch’s knife is passed from woman to woman. They are one force, free and everlasting. At their lead is Nami Matsushima, ak.a. Sasori or Scorpion, figurehead for a weaponised movement against further injustice. Her transformation is complete. The women run, determined, and the sharing of the knife makes their commonality clear. Men of the world; you’d better watch out. It’s honestly one of my favourite endings to any movie.

Following Jailhouse 41, the Female Prisoner Scorpion series would delve into yet darker territory with Ito’s final entry, Beast Stable; as cruel and beautiful a vision of hell as I could name in cinema until the arrival of Takashi Miike. Beast Stable is another triumph, but Jailhouse 41 retains a special place in my heart. The fourth film sees Ito leave the series. Kaji stays on, probably because directing duties were picked up by Yasuharu Hasebe who piloted two of the Stray Cat Rock films. Hasebe, who came up under the tutelage of Seijun Suzuki, is a fine director, but his entry in the Scorpion series – 701’s Grudge Song – feels decidedly muted when compared to Ito’s astonishing, unconventional trilogy.

Still, central to the longevity of all four films is Meiko Kaji; a female genre movie icon in an era in which female genre movie icons were in short supply (the only other that springs immediately to mind is Pam Grier, another strong woman and non-white actor whose heyday can now be seen as far in advance of its time). Kaji went on to further success with the Lady Snowblood films, although following these her career as a leading lady faltered as she accepted supporting roles that offered more fulfilling personal challenges over sketchily written leads. This is a tribute to Kaji herself, who shaped her character in the Scorpion films in no small way. Stoic as Matsushima may be, she can be heard across all four films, singing the beautiful theme song which Quentin Tarantino inevitably pilfered for Kill Bill. Still, for a little while there in 1972 and 1973, Meiko Kaji and Shunya Ito were a force to be reckoned with, and these movies deserve to be recognised as incredible feminist outliers in an arena that all too often fails its women.

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