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You might think that the women-in-prison genre is so rigid in its conventions that it wouldn’t allow room for much experimentation, but leave it to the Japanese to prove that assumption wrong. The first three films in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, all of which were directed by Shunya Ito, stand out for me as the pinnacle of artistically-rendered 1970s Japanese exploitation. Each film is stuffed full of surrealist imagery, imaginative compositions and breathtaking visual lyricism. Of course, being that they are women-in-prison films, they are also stuffed full of shower scenes, lesbianism and graphic violence. But, unlike Norifumi Suzuki, who was content to just let the sleazier elements of his movies sit uneasily alongside his occasional moments of cinematic inspiration, Ito somehow managed to make all of those elements blend together into a more or less cohesive whole.
Though the first Female Prisoner Scorpion (Joshuu Sasori) film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was Ito’s debut as a director, he had already served an apprenticeship in transgressive genre filmmaking as a frequent assistant director to Teruo Ishii during his early years at Toei Studio. Ishii, who directed the popular Abashiri Prison films, is probably best known outside of Japan for controversial mindbenders such as Horrors of Malformed Men and the Joy of Torture series, as well as for the Super Giant serials that were repackaged for US television as the Starman films (and which were, despite being aimed squarely at the kids, some of the most disconcertingly dark examples of Japanese superheroism committed to film). It’s hard not to assume that some of Ishii’s hallucinatory sense of invention rubbed off on Ito, especially given the aversion to the ordinary that’s apparent in his filmmaking style.
The source material for the Scorpion films was the popular manga series Sasori, which was created by artist Tooru Shinohara and began its run in Japan’s monthly Big Comics magazine in 1970. This inspiration explains a lot of Ito’s more striking visual constructions, which were clearly an attempt to emulate the violent expressiveness of manga’s graphic style. While he was successful in this regard, Ito would have a tougher time preserving Shinohara’s conception of his heroine in translating her to the screen. As presented in the manga, Sasori was a foul-mouthed street brawler, an earthy characterization that lead to some objections on the part of the star who was assigned to play her — a star who clearly had very definite ideas about how she did and did not want to be represented on screen.
That star was Meiko Kaji, who has gone on to achieve cult icon status worldwide due to her role in Toho’s Lady Snowblood films, as well as for her turn as Scorpion. Kaji had recently come over to Toei from Nikkatsu, fleeing her former studio when it made the turn from action movies to the almost exclusive production of kinky soft-core films. Before that time, she had attained stardom with her lead role in Nikkatsu’s Stray Cat Rock series of films, which were somewhat milder early forays into the Pinky Violence genre. Now being groomed as an action star at Toei, Kaji was likely a natural choice for the role of Sasori. However, the actress didn’t take kindly to the comic character’s expletive-spouting demeanor, which resulted in Ito taking Sasori’s screen incarnation in a markedly different direction.
As resonant as it is, Shunya Ito’s style is anything but subtle, and the director wasn’t averse to presenting his characters as boldly drawn archetypes. As such, Sasori was reimagined as something far more elemental than in her manga depiction, as a wraith-like embodiment of feminine rage. The Scorpion films are essentially Pinky Violence movies, after all, and are even more explicit and mantra-like than other films in that genre in presenting the state of balance between the sexes as being a literal war, with men as an oppressive force representing all of society’s ills. As the series’ theme song — a mournful enka ballad sung by Kaji herself — makes abundantly clear, all that women can expect from these men is betrayal; or, as Kaji’s character says at one point, “To be deceived is a woman’s crime”.
Female Prisoner #701 even goes on to extend culpability for that betrayal to the nation itself. Ironically framed images of the Japanese flag abound. And, early in the film, when Matsu, aka Scorpion, loses her virginity to the man who will ultimately sell her out, we’re shown a red spot of blood on a white sheet that spreads in mimicry of the flag’s design. (I’ve got to say that, in their desperate attempts to lure audience members of both sexes with seemingly very opposite types of catharsis, the makers of Pinky Violence movies really came up with a unique combination, seemingly drawing in part from the Hollywood “Women’s Pictures” of the forties: Think Mildred Pierce with lots of tits and gore.)
So clearly Matsu has a lot to be angry about. And, indeed, her rage goes so deep that it seems to render her almost superhuman, burning within her like an empowering nuclear core. She is capable of dying, you imagine, but is just too pissed off to ever let it happen. Given that this is the character’s one essential trait, Kaji’s portrayal of her basically boils down to one facial expression. Which is not meant in the least as a criticism of Kaji’s performance, because, you see, it’s a really good facial expression. In fact, during those moments in Female Prisoner #701 when Kaji is not making that expression, the audience is left in a tense holding pattern, waiting for that expression to make its appearance. Because, when it does, it means that some deserving soul is about to do some serious suffering.
While not conventional on its own merits, Female Prisoner #701 is definitely the most conventional of the three Scorpion films that Ito directed. This is partly because it’s saddled with the responsibility of telling its protagonist’s back-story, a seeming necessity that, once you’ve seen the other films, doesn’t end up seeming all that necessary at all. As portrayed by Kaji, Matsu is such a force of nature that it doesn’t really matter why she became who she is. She just is. Still, that this element is included in Female Prisoner #701 certainly doesn’t take away from the film. And being that it shows our heroine’s transformation from a naive and vulnerable young woman into the dagger-eyed vengeance engine that she becomes, it affords Kaji the opportunity to show a bit more range, as well as say a few more scattered lines of dialog than she does in the subsequent films, in which she’s practically mute.
Providing Matsu with a story of how she came to be in prison — one that, while not presenting her as innocent, clearly shows her as a victim, and hence worthy of audience sympathy — is also one of the aspects that makes Female Prisoner #701 hew more closely than the other films to the conventions of the typical WIP film. Another is that it is the only of the original Scorpion films whose action, beyond flashbacks, takes place almost entirely within the prison’s walls. The two succeeding films would increasingly stretch their creative and locational legs, gradually doing away with their dependence on the prison setting as they set out to explore more and more bizarre thematic territory (culminating in Ito’s farewell to the series, the sublime, hauntingly beautiful Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, which tops the previous two both in terms of depravity and genuine emotional impact).
Female Prisoner #701 begins with an escape attempt by Matsu and her partner Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), which is foiled when Yuki is injured and Matsu refuses to leave her side. (Matsu’s relationship to Yuki is never spelled out, but the younger prisoner is the only other character in the movie toward whom Matsu shows any amount of tenderness or concern.) It’s clear that this escape is not the first act of defiance on Matsu’s part, and it further strengthens the resolve of the dictatorial warden (Fumio Watanabe) to break her will once and for all, a project he pursues variably on his own or by proxy through the efforts of his cretinous guards and the cackling group of hags who have been granted trustee privileges by him. Resolve is something that Matsu is no stranger to, of course, and she matches the warden’s every attempt at suppression, not only with increasing deployments of THE LOOK, but also with increasingly creative acts of payback against his minions. It’s a cycle of perpetually regenerating enmity between Matsu and the warden that we will see continue into the next film in the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41.
In the aftermath of the scuttled breakout, as Matsu lies hog-tied in a dungeon-like solitary cell, we’re given a dream-like flashback of the events that lead to her ending up in the nick. It seems that on the outside Matsu fell hard for a narcotics cop named Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi) — so hard, in fact, that when Sugimi asked her to take part in an undercover sting operation he was involved in, she readily agreed. It is only after we’ve seen Matsu’s cover blown, and her raped by the members of the gang she’s infiltrated, that we find that Sugimi is actually working in league with a rival Yakuza gang, and is about as crooked as they come. His true nature revealed, the evilly chuckling Sugimi callously tosses a few crumpled bills in the ravaged girl’s direction and summarily casts her aside. As might be expected, this occasions the first appearance of THE LOOK, and, not soon thereafter, Matsu is accosting Sugimi in a freaky, topless, street corner knife attack. This attack, sadly, is nowhere near as effective as it is picturesque, and soon our scorned heroine is in custody.
Now I realize that the above related plot details are women’s prison picture rote to the point of being generic. But you have to keep in mind that, as they are playing out, director Ito deploys all the tools available in his visual arsenal to keep the viewer as disoriented as possible. The camera pivots restlessly so that you can never know, when a person enters a room, whether he or she will appear to be walking on the wall, the ceiling, or the floor. Self-conscious use of live theater-style movable sets is made to shift background locations as the foreground action remains the same. Bold comic book-style visual signifiers are used to express intense emotion, as when Matsu’s hair arranges itself into the shape of flames as she lies atop a red back-lit glass floor. There’s a haunting, horror movie feel to many of these visuals, made most explicit in a scene where a fellow inmate who is attacking Matsu transforms into a leering kabuki demon, at which point the lighting abruptly switches from naturalistic to that patented Mario Bava green, and the remainder of the scene plays out as a surreal, slow motion nightmare. All of this serves to underscore the fact that the ritualistic predictability of the movie’s plot is not beside the point, but rather the point itself, since Ito is far more interested in presenting archetypal conflicts than he is in exploring the peculiarities of character, or presenting us with novel situations.
The aforementioned kabuki demon attack has the unfortunate side effect for the warden of him ending up with a shard of glass embedded in his eye socket, an injury which understandably further stokes his desire to crush Matsu’s spirit. (I won’t get all Women’s Studies and touch upon the whole “male gaze” thing here, but the wound is definitely significant, foreshadowed as it is by a shot earlier in the film in which the image of Matsu is framed within the watching eye of one of the guards.) This leads to him really turning the screws, subjecting not just Matsu to all kinds of humiliations and forced labor, but the other prisoners, as well, in the hope that they will turn against Matsu as a result.
Meanwhile, Sugimi and his boss begin to worry that Matsu will tell the authorities what she knows about Sugimi’s crooked dealings, and decide to have her eliminated. Of course, what Sugimi doesn’t realize is that Matsu’s overwhelming desire to carve him up like a Christmas turkey is pretty much the only thing that is keeping her going, and she would lose all hope of making that dream a reality if he were to be locked safely away in prison. On the contrary, the corrupt cop is so deluded by arrogance and self-regard that he entertains the notion that Matsu still has feelings for him. And so, just to be on the safe side, he recruits Katagiri (Rie Yokoyama), a sociopathic fellow inmate of Matsu’s, to do his dirty work.
Eventually the warden’s quest to get under the scorpion’s shell leads him to send a young female guard into Matsu’s cell posing as an inmate. The hyper-vigilant Matsu is quickly clued in by her new roommate’s inquisitiveness, however, and, being a true Pinky Violence heroine, proves that she is not above using her body to turn the tables. Apparently those bottomless reserves of white hot rage of hers provide Matsu not only with the power to endure all manner of physical hardships, but superhuman lovemaking skills as well. Because, after only a few moments of Matsu’s ministrations, the guard, Kitoh, is reduced to being little more than a pleading love slave.
Later, when the warden relieves the young rookie of her spying duties, she has a melt-down that is one of the film’s most hilariously over-the-top moments, hysterically begging her superiors to send her back into the cell with Matsu to continue her mission. As depicted by Ito, Matsu’s seduction of Kitoh provides an example of another distinction between the director and his aforementioned fellow in artsy grindhouse excess, Norifumi Suzuki. While Suzuki wasn’t shy about piling on scenes of nudity and soft-core sex, he frequently neglected to make those scenes the least bit erotic, perhaps because he was more preoccupied with being shocking than arousing. (Some moments in Convent of the Holy Beast are exceptions to this) Shunya, on the other hand, shows here that he is capable of delivering an erotic scene that packs some serious heat.
By the way, the actress playing Kitoh is Yumiko Katayama, who might be recognizable to those of you who grew up with Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot as the lone female member of that Tokusatsu series’ heroic Unicorn organization. Not too long after that, Katayama changed her focus a bit by becoming the Pinky Violence genre’s go-to girl for extensive nudity. I have to say that it escapes me as to why she never made it beyond playing supporting roles in these films, because she is not only striking, but possessed of an intense presence, and has delivered solid and memorable performances in every film I’ve seen her in — the final Delinquent Girl Boss film, in particular.
Female Prisoner #701, beneath it’s hallucinatory exterior, pretty much follows the narrative rules of the prison picture through to its conclusion, which means that the warden’s draconian policies ultimately lead to a prison revolt — though one played out on a wildly expressionistic set complete with a painted backdrop of a sky consumed by a blazing red vortex. The prisoners take several guards — who are subsequently gang raped — hostage and hold up in one of the prison’s supply warehouses, where the hired killer Katagiri sets about trying to turn her keyed-up fellow inmates against Matsu.
This leads to Matsu being hung in chains from the rafters and mercilessly beaten, a predicament which she endures with predictably Christ-like stoicism. Finally, a raid by the guards and a fire in the warehouse provide the cover Matsu needs to escape, in turn giving her the opportunity to hit the streets of Tokyo and prove the deservedness of her nickname. It is in these final scenes where Meiko Kaji really puts the weight of action behind THE LOOK, methodically dealing out retribution to Sugimi and his gang like a silent angel of vengeance — albeit a particularly pimped-out angel of vengeance in a wide-brimmed hat and dramatic ankle-length coat.