Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41
Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
One of the most obvious changes that this second entry makes to the Scorpion template is in the presentation of its heroine. The fact that the first film had dealt with the pedestrian niceties of back-story allowed Ito — aided by another astonishing performance from his star, Meiko Kaji — to free Matsu/aka Scorpion from the moorings of earthbound considerations of character and move her completely into the realm of archetype. As such, Kaji portrays her as an extra-human engine of vengeance with a nuclear core of rage forged from the countless injustices done her by men and the corrupt, male-driven society that they represent: In short, the terrible price of all her nation’s sins given human form.
While Female Prisoner #701 sought to provide Matsu with a narrative that gave her recognizably human motivations, Jailhouse 41 renders all of that irrelevant by telling us everything we need to know about her character in a brief, opening credits sequence of startling power and economy. It is this increased sure-handedness that relegates the first film — although an impressive and unique work in its own right — to being clearly the least of the three Scorpion films that Ito directed, and marks Jailhouse 41 as the film in which the series came decisively into its own.
In Jailhouse 41, Ito builds a lot upon those elements of his creative arsenal that he put to use in the first film — his visual references to traditional Japanese theater and the use of hallucinatory sequences involving horror movie-like imagery among them — but he also introduces many new ones. One of those is his practice here of having the actors freeze in tableau during certain scenes — something that comes off looking a lot weirder than a simple freeze frame would. Creative sound design also plays a much bigger part in this film, and even extends to abruptly cutting the sound completely at some points in order to better portray — as many of these effects are intended to — Matsu’s interior reality. It is this expressive use of sound that serves so well to make our introduction to Matsu in Jailhouse 41 such a memorable one.
The film begins with an echoing, disembodied female voice repeatedly calling the name “Sasori” (Scorpion), as if in incantation, as the camera snakes through the dark, cavern-like hallways leading down into the bowels of the prison. Finally we reach the door to Matsu’s subterranean cell, and the haunting call gives way to a steady and methodically persistent scraping sound. As the sound continues, we see Matsu, lying with her hands chained behind her back on the damp floor of the dungeon-like cell, her back to us, much as she was at the beginning of the last film — though this time, we will learn, she has been chained alone in that cell for a full year’s time. We are unable to make out the source of the sound until the camera moves around to face Matsu, at which point we see that she has clenched tightly between her teeth a metal spoon, which she is tirelessly working to sharpen by scraping it repeatedly against a very well-worn groove in the concrete floor — her face all the while frozen in a look of cauldron-eyed fury that is almost terrifying beyond description. As the credits roll, she is shown over the course of time (Days? …Months?), her position changing very little as she ceaselessly sharpens away, the piece of metal clasped in her jaws gradually transforming from a spoon into a blade. By the time this sequence is over, we have seen more than enough to convince us of Matsu’s preternatural singularity of purpose, and wouldn’t doubt for a minute that she could spend the entirety of a year in sleepless pursuit of fashioning an implement of vengeance.
As the credits end, Matsu’s labor are interrupted by a visit from the warden (Fumio Watanabe). Since losing his eye to Matsu in the first installment, the warden has clearly become as obsessively dedicated to Matsu’s unhappiness as she is to his, and he informs her in no uncertain terms that he intends for her to be locked in her underground tomb forever — with the exception of today, when she will be briefly trotted out in order to keep up appearances for a visiting prison official. The warden further informs her, with some regret, that he has accepted a promotion that will place him outside the prison, and, as a result, he will no longer be able to personally supervise her constant brutalization. Matsu responds to this news with a subtle amplification of what I referred to in my review of the first film as THE LOOK, letting us know that she sees this as her last chance for payback.
That look, now honed to a lacerating acuity, will get a serious workout over the course of Jailhouse 41. Because, while Kaji’s performance in the first Scorpion film wasn’t a particularly verbal one, her turn here renders it positively chatty by comparison. Matsu speaks a mere two lines over the entire course of the film, both of which occur within the final fifteen minutes and are comprised of less than four words (and one of which, “You sold me”, is, fittingly, a testament of betrayal). This makes Kaji’s performance here even more of a wonder to behold. Certainly, there are moments in which Matsu speaks through action, but it is those moments of stillness — of watching, of waiting — that most indelibly define her character. Given this, Kaji’s take on Scorpion comes across as nothing less than an iron-willed assertion of sheer presence — and goes a long way toward justifying her cult icon status today.
When Matsu is herded into the prison’s exercise yard — manacled and, by all appearances, barely able to walk thanks to her months spent in chains — we see that her long absence from the general population has made her something of a legend among the other inmates, and her presence is greeted by them with hushed awe. Propped up by two guards, she is forced into formation with the other prisoners as the visiting official walks among them, spouting stultifying rehabilitory bromides. Matsu is less hobbled than she seems, however, and, when the first opportunity arises, she make a lunge for the warden. She fails narrowly in her intended goal of taking out the warden’s remaining good eye, but succeeds spectacularly in putting the fear of God into the visiting official, who promptly drops to his knees and shits in his pants. Inspired by Scorpion’s example, the other prisoners run riot through the yard.
Punishment comes for the inmates in the form of hard labor in the rock quarry, though Matsu is relegated to simply walking among them with a heavy cross-shaped tree stump lashed to her back. Observing this, the warden lets the guards know that, if their intention was to break Scorpion’s influence over the prisoners, their semiotics are a little off. He instead proposes to humiliate Matsu in front of her peers once and for all by having her gang raped by a group of guards in monks robes and stocking masks. This brutal act is perpetrated by the guards with all of the nightmarishly caricatured grotesquerie that we’ve come to count on from the Pinky Violence genre’s depictions of male rapacity, and accomplished with Matsu, glaring molten daggers all the while, still spread-eagled upon the makeshift cross, proving that Norifumi Suzuki was not the only Japanese exploitation director who delighted in flailing away at Christian iconography.
Sadly, this defilement seems to achieve its intended purpose, and, with the exception of a sensitive young inmate named Rose, Matsu is promptly turned upon by her deliriously stir-crazy fellow convicts. On the meatwagon ride back to the prison, she is beaten mercilessly by a gang lead by Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi), a vicious older inmate with a face frozen in the stylized grimace of a Kabuki demon. With this beating, however, Oba has unwittingly aided Matsu in effecting the gang’s escape, for when the guards, believing her dead, come to check on her condition, Matsu manages to overpower and strangle one of them with her chains. After taking out the remaining guard, Matsu, Oba, Rose and four other prisoners escape into the surrounding wilderness. When the warden and his lieutenants later arrive upon the scene, they find the van trashed and both guards dead — one of them, a participant in Matsu’s rape at the quarry, gorily castrated with a tree stump (one of those sights that is all the more horrible for how it sets you to imagining just how on Earth the act was accomplished).
A couple weeks back I reviewed Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film The Godless Girl, an early example of the youth-in-prison genre that took a different, but equally allegorical, approach to its depiction of prison life vs. life on the “outside” as Jailhouse 41. In that film, the young protagonists make a break for it and are able to escape momentarily into the countryside beyond the prison’s walls. This is presented as a brief, idyllic episode, with the lush natural surroundings representing an Eden-like paradise that stands in stark contrast to the Hell on Earth represented by the prison. In Jailhouse there is no such contrast, as the women, once “free”, find the outside world to be every bit as harsh and filled with cruelty as their former confines. To underscore this, the landscape they travel through after their escape is shown as a blasted, volcanic wasteland, and their first shelter a desolate ghost town half buried in black ash. The message is clearly that, being that these are women whose lives and actions have placed them outside the narrow roles defined for them by society, theirs is a world that has no place for them, and offers no true freedom.
Of course, under these circumstances the women prove to be just as much of a threat to each other as anything else in their environment, as their time in prison seems to have left most of them too addled to take any kind of effective or concerted action. It is Matsu alone who maintains a composed — albeit hyper-vigilant — facade, and the volatility and caterwauling that surrounds her serves even more to underscore her unnatural stillness. This eerie calm — and the way that Matsu watches Oba as if in deep recognition of something Oba herself seems desperate to avoid understanding — leads Oba to see Matsu as a threat, and to tirelessly seek to engage her in a power struggle that Matsu invariably wins by virtue of abstaining from it. Despite this adversarial relationship, the two are repeatedly framed as being inextricably linked, and it is predictably Oba’s resistance to seeing her and Matsu’s fates as being bound together that leads to her end.
It is hard to single out one moment in Jailhouse 41 as being the film’s most haunting, because there are many such moments. From the outset of the women’s dash to freedom through this nightmarish terrain, Ito creates an atmosphere that makes even those moments that, on paper, read like simple convicts-on-the-run boilerplate fraught with a creeping sense of horror and unease. But the moment that takes the most decisive turn toward the supernatural occurs during the women’s brief hideaway in the ash-blasted ghost town. The night brings a violent storm, during which the women are drawn to a small hut whose walls suddenly collapse to reveal a mad-eyed old woman, cowering in a blanket with a knife tightly gripped in both hands. Later, as the women gather around a fire, the old woman, still clutching the knife, sings an eerie song, lamenting — in an echo of the Scorpion series’ theme song, sung over the credits of each film by Kaji herself — that “women commit crimes because of men”. Over a series of surreal tableaus staged in the formal, stylized manner of Kabuki theater, she goes on to sing of each woman’s crimes, and we learn that Oba, in a fit of rage against a philandering husband, murdered her own children, one of them an unborn whom she killed by stabbing herself in the womb.
Later, when the warden and his men are closing in on them, the prisoners escape with the old woman into a forest of maple trees that Ito has bathed in a disconcertingly artificial looking autumnal glow. The old woman collapses and, before dying, relinquishes the knife to Matsu while mumbling something about a curse. A ghostly wind whips through the trees and partially buries the body of the woman in fallen leaves, after which it vanishes into thin air. We then see Matsu, now holding the knife, as her hair whips wildly in the wind, a sudden unearthly glow rising upon her face. For anyone who might have stumbled upon Jailhouse 41 with the expectation of seeing a run-of-the-mill women’s prison picture, this has to be the movie’s most resounding WTF moment.
The women’s further adventures on the lamb yield no less amount of strangeness or misfortune. Once they have taken shelter on the outskirts of a small village, it’s demonstrated how straying from the group leads to tragic consequences. One women is lured by the warden, using her small child and elderly parents as bait, and coerced into betraying the others, which leads to a bloody confrontation that leaves two guards and one of the women dead. Later, young Rose wanders off and encounters a group of drunken salarymen on holiday, one of whom has just been regaling his companions with tales of raping Chinese civilians during the war. The world that Jailhouse 41 has sketched for us decrees only one possible outcome for this meeting, and so Rose is brutally raped and murdered, her body tossed like a rag doll from a cliff into the rapids of a nearby river. In just one of many of the film’s instances of surreal visual poetry, the waterfall runs deep crimson as a result, and the women, seeing this, intuit exactly what has happened. Matsu and the others trail the men to the tour bus from which they came and hijack it, taking all of the passengers onboard hostage.
During the siege that follows, the escapees terrorize their captives in a vindictive frenzy, while Matsu, still clutching the old woman’s knife, watches in her usual impenetrable silence from the front of the bus. She entertains a hallucination of the bus suddenly converting into a minimalistically-rendered courtroom with the passengers as a hectoring jury and the women kneeling in chains before them. This morphs into an even stranger fantasy scenario in which the women are each shown being trapped in fishing nets and prodded at by a jeering crowd of villagers, until Matsu manages to cut through the net with the old woman’s blade and stand triumphantly before her stunned persecutors. You think for a moment that Matsu might intervene on behalf of those hostages who appear to be innocent, but these visions seem to advise her otherwise.
Jailhouse 41 ends similarly to the first Scorpion film, with Matsu, the sole survivor out of the original gang of seven, back on the streets after having successfully avoided capture by a variety of single-mindedly ruthless means. Now clad in the same black pimping ensemble she wore at the end of Female Prisoner #701, she is now intent on enacting the vengeance that she has been thirsting for since the outset. Unlike the first time, however, her target is the warden, and she dispatches him in much the same protracted manner she did her betraying boyfriend the first time around, stalking him relentlessly through the streets and slashing him to ribbons with the blade bestowed upon her by the old woman. Once this is accomplished, we see Matsu reflected in the Warden’s glass eye, laughing hysterically — after which she is seen reunited with her fellow escapees, all back in their prison uniforms and running through the streets of the apparently deserted city, handing the knife one off to the other as they go.
As jarring as it is to see a smile on Meiko Kaji’s face after all that has gone before, this fanciful coda was the only such sequences in Jailhouse 41 that fell a little flat for me. For one thing, that Scorpion’s killing of the warden would appear to so effectively lift her burden seems to contradict the tone of the entire film, as it would more likely be a hollow victory, and leave no fewer insurmountable battles in its wake. Furthermore, the image of the women passing the knife between them, while fashionably militant, represents an offering up of a somewhat glib and depressingly limited concept of girl power. Of a piece, it seems like a pat, conciliatory gesture tacked onto the end of a film that has to this point been uncompromising in its vision. Of course, that vision may be unrelentingly bleak, but there is enough redemption to be found in the beauty and inspired ingenuity of its unveiling to render any tacked-on upbeat ending unnecessary. After all, one of the things that carved out a special place for this film in my heart is how it manages to be so oppressively nihilistic in its content while being so transcendent in its presentation.
So what is Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, you might ask. Is it a women-in-prison film? A horror film? An exploitation film? An art film? The answer — as it is when anyone poses those kind of rhetorical questions in the context of a film review — is that it’s all of those in fairly equal measure. It is also a film that is filled with more ideas than its somewhat loosely structured screenplay at times seems capable of holding, and as a result it can come across to some as little more than a series of dazzling but only tangentially connected set pieces. This is an impression that will, I feel, be allayed by repeat viewings. Because — other than those that I singled out above — each of those set pieces ultimately reveals itself to be true to the film’s emotional and moral core. As I said, this film is like a nightmare, and, in taking the form of a dream, it gains cohesion from the beating heart of emotional truth that hides within it, rather than from anything approaching a tidy narrative structure. Also like a nightmare, it has a way of sticking with you long after it has come and gone.
While Jailhouse 41‘s final sequence feels like it wants to be the end of the story, the truth, as most of you know, is that that was far from the case. Shunya Ito had one more Scorpion film in him — and while it’s arguable that, with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, the director topped Jailhouse 41, it is certain that he contributed yet another bold addition to the series.
Release Year: 1972 | Country: Japan | Starring: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi, Hiroko Isayama, Yukie Kagawa | Writers: Hiro Matsuda, Tooru Shinohara | Director: Shunya Ito | Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi | Also known as: Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Scorpion: Female Prisoner Cage #41, Joshuu Sasori: Dai-41 Zakkyo-bo