Director Shunya Ito isn’t going for naturalism; he’s going for impact, and boy does he achieve it.
One reason I’m a great admirer of Japanese cinema is because the industry seems determined to produce films to satisfy any desire for which people are willing to pay. Each genre has its own specific restrictions, but taken as a whole, there’s something for just about anybody out there. If you’re a fan of old-school female revenge films, with some soft porn thrown in (but I repeat myself), there’s the 1970s “Female Prisoner Scorpion” series based on the comic by Tooru Shinohara and produced by the Toei Company.
Each of the first three films in the series opens with a title card announcing, “The prison depicted in this story, as well as all characters, are fiction. They bear no connection to reality whatsoever.” Viewers would do well to keep that warning in mind—director Shunya Ito isn’t going for naturalism; he’s going for impact, and boy does he achieve it. He also loves to thumb his nose at authority figures and send up Japanese national icons, and working in genre film gives him plenty of opportunities to do both.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) begins with a ceremony in which a prison governor is receiving a commendation for his 27 years of service, but it’s quickly interrupted by a siren signaling the escape of an inmate, Nami Matsushima, aka Matsu the Scorpion (Meiko Kaji, most famous for this series and her role as “Lady Snowblood”). Black hair flying, Matsu makes her way through a flooded field.
Matsu is quickly caught and returned to the prison, which turns out to be quite a hell hole. The prisoners are forced through humiliating rituals like walking naked up open stairs and over hurdles, all for the benefit of leering guards (and, presumably, leering audience members). Matsu is hogtied and confined in a damp solitary cell, where her food is thrown on the floor. But she’s as tough as they come, mocking her abusers with the steely stare that became her trademark.
Ito enjoyed great creative freedom in these films and put it to good use by including many directorial flourishes that might seem more at home in art-house films. For instance, a flashback sequence featuring an extremely stylized sex scene with her cop boyfriend Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi) depends more on theatrical conventions than those of continuity filmmaking. A later scene of a gang rape is shot from below Matsu’s body (through a clear floor), the better to focus on the leering faces of her attackers while not revealing any actual sexual contact (these films can be quite prudish in the sex department, although they have no such inhibitions regarding violence).
The other Female Prisoner Scorpion films ring changes on the themes established in the first film. Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, also from 1972 (which gives you an idea how quickly these films were produced), opens with a surreal journey to the underground cell where a tightly-bound Matsu is confined. Of course, she still manages to create a weapon, later using it to attack the chief warden (Fumio Watanabe) and thus inspiring the other prisoners to riot. Later, she escapes with a group of prisoners, offering Ito the chance to shoot lots of running through the countryside, as well as a notable scene in which a mysterious old woman gives Matsu a knife before transforming into a pile of brightly-colored leaves.
Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable, released in 1973, is the last film in the series directed by Ito. It opens with
Matsu in freedom, only to be arrested while riding the subway. Handcuffed to the arresting detective, Kondo (Mikio Narita), she escapes by hacking his arm off and running away with the stump still handcuffed to her arm (!). It gets weirder from there—Matsu finds refuge with a prostitute, Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) who turns tricks in a graveyard and is also pregnant by her brain-damaged brother. Matsu then finds work in a textile sweatshop but is soon forced to join the “beast stable” of prostitutes controlled by the local yakuza, which is overseen by a madam whose look may be best described as an over-the-top parody of a drag queen trying to be a dragon lady.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701s Grudge Song (1973) was the last film in the series starring Meiko Kaji, and is directed by Yasuharu Hasebe. It opens with Matsu being arrested at a wedding (why she is there is never explained), then escaping from a whole carload of detectives and hiding out in the men’s room of a crummy sex club. She’s discovered by one of the employees, Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), who allows her to stay in his home, perhaps feeling sympathetic because her handcuffs remind him of his days as a student protester. Matsu comes to trust Kudo, which is a surprising turn for a character that in the first three films has been all about taking revenge for the wrongs perpetrated by men. Hasebe also shoots in a more realistic style than Ito, with fewer wild flights of fancy, and this film doesn’t really fit the mold established by the first three. Still, it has its charms, with the urban setting providing some interesting backgrounds and Tamura creating a sympathetic character unlike any seen in the first three films. | Sarah Boslaugh
Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection is distributed by Arrow Video. Each film is presented on both DVD and Blu-ray, and the films have been restored but still look very blue (granted, some of the time that could be a stylistic choice). If I listed all the on-disc extras included in this release, this review would be substantially longer than it already is, so I’ll just refer to the official list on the Arrow website. Besides all that, the box set comes with a poster and an illustrated hardcover book featuring an essay by Chuck Stephens and interviews with several people involved in these films.