DirectorShunya Itō, Yasuharu Hasebe
Release Date(s)1972-1973 (August 8, 2016)
Studio(s)Toei Company (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: C-
Allow me a small digression; I was settled in at the bar of my favorite neighborhood pub, nursing a whiskey on the rocks (it was a cheap whiskey, so it was okay). As the people around me readied to play “adult trivia” (whatever the hell that is), a beautiful woman sidled up next to me and asked if I was playing trivia tonight. Without a moment’s hesitation or even so much as turning to look at her, I asked her what her favorite “women in prison” movie was.
She paused for a moment, got comfortable in her seat and replied, “Probably Demme’s Caged Heat.” “Ugh,” I replied more to myself than her, but she heard it anyway, laughing it off, spreading out her trivia paperwork. I told her that I wasn’t planning to play trivia, but since she even had a favorite “women in prison film” I would help her with any answers she didn’t know. She seemed happy with this; I have a reputation for knowing a lot of stuff no one really needs to know.
As she waited for the bartender to bring her a drink, she asked me why I’d asked about “women in prison” movies in the first place. I didn’t really have an answer. Maybe I was pushing her away by answering a dumb question about playing trivia with a different dumb question that was slightly offensive. And as trite as her answer was, it was, technically, a good one. Caged Heat is a “good” “women in prison” film. It’s certainly an entry in any educated film fan’s top ten. But it’s not the best.
Two filmmakers, Jack Hill and Jess Franco, really hold down a four-way battle royale (between Big Bird Cage, Sadomania, Big Doll House and 99 Women) for the best. It all comes down to taste, or lack thereof. That’s because “women in prison” films (or the short-handed WiP) are about as base as you can get. Women aren’t treated well at all in these films and, in our current state of cultural politics, even having a favorite “WiP” film puts you on a list of misogynist anti-feminists. But I’m not here to apologize for film history or to try and rationalize why a series of films that feature violence towards objectified women can even be entered onto a “best” list. Love them or hate them, if you are a cinema lover, you know about WiPs and you probably have a favorite. So if you’re looking for a question that can tell you whether you want to get to know someone or not, there you go, and you’re welcome. For the record, ol’ Uncle Jack’s personal favorite is locked inside the Female Prison Scorpion series, and as luck would have it, that’s what we’re here to talk about.
Here’s what you need to know about the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, and really it’s just one thing: Meiko Kaji. She is, without a doubt, one of the most important actresses to come out of Japan, at least to Western audiences. Ever. If Toshiro Mifune is your favorite Japanese actor, then Kaji is your favorite actress. How can she not be? Five Stray Cat Rock films, two Lady Snowbloods, two Wandering Ginza Butterflys, a Battle Without Honor and Humanity (part 2) and let’s not forget Blind Woman’s Curse – not to mention she’s been fetishized by Quentin Tarantino on more than one occasion. Meiko Kaji has singularly been a part of all the major “cool” Japanese film series that have broken out of Japan and into Western theaters (home or otherwise). In many ways the Female Prisoner series is her magnum opus. That series is now available on Blu-ray in a new box set from Arrow Video, Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion
The first in the series introduces us to Nami Matsushima (Kaji) right in the middle of a prison break that has interrupted accolades being bestowed upon the villainous Warden Goda. Of course, she and her friend Yuki are caught and as punishment they are hogtied and thrown into separate wet basement cells where they are tortured by guards and trustees alike. We come to find that Nami isn’t well liked by anyone at the prison due to her seemingly haughty demeanor. When we first meet her, she is virtually silent and as deadly as a scorpion. But Nami wasn’t always the rock hard lethal lady she is today.
She started out as an easily impressionable young woman who fell for Sugimi, a police narcotics detective. Head over heels in love, Nami agreed to help him out by going undercover into a drug dealing yakuza cell. Unfortunately, they seemed to know exactly who she was and why she was there and things went incredibly wrong for her. It only got worse when she learned that her “boyfriend” used her, and while the yakuza was distracted gang raping her, he came in with guns drawn taking their drug stash and money to share with his corrupt superiors.
Feeling used and scorned beyond all measure, Nami attacked Sugimi in the street outside of the police precinct and is sentenced to prison for her crime. Now revenge is the only thing on her mind and no one in this hell hole will stand in her way. Not the warden and his screws, not her fellow inmates and certainly not the new fish planted into the prison by Sugimi and his bosses to finally put an end to her.
Directed by Shunya Itō in his solo feature directing debut, this first film is really a masterpiece. Blending in real world elements with stylized theatrical presentations of flashbacks as when one of the trustees attacks Nami in a shower, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion takes on an importance that raises it up above its exploitation status into pure cinema without ever turning its back on those grindhouse roots. Don’t misunderstand, this film is incredibly uncomfortable to watch during some scenes. The men in this series are beasts (even more so in the next film, which is really saying something) and they give Nami plenty of reason to want revenge. But so, too, are the women. No one is without sin in this film and everyone deserves what’s coming to them, except maybe Nami. A point made by a very cool scene in the next film in the series.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41
Where the first film took real world elements and highlighted them with the more theatrical, Jailhouse 41 reverses that dynamic. This is a much more stylized, experimental avant-garde tone poem and, thus, my personal favorite WiP. Taking place one year after the last film, we find Nami has been locked away and hogtied in solitary confinement for the entire time. She has passed the time by turning a spoon into a shiv by grinding it on the stone floor with her mouth. Gaining her prison nickname Sansori (or scorpion in Japanese) from Godo, she is finally let out of her cell, only to be immediately gang-raped by prison guards in ceremonial dress. She takes this in her signature stoic fashion, gaining a new group of men to focus her vengeance upon.
Inexplicably, Nami is let out to work on a chain gang with six other inmates and they immediately escape, embarking on a surrealist journey through the woods, down a river and into a village wiped out by a volcano. There they meet a crazed old woman who resembles a storybook witch more than anything else. She then, in a kabuki-tinged segue, proceeds to read into each of the women’s crimes – all murderesses because of a man. One killed out of jealousy, one killed for passion, one killed her children as vengeance for a cheating husband, and another killed an abusing husband. All are guilty – except for Nami, who when it comes her time to be read is met with silence. She is the purest of heart and is given a knife when the woman passes on. This is a very cool sequence, by the way, and really makes the film.
When the guards find where Nami and the other girls are hiding, the fugitives make their move, offing a guard and taking a bus full of degenerate businessmen on vacation hostage (but only after a group of them rape and murder one of the prisoners they stumble upon…see? Everyone’s a monster in these films). From there, they head full-on into the stand-off to end all stand-offs. Jailhouse 41 has everything: women-in-prison, on-the-run, revenge and plenty of stylized, surrealistic action. In many ways, it’s the perfect Japanese exploitation film, expertly directed by Shunya Itō.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable
Shunya Itō ended his run on the Female Prisoner Scorpion films with Beast Stable, and what an end. Nami, on the run after her escape in Jailhouse 41, is being tracked by an enthusiastic detective. He catches up with her on a subway train and handcuffs himself to her. Probably not the smartest move as she immediately escapes by jumping off the train and cuts the detective’s arm off using her knife from the last film. While hiding out in a cemetery (and removing the cuff by rubbing the chain on a tombstone with her teeth), she is taken in by a prostitute named Yuki who seemingly reminds her of her friend Yuki from the first film. This Yuki is a piece of work, by the way. She is having a not-very-consensual sexual relationship with her mentally incompetent brother and even Nami has raised eyebrows about the whole thing.
Eventually, Nami finds herself on the wrong end of a prostitution turf war spearheaded by an old prison cellmate that seems to have a grudge. She and her goons take out some aggressions on Nami and her “restful” life is injected with some new faces to get revenge on – and she of course brings it. This brings in the now-one-armed detective from the start of the film who is looking for some revenge of his own – and he’s willing to set the city on fire to bring Nami down. Beast Stable is pure exploitation, but it shakes off any negative stigma by being overseen by Itō who gives everything an ethereal feel. These three films, all binged together really do come across as one epic story and when it’s all over, every last act of violence serves as a redemption song for Nami. She has had to fight her way through a hellish world to find her true self and show everyone you can cut her, but you can’t kill her. The spirit of the Scorpion lives on.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song
And it lived on with Kaji in the role one more time (even though I personally wish the film series ended with the third). Grudge Song is a not a bad movie, by the way. It’s just a pale imitation of Itō’s style that fails to ape him properly, try as it might. Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe (who directed the first and third entries in Nikkatsu’s bad girl biker film series Alleycat Rock/Stray Cat Rock, also starring Kaji), Grudge Song cast Nami in a role that she really hasn’t been in before. She is much more vulnerable in this one. Without anything to take revenge on, we first find her as a member of a wedding party that is raided by the police. She is handcuffed but, of course, makes her escape and is taken in and freed by an odd duck named Kudo who works in a porno club. Kudo and Nami find an easy comfort with each other as two broken souls. Nami’s damage, we’ve seen. Kudo, as a political radical, has been tortured by the very same police team that caught Nami with various techniques up to and including having scolding water poured upon his genitals making him impotent – or so he thought. That comfort eventually becomes sexual when Nami finds herself willingly giving her body for the first time since her cop boyfriend.
Things don’t go all that well when the police get word about Kudo’s new girlfriend from a jealous girl at the club who found Nami’s handcuffs and put two and two together. The police raid Kudo’s abode, missing Nami but finding Kudo and resuming their torture upon him. He gives up nothing, but when they let him go he makes the mistake of leading them back to Nami. Some very bad things happen, innocent people are killed and Nami gets a new focus for her vengeance. It’s not the best way to end Kaji’s run, but one more Scorpion film isn’t a bad thing.
Female Prisoner Scorpion would go on to be rebooted/remade a few times in the 80s and 90s, though not with the level of success of the originals. You can remake the films but that magic that Kaji and Itō brought to the series would be incredibly hard to reignite. These four films do indeed stand the test of time and fans of exploitation or Japanese cinema should be happy these films are available on Blu-ray. This limited edition box set (just 4000 copies – though it’s unclear if that number’s the worldwide count, as this identical set was also released in England) features brand new 2K restorations of all four films in the series presented 1080p. I’m not going to go on about it, but this really is the best these films have ever and, I hazard to guess, will ever look. The transfers are solid even if the materials used for those transfers were lacking. The grain, color and flesh tone issues are just something that add to the presentation. Having seen some atrocious versions of these films, just know these are solid discs – certainly not perfect by any stretch, but they look great. If HD Blu-rays are too much for you, each film also comes as a standard definition DVD that look great too. Audio is presented in a well-done mono (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays) and each film features very good English subtitles. Physical extras in the box include a double-sided poser featuring art from the first two films, reversible sleeves for each disc case (though the art by Ian MacEwan is very eye-catching in the same vein as the art for Criterion’s Zatoichi set and a hardcover book with new essay’s by film critic Chuck Stephens, a text interview with Toru Shinohara (who created the original manga series the film was based on) as well as an archive interview with Meiko Kaji by Chris D. – all illustrated with original stills.
As for bonus features on the discs themselves, the first film includes an “appreciation” by Gareth (The Raid) Evans, a video interview with director Shunya Itō about his career entitled Birth of an Outlaw and a video interview with assistant director Yutaka Kohira (“Scorpion Old and New”) as well as a collection of theatrical trailers for all four films in the series. Jailhouse 41 has an “appreciation” by film critic Kier-La Janisse, Jasper Sharp discussing what he knows about the career of Shunya Itō, a video interview with production designer Tadayuki Kuwana (“Designing Scorpion”) and the Jailhouse 41 teaser and trailer. Beast Stable has an “appreciation” by film critic Kat Ellinger, an archived interview with Shunya Itō about working with Meiko Kaji and a video essay about Kaji by historian Tom Mes entitled Unchained Melody, with the teaser and trailer. Finally, Grudge Song has an “appreciation” by Kazuyoshi (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts) Kumakiri, an interview with director Yasuharu Hasebe (“Finishing the Series”), Jasper Sharp summing up Hasebe’s career similarly to how he did Itō, a video essay by Tom Mes about the series and its impact, and the trailer for the film.
- Jack Jameson