For a variety of reasons, revenge films with female protagonists have long been a favorite subgenre of mine: titles ranging from arthouse fare like Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (1955) and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968); more classic exploitation titles like Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973), Coffy (1973), and Ms. 45 (1981); and even recent films like Peter Strickland’s neglected debut, Katalin Varga (2008). But the greatest of all these might just be Toei Studio’s Female Prisoner Scorpion series from the early ‘70s, which starred the amazing Meiko Kaji as the titular Scorpion, aka Nami Matsushima, a woman betrayed by the man she loves, raped, and wrongly imprisoned. In jail, numerous attempts are made to break her spirit, but she endures everything silently, with an incandescent rage that propels her inevitably towards revenge. Kaji is far from the only unifying element of the series, but she is easily the most recognizable and went on to become a major force in Japanese cult cinema, starring in everything from the Stray Cat Rock series to the Lady Snowblood films — more titles concerned with revenge.
Based on a manga series by Tooru Shinohara, Sasori, Female Prisoner Scorpion includes four films made in a two-year period — Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972), Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973), and Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (1973) — that manage to capture a comic-book sense of style and have far more in common, at least visually, with arthouse films than the series’ exploitation brethren. Unusual angles, unforgettable lighting, bold colors, and arresting set pieces litter the first three films thanks to the influence of director Shunya Itô, who got his start working with the prolific Teruo Ishii, another Japanese cult legend who shaped the country’s exploitation output with films like Horrors of Malformed Man (1969) and Blind Woman’s Curse (1970). Itô and Kaji’s collaboration was a particularly fertile one and I wish they had had a chance to make more films together — though Kaji appeared in dozens of films and television shows over the years and she is essentially still active.
While the Female Prisoner Scorpion series has had a variety of home video releases over the years, UK company Arrow Films have outdone themselves yet again. I keep suggesting that some of the glorious Blu-ray sets they’ve released in the last few months should be considered for release of the year — sets like Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia, Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli, and Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats — but this is by far the best and most beautiful of them all. Including newly remastered prints of all four films and a load of extras on each disc, I’m going to go ahead and name this the release of the year, though that’s a daring claim as it’s still summertime. But the strength of the set also lies in the films themselves — all four, in my opinion — which are far more than just banal women-in-prison films, but represent the gold standard of the genre and include intelligent, impactful uses of such themes as romantic betrayal, domestic violence, rape, abortion, the exploitation of women, and the lengths a person is willing to go to survive in a hostile, violent, and unforgiving world.
The first film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, sets the tone for the series as a whole, provides Nami with a backstory, and introduces the major themes: the over-the-top visual style, the prison setting, sexual violence and sadism, the struggle to survive despite seemingly insurmountable odds, and a world largely populated by violated and violent women. The film opens with a prison break: Nami and her friend Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) are on the run, but are soon apprehended by the guards and are sent to solitary confinement, where they are tortured. It is revealed that the silent Nami — Kaji speaks barely two lines of dialogue in each of the first three films, though has a bit more to say in the fourth — fell in love with a crooked cop (Isao Natsuyagi), who made a deal with the yakuza and led her into a trap where she was gang-raped by thugs. She attempts to kill him and is sent to prison; he is convinced she’ll try again, and once he hears of her escape attempt, he bribes another inmate (Rie Yokoyama) to kill Nami in prison and make her death look like an accident.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion certainly boasts many of the conventions of standard women-in-prison films, including nudity, torture (by boiling soup and nightsticks in this case), sadistic guards, and rape, though it goes above and beyond in all respects. For example, early in the film there is what must be one of the most beautiful rape sequences ever filmed (though I’m sure at least one person is going to have an aneurysm while reading that sentence): Kaji is shot from both above and below, up through a textured glass floor as she’s horribly violated by the drug dealers her boyfriend is entrapping. In general, Nami herself suffers the most abuse; she is bound in solitary confinement and is later suspended from the ceiling. She is forced to dig pits in stony earth for days on end, but never bats an eye at this punishment.
Thanks to Kaji’s charismatic performance, her feats don’t seem impossible or supernatural, but rather are indicative of a heroic strength, an indomitable will that marks the series as a whole. She is simply stronger, smarter, tougher, and more beautiful. Despite the awful treatment she frequently endures, there is the sense that there is an untouched purity about her, a sense of self and determination that cannot be accessed from the physical plane. She is a hero, though she might seem like an antihero, because her sense of agency and power trumps all the series’ other characters. Interestingly, she’s also responsible for the single most erotic scene in all four films, which occurs here when she seduces a guard who is posing as an inmate and she essentially turns the woman into a hysterical sex slave.
But the film isn’t solely a triumph because Kaji is such a powerhouse: Itô deftly blends action sequences with elements of black comedy, horror genre tropes, and even exaggerated, kabuki-style theatrics. Much of the comedy surrounds the warden (Fumio Watanabe), who is hellbent on killing Nami but is unable to bring his plan to fruition. And, gloriously, none of the film’s men get the last laugh. There is a prison revolt where the women, sick of digging pits for days on end, band together and overtake the guards, holing themselves up in a warehouse where they gang rape the (male) hostages. The apocalyptic visuals in this sequence include a looming sky with a red vortex that resembles a more psychedelic version of Mordor and the chaos affords Nami the chance to hunt down her remaining targets.
But for all its strengths, the follow up, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972), is the superior film (though it would be impossible for me to pick a definitive best entry in the series). Nami is back in prison, but languishes in solitary confinement underground. She’s briefly allowed out at the behest of a prisoner examiner, who is coming to look over things before the warden (Fumio Watanabe, returning from the first film) leaves for an important promotion. Of course Nami attacks at the first opportunity, resulting in a minor riot; all the women are sentenced to punishment in a labor camp and the warden has Nami gang raped by several guards in front of the other women in an attempt to humiliate her and prevent them from seeing her as a heroic figure. But when she and six of the other prisoners are transported from the labor camp in a van, they kill the guards, blow up the vehicle, and go on the run.
In part, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 is so successful, because it takes such a sharp turn away from the formula of the first film. Unlike that one, this is more about a group of women rather than solely resting on Nami herself, though of course she is still the most compelling (and really the only one left standing by the end of the film). The series’ theme song, “Urami Bushi,” a poppy, melancholic tune sung by Kaji herself, holds the key to this second film’s major theme. In it, Kaji sings of women betrayed and love lost, seeming to imply that there is some inherent doom in the simple act of being born a woman. She sings, “shedding blood once a month should help, and yet, try as I might, I can’t ever forget.” The parallel made between menstruation and blood spilled by violence is a powerful image that evokes the opening scene from the first film: when Nami’s only friend is wounded during their prison escape, blood pours down her leg and Nami assures her that everything is fine, saying it’s only blood from her period.
Women are rarely helpless victims through the Female Prisoner Scorpion series; they are often complicit in their own demises and are often active participants in violence and crime. This is certainly the case with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, where the protagonists are a band of criminals on the run, not towards a particular location, but in search of an elusive sense of freedom, one that the film implies does not exist on any physical plane. There is something about it that reminded me of Jodorowsky — particularly Fando and Lis (1968) or El Topo (1970) — as they flee over barren landscapes and are subjected to a number of surreal events.
The volcanic mountain — which I couldn’t help but think was Osorezan, a site in northern Japan affectionately known as the gateway to Hell and a popular location for suicides — gives way to a brightly colored forest with spectacular autumn foliage and then a riverside beach, but this picturesque setting leads to one of the film’s most horrific scenes. Two tourists kidnap one of the convicts, rape her, and then dump her body off the side of a small cliff into the river when they’re finished. This film definitely borrows more from the horror genre than any of the other entries in the series, and one of its most startling sequences involves their arrival to an abandoned village. They sit around the fire with a knife-wielding crone while Itô theatrically presents each convict’s story; one of whom admits that she got revenge for her husband’s infidelity by murdering her children and even viciously stabbed herself in the abdomen to kill her unborn child. She proudly, even defiantly, displays the self-inflicted scars.
If Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 is the most dazzling of the series, my personal favorite has to be the grisly third film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973), the last with Itô at the helm. On the run from the law yet again, Nami crosses paths with Yuki (Yayoi Watanbe again), an inexperienced prostitute trying to support herself and her disabled brother, with whom she has an incestuous relationship; she keeps him locked in a room when she is out working and allows him to have sex with her to keep him calm. Yuki and Nami strike up an unlikely friendship, but both come under attack from a local gang with both drug and prostitution rings under their control. Their madam (Reisen Lee) resents Yuki’s freelance prostitution and is one of Nami’s old enemies from prison. But though she thinks she has Nami beat, once and for all — along with an army of police officers also on Nami’s trail — it’s probably not difficult to guess who is going to have the last laugh…
The most lurid and Gothic of all the films in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, this third entry is the darkest of the four, with visuals that include disgruntled ravens, gloomy sewer tunnels, and rainy cemeteries, and makes excellent use of Nami’s signature costume (when she’s not in prison attire, at least) of a long, black overcoat and wide-brimmed black hat, like the outlaw antihero of some spaghetti western. The themes of fire and water are crucial to both the cinematography and plot, and this is also the most violent of the series. The film even begins with Nami running from two detectives attempting to arrest her. One manages to handcuff her on a subway car, but she jump off the train and cuts his arm off to escape; she runs away with it still attached to her. When she first encounters Yuki, she’s crouched in a cemetery, holding the limb, and looks like a ghoul or zombie about to feast on human flesh.
In addition to numerous scenes of torture, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable also includes a strong abortion theme, including one particularly graphic moment courtesy of Reisen Lee’s well-coiffed, but sadistic madam, who disapproves that one of her prostitutes has become pregnant. She vows to make an example of the girl — who appears to be in her third trimester — in a sequence that is more skin-crawling than anything in the previous two films, including the scene in Jailhouse 41 when prison guards, disguised as robed monks (for no apparent reason), rape Nami, who has been tied to a tree in a sort of mock-crucifixion scene. The film ends in a holocaust of fire and water, when Nami is trapped below the city in the watery sewer tunnels that the police fill with flame in the hopes of burning her to death. Though she occasionally exhibits a supernatural talent for staying alive throughout the trilogy, her survival here can only be rationally explained through her sheer determination and the rage that acts as a buffer to the constant, violent disturbances from the outside world. The unifying theme of this film, more than any of the others in the series, is what women are willing to do — or forced to do — for sheer survival, which Kaji and Itô somehow make particular affecting here.
The last film in the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (1973), has been a mixed bag for fans, as it marks the departure of director Itô and, with him, his unforgettable visual style. It’s also unusual, because it is the first time that Nami joins forces with a man, falls in love, and even has a sexual relationship; of course one that inevitably turns to a course of revenge. While hiding out during a wedding ceremony, in an unexpectedly funny scene, Nami is surrounded by police and is injured, but escapes and finds her way to a strip club, where she is almost accidentally rescued by Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), a left-wing student who was previously brutalized by the police himself. The two bond and Nami agrees to help Kudo get revenge, but he is arrested, tortured, and manipulated into giving away Nami’s hiding place by his own mother. In turn, she is apprehended, and a vengeful police officer decides that regardless of the means, he will have her executed on the gallows.
Director Yasuharu Hasebe — of Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970), also with Kaji, and one of my personal favorites, the martial arts/spy film Black Tight Killers (1966) — took the helm here and, despite the film’s departure from the previous titles, manages to stand on its own. Though it lacks the visual panache of Itô’s films, it wisely does not attempt to compete with these and instead offers up something new: a depiction of Nami as a figure capable of redemption, where romantic love is possible despite the horrors she has endured for three films running. The main failure in this relationship is, refreshingly, not Nami’s penchant for violence or a result of her deep emotional trauma, but rather lies in the fact that Kudo is simply not strong enough to endure the relentless torture that Nami has endured in the past. His betrayal, then, is tragic more than it is reprehensible.
Though Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song lacks the absolute violence and horror of Beast Stable, there is still plenty about it that is unpleasant. Kudo’s back story, and the tortures he has endured, are extensive, and the couple even murders a pregnant woman, the wife of the primary detective, which sets the final act of the film in motion. Hasebe’s assertions that there is still hope to be found in this world is also reflected in a female prison guard who espouses forgiveness and repentance, but is actually driven to aiding Nami by the very police officers working against her, thanks to an unpleasant scene where the officer is gang raped with the approval of her own superior, a sadistic female prison warden.
The film’s sexual content largely comes from a few early set pieces in the strip club, definitely more in keeping with Hasebe’s style than Itô’s, but the bulk of the dramatic weight occurs in the third act, where Nami is once again in prison. At this point in the series, it is a place where she seems totally at home, and she serves to orchestrate not only her own escape from death, but a brutal confrontation with the police officer attempting to have her hanged. Though this last film definitely cannot compete with the rest of the series, it’s still a worthy entry thanks to an always outstanding, charismatic performance from Kaji, and a surprisingly sympathetic, yet doomed Tamura as the traumatized Kudo, whose sole existence proves that in this world, men simply cannot compete with the resilience of women.
If the sheer wonder of these four films wasn’t enough to make this the release of the year, then Arrow’s treatment of them surely will. I’ve heard some complaints about the color grading — in the sense that they look different from previous prints and tend towards an emphasis on blues — the 2K restorations of the films all look absolutely fantastic. I guarantee that if you’re watching all four for the first time around from this set, you’ll be so dazzled by the visuals that you might have to watch them a second time to pick up on plot nuances (of which there are many, contrary to general assumptions about exploitation films).
The extras are divided out by disc and include a dizzying array of options, divided equally among the discs (and each film is included on Blu-ray and DVD). Among my favorite include the appreciations, which are lengthy (nearly half-an-hour long) discussions of each film: The Raid’s director Gareth Evans on Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, renowned film writer Kier-la Janisse on Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Diabolique’s own editor-in-chief Kat Ellinger on my favorite, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, and director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts) on Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song.
There’s are also multiple archival interviews from Itô, an archival interview with Hasebe, a featurette with assistant director Yukata Kohira, and another with designer Tadayuki Kuwana on the amazing set pieces, plus interviews with critic Jasper Sharp on both Itô and Hasebe’s work, and two informative segments with critic Tom Mes. Trailers for all the films, of course, are also included. There’s also a lengthy booklet with writing from Chuck Stephens, an interview with the manga creator Toru Shinohara, and an archival interview with the great Meiko Kaji. Plus, Arrow have thrown in a double sided poster, for which someone should probably buy me a frame. Really, the only way this could possibly be better is if Kaji had provided lengthy commentary tracks on each film.
I stand by my earlier claim that it’s the release of the year. Pick it up here.