Despite an escalation of violence and explicit nudity, Japanese cinema, like their American counterparts, was still losing the battle to television and losing badly at the dawn of the 1970s. And while fabled studios like Nikkatsu abandoned any pretensions and went full softcore Roman Porno (Romance Porn) rival studio Toei fought on and found a modicum of success by amping up the violence and nudity even more but also by abandoning traditional Japanese themes of honor and tradition and proper gender roles for the more brutal approach of Kinji Fukasaku’s epic treatise Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973-1979) and Shunya Itō’s Female Prisoner Scorpion series (1972-1973).
Seems when Nikkatsu switched gears to skin-flicks it also saw an exodus of talent, one of those being rising star Meiko Kaji, who had lit up the box-office with Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) and the delinquent-bad-girl-centric Stray Cat Rock series (1970-1971), which the studio hoped would continue by plugging Meiko into a proposed adaptation of Tōru Shinohara’s popular women-in-prison manga, Sasori (Scorpion). However, things got off to a very rocky start as the assigned novice director Itō wasn't all that impressed with Meiko as an actress and felt she was completely wrong for the part. Their first pre-production meeting was a complete disaster but luckily for film fans everywhere, despite the initial rancor behind the scenes, things eventually worked themselves out onscreen as the director and actress delivered a deliriously awesome cocktail of sex, violence, empowerment and social commentary wrapped in bun of surrealistic artistry and striking visuals with Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972).
Not quite "Pinky Violence" and not quite "Roman Porno", the inaugural entry sets the tone to come with a distinct authority seldom seen from a first time director. And while Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion definitely has the salacious, exploitative sheen of a women-in-prison flick on the surface, you don't have to dig too deep into the nudity, cat-fights and lesbian interludes to see there is a lot more going on as the film rails against entrenched corruption and the abuse of power. Of course, all of that is wrapped around the tale of a prisoner, Nami “Matsu” Matsushima (Meiko), who was set-up by Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi), a crooked detective, as bait in a drug-bust to eliminate his competitors gone sideways -- so sideways an enraged Nami tries to kill him after.
Inside the prison walls, for trying to kill a police officer, our heroine is subject to all kinds of torture and abuse from the guards and the sadistic warden, Goda (Yayoi Watanabe), but also her fellow inmates and trustees when her many escape attempts result in punishment for all. And as Matsu’s few friends are stripped away, along with her humanity, she slowly transforms into the Scorpion. And when one of Goda’s group punishments backfires, resulting in a riot and a prolonged stand-off, Matsu manages one more escape and systematically takes out Sugimi’s narcotics ring, leading to a final fatal showdown with the man who betrayed her, who also happens to be the man she loves.
With her transformation from naïve waif to hardcore killing machine, with such minimal dialogue, watching Meiko Kaji act is just incredible and a privilege as she constantly turns the tables on her tormentors, stepping stones all on the road to her ultimate revenge. I’m telling ya, her silent death glare could vaporize glacial ice. As the series progressed and things smoothed over, Itō would freely admit he was mistaken about Meiko. The director put her through all kinds of hell during filming, which the actress never backed away from, earning his deep respect. And the mesmerizing results on film are just brutal, visceral, and visually stunning as Ito's influences range from German silent expressionism; to the avant-garde weirdness of Luis Buñuel (-- I love how Matsu draws a blade across her eyes, with tears for blood, signaling that vengeance is coming, like the hand swipe that turns the Daimajin from stone golem to vengeful demon); the anything goes nuttery of Seijun Suzuki; the hard shell candy colors of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; to the wild camera angles of William Dozier's TV version of Batman (1966-1968).
When the film was finished, Toei executives weren’t thrilled with the end result and were on the verge of just shelving Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion indefinitely, but a wild raid and sit-in at a hotel occupied by the brass led by Itō turned things around. Originally intended as a B-picture, the film proved such a big hit it was quickly moved to the top of the bill to cash-in. Thus, the film that almost didn’t happen -- or not as we’ve come to know it, left audiences clamoring for more. Toei was quick to answer, reuniting Itō and Meiko for the follow up feature, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972), which hit theaters a mere four months after the premiere of its predecessor.
The second feature picks up a year after the bloody conclusion of the first. Now, Matsu has spent that entire year trussed up in the deep, dark and dank recesses of solitary confinement but now her old pal and resident sadist, Goda (Watanabe again), has decided to let her see the sun for one last time before he transfers out via a promotion. (I love how these two are essentially the bane of each other’s existence.) This, does not go well at all. And so, as usual, Goda orders a Sisyphusian group punishment for all prisoners at a local rock quarry, where he has a skeevy surprise planned for our protagonist, as well, to make her an even more abject lesson to the other convicts. However, sticking with the theme, this also backfires when Matsu and six other prisoners engineer an escape and spend the rest of the film on the run with Goda and his goons and their own past sins hot on their heels. Again, this does not end well.
Now, I had heard good things about this series but, great googily-moogily, two films in and this is patently ridiculous how great these’ve been. I talked about the international influences of Itô on the first film but we can add traditional Japanese theater, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964), and I swear to god, the musicals of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly as several phantasmagorical dream sequences just scream “man, this really reminds me of the “Gotta Dance!” sequence from Singing in the Rain (1960)."
But those explosions of color are rare this go ‘round, with a more subdued palette as this one kinda sorta comes off as a ghost story. The scenes where the fugitives hide in the ruins of a village, abandoned due to an apparent volcanic eruption, providing a surreal moonscape, are hypnotic -- though the bit with the stray dog was a tad disturbing.
As are later scenes with the discovery of a body in a river and the waterfall suddenly disgorging blood and where our heroine is lost in a mountain range landfill that quietly tells you all you need to know about what the director is trying to say. (There’s also an early scene where he shows the passage of time by showing Matsu grind a spoon into a shiv using only her teeth.) Thus, no matter how many influences you cite, Itô combines them all into one unique, demented, and brain-boggling experience.
Meiko also delivers again as our silent assassin, though I think she only says three words in the whole movie. Never fear, Kayoko Shiraishi says plenty as fellow prisoner, Oba, in a performance for the ages in this primal scream and raised middle finger at the entrenched corruption of the powers that be in post-war Japan and its oppressive patriarchal system, which once again had audiences hoping for another sequel. Again, Toei didn’t hesitate and Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) was soon in production.
This third entry begins rather gruesomely as our fugitive heroine is still on the loose after the successful bloody conclusion of the last chapter, narrowly escaping the long-arm of the law when new arch-nemesis, Detective Kondo (Mikio Narita), tries to nab her on a subway train, only to literally lose an arm. Seems he managed to cuff himself to Matsu, so she just chopped off the tethered appendage to make her escape. (The scene as she flees the subway and into the light, leading to a near total white-out, is another win to notch on the innovative director's belt.) Hiding out in a cemetery, Matsu is taken in by a prostitute, who cares for and has a disturbing mutually beneficial incestuous relationship with her hapless, sex-addicted and brain-damaged brother. Recognizing her from all the wanted for murder posters, a miserable Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) is now pregnant and hoping Matsu will help out and just put her brother out of his/her misery.
Meanwhile, Yuki is also having problems with a local brothel -- more specifically, Madam Katsu (Reisen Lee) and her goon squad, who don't take kindly to independent sex-workers horning onto their turf. Having once served time with the Scorpion, Katsu recognizes Matsu and knows she has the fugitive over a barrel. With plans to add Matsu to her stable, this unwilling recruit is drugged and left in a giant birdcage (-- just roll with this, trust me), where Matsu watches one of the other prostitutes, forced into having a botched back-alley abortion, bleed out and die. And this once again lights a fire of raging vengeance in Matsu, for it is bad enough when men exploit women like this but it’s even worse when women do it to themselves. And after hemorrhaging out all of her henchmen, Katsu actually turns herself in and willingly goes to prison, hoping this will somehow save her from the Scorpion.
But nowhere is safe from the deadly eyes and blade slinging Matsu. And after a not-so brief interlude where she's trapped in a sewer maze by a psychotically determined Kondo -- determined to see her dead, that is, which he thinks he has accomplished with some induced help from Yuki, a thousand gallons of gas, and a match. Thus, with Matsu presumed dead and cremated, that leaves her free to get thrown in prison anonymously on a frivolous charge -- the same prison where Katsu is hiding out. Well, make that was hiding out as Matsu's machinations soon has all of her enemy threads tied up and knotted off in a neat little (and very dead) bow.
By now Itō and Meiko were fairly comfortable with each other; and having felt they'd played out the prison angle the majority of Beast Stable takes place on the outside looking in with Itō's usual brazen visual flare and camera tricks and wears its anti-establishment message on its sleeve – well, actually a clenched fist hidden in the sleeve. Mention should also be made of the fantastic score provided by Shunsuke Kikuchi and the mournful ballads that serve as sort of an ersatz Greek chorus throughout the whole series -- and it should be noted that this balladeer was Meiko Kaji, herself, who sings her “Song of Vengeance” just as well as she kicks ass.
Apparently Toei had envisioned at least a ten film run for the Scorpion series. Alas, even though the films had lost no momentum at the box-office, and a guarantee that he could do anything he wanted, Itō felt he had told all the "fiction within a fiction" tales he cared to tell. However, the studio was able to convince Meiko to come back for at least one more go with Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song, where Meiko was reunited with one of her old Stray Cat Rock directors, Yasuharu Hasebe.
Sadly, one can easily sense Itō’s absence in this last installment. It’s good, but not near as good as the others as we once more open with Matsu on the run from yet another new arch-nemesis, Inspector Hirose (Hiroshi Tsukata). Beaten and bloodied, she manages to elude capture and takes refuge in strip-club, where she’s nursed back to health by Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), a former student radical who is also well aware of police brutality, having been crippled, scarred and beaten into betraying his faction by the very same Hirose. And together, these two lost souls go on the lam and slowly *ahem* stoke the fires and rekindle their lost humanity (-- a theme that actually began in the last installment for Matsu).
Things are complicated when an attempt to ambush Hirose goes awry when his pregnant wife, whom they were holding hostage, is accidentally killed while trying to escape (-- she might’ve even committed suicide by flinging herself off a balcony. Hard to read that scene, honestly.) When Kudo is captured he once more caves, giving up Matsu to the police; and as she is once more incarcerated and awaits her execution, constantly tormented by Hirose the whole time, whatever trace of humanity that had resurfaced is completely destroyed, meaning Matsu is no more and now there is only the Scorpion, who has no intention of walking the gallows steps and will not stop until she’s had her revenge again.
It isn’t until the grand finale and final showdown that #701’s Grudge Song finally reaches the nightmarish delirium of the first three films. If Hasebe had spread that out a bit, then we really might’ve had something here. As is parts just didn’t jive, like how Matsu makes several long speeches after barely uttering ten words in the last three films combined. Still, they were trying to show that Matsu was subverting the Scorpion so I guess that kinda works. However, one cannot help but sense this was a film about Kudo that grafted Matsu onto it, a doomed couple on the run that owes more to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Getaway (1972) than its predecessors. Thus, #701’s Grudge Song falls into that nebulous category of being a pretty good movie but also a pretty terrible sequel. Not a catastrophe by any means – you got Meiko being Meiko after all, but there is a whiff of disappointment that I won’t deny.
Okay, then, when most people try to sell you on female empowerment that’s wrapped-up in this kind of violence, sexually abusive brutality and sadistically exploitative packaging, they are usually full of shit; but I’m telling ya the Female Prisoner Scorpion series are the real deal. And you’re only getting half the picture here as no plot synopsis on Earth can do justice to the work Meiko and Itō pull-off onscreen. And if you need further proof, that can now be easily rectified thanks to the fine folks at Arrow Video and the brand new Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection boxset.
All four films are included, all digitally restored, and are jammed packed with extras. No commentaries this time, which is a tad disappointing because I wanted to know more. However, Arrow compensates for this with plenty of featurettes, including several new interviews with Itō and one vintage interview with Hasebe. But the real highlight are a couple of visual essays by Tom Mes; one on the film career of Meiko Kaji and the other an in depth analysis of the evolution of the Scorpion series. The boxset also includes a booklet with more critical analysis, an interview with Toru Shinohara, the creator of the Scorpion manga and reprint of a rare vintage interview with star Meiko Kaji.
Again, I was aware of this series but aside from a much later Chinese co-production / failed reboot in the aughts (that wasn't very good) this was my first official foray into the Scorpion series and I cannot stress enough how much the originals knocked me on my ass. As I type this up, I am already scrambling for some kind of creative financing that will allow me to pick up the similar Stray Cat Rock boxset from Arrow, and I’ve already got Lady Snowblood (1973) added to my Hulu queue to satiate my new insatiable Meiko Kaji fix. But its gonna be hard to top what I just watched. Seriously, Boils and Ghouls, the Female Prisoner Scorpion boxset is due to street the first week of August. And when it does, go and snatch one up. And then watch these as soon as possible. Trust me.