Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 Review
Produced in the same year as Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, Shunya Ito’s follow up to his original cult classic takes place one year after Matsu’s (Meiko Kaji) act of vengeance against corrupt officer Sugimi. During her time spent in confinement Matsu has suffered further ridicule and continues to be shunned by her fellow inmates, who simply refer to her as “Scorpion”; her wild and untamed ways permanently getting her into trouble and seeing to it that those around her must also suffer at the hands of the over zealous guards led by Goda (Fumio Watanabe). Goda still harbours explicit resentment toward Matsu, who had taken his eye in a previous encounter. As extra punishment she has spent time in the prison’s underground chamber, fashioning a sharp instrument from a spoon held in her mouth; her hands tied in shackles, while she lies on a cold, wet slab. But it’s time for Matsu to re-enter “normal” prison grounds, especially in light of an impending visit from an inspector. Goda intends to show off the model prison for rehabilitating female convicts in the hopes of finally receiving the promotion he desperately seeks. But when Matsu freaks out the inspector and spurs on the other prisoners in staging a riot, Goda orders his men to “take care” of her. During a seemingly routine transport Matsu eventually gets the one up on the guards, and with the help of six convicts manages to evade capture. Now, left to their own devices these women attempt to make their way back home as the police hotly pursue them.
Shunya Ito’s goal here is not only to ramp up the levels of sex and violence, but to envelop the continuing saga of Matsu with lyrical poignancy. Cleverly he takes Matsu out of her familiar environment for most of the film’s run time; not only does this give the viewer something new to acquaint themselves with, but it allows the director to open up his ideas and explore his subjects on an unusual level. The continual theme is in depicting women as the downtrodden and lesser members of society: victims of male repression, whose acts of violence has been directed though self defence in the face of continual bullying, induced madness or otherwise. There’s real anger here directed toward male figures, whereby Ito clearly distinguishes between both sides, making the entire process somewhat enchanting, particularly when we know that it’s targeted toward a predominantly male audience. Perhaps then Ito caters for his own need to rally feminism and lay down the law by veiling everything with overtly surreal and hypnotic gestures. Jailhouse 41 is no less cruel upon its protagonist as its predecessor, however, in fact it’s considerably more uncomfortable to view and as is often the case you wonder if we should be feeling sorry for poor ol’ Kaji and the gruelling shoot she had to go through, or her character - perhaps it’s a matter of both. So painfully depicted and drawn out are the torturous moments she goes through one wonders how they ever got through unscathed. But rarely does Ito let up with sadistic male rituals such as the sequence in which two seedy guards hose down Matsu until it becomes almost symbolically sexual, and later on a gang rape which forces into motion Matsu’s ultimate rage and only gets worse when her friend is savagely molested and killed by a trio of drunks, one of whom only moments earlier bragged to a bus load of people about similar acts he carried out upon a woman during his service in China. Even children get cruelly handled and in one such instance the look of utter real fear on one poor child’s face as an officer snatches him by the scruff of his neck is enough to take the viewer momentarily out of the picture.
But for every horrific action there’s also extreme beauty. It’s almost impossible to believe that a film as depraved as this should be deemed worthy of artistic praise, and yet it unequivocally is. Ito takes his second feature to a whole new level; no longer is the film so much confined and claustrophobic as it is a skilfully woven play of stage-like proportions. It’s in Matsu’s transition that Jailhouse 41 comes alive with symbolism, which under any normal circumstances would defy logic. But there’s an overwhelming beauty in how the director sets up his scenes. The world presented before us habitually changes its colour scheme and acts as a motif toward the significant themes presented: the lighting throughout becomes more and more grandeur, from harsh blues to glorious red and golden leaves in an ever changing Autumnal climate as we realise that things are going to go from bad to worse. Kabuki song is used as exposition for each of the escapee women’s sordid past and composer Shunsuke Kikuchi takes his score in a new direction, often at times channelling the likes of Morricone in conjunction with Ito’s barren landscapes, while retaining that essential quirkiness of Japanese percussion. But it’s clear that the reason this all works so well is because Shunya Ito knows the material; it’s part of a franchise he stuck with for a couple of years and like all great franchises it excels because of its consistency throughout. It proves to be a worthy sequel that does indeed offer far greater things than its genre type may ordinarily suggest.
And of course at the heart of all this is Meiko Kaji, who utters all of two lines during the entire ninety minute run time. Matsu is a woman of action and her eyes are enough to convince us that when the time comes she will enjoy her vengeance. Kaji has such a remarkable face of which her piercing eyes act as our real window into the picture. From a single cold glance you can feel the utmost contempt she has toward Goda, and during various intervals the other women around her. Nothing else matters but her sole focus in her present life, save for a close friend. She’s quietly cunning and unpredictable and come the final moments of the picture her actions leave us stunned. Everything she’s quietly done and put up with has led up to a single moment of pure unadulterated satisfaction. This woman - a victim of a disgustingly corrupt system who has been turned into the thing she hates the most – probably shouldn’t earn our sympathy quite so much. Time and again she tries to escape, pushing herself further and further away from the prospect of seeing the outside world and settling down in life; her mind itself is corrupt only with thoughts of punishing those who have ruined everything she once held so dear. Nothing is sacred to her anymore, her body and mind have been violated beyond reproach and her mechanical way of thinking and passive nature leaves her as quite the tragic heroine. Yet we back her and hope that one day her soul will be free from the burden of an ill society that refuses to exact moral change.
For a few years now Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 has been one of the most difficult titles of the series to acquire on DVD. Thanks to Eureka it is now available for the first time in the UK. Their material has been sourced from the original and out of print Image Entertainment release - which isn’t the best of news I’m afraid. Also included is an essay by Matt Palmer, co-curator of the Wild Japan: Outlaw Masters Festival.
Presented on a DVD-9 and with an anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 is largely a major disappointment. A standards conversion this perfectly replicates Image’s naff transfer from a few years back. Unlike Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion this hasn’t undergone any restoration, or at least whatever source this was taken from likely wasn’t the original negative. The print exhibits a lot of dust and dirt and plenty of softness. It’s also far too dark, lacking definition and showing a slight muddy-ness; contrast is unnecessarily high which results in foreground and background detail blending in to each other, more so during night scenes, while skin tones vary but have considerably strong levels. It’s hard to make out any natural film grain and aliasing is also distracting. The English subtitles which are burnt in to the image can be difficult to read when placed on brighter white backgrounds and as such earn an extra point off.
The Japanese mono soundtrack is as to be expected. While a little hollow and carrying a slight hiss it’s solid enough throughout and doesn’t present any major difficulties. Dialogue is clear and various sounds effects are adequate. If there’s anything to complain about then it’s the forced subtitles which exhibit a few grammatical errors and fail to translate the film’s songs, except for the “Seven Sinful Girls”.
The only extra on this release is a rough looking original theatrical trailer.
While light on actual plotting Shunya Ito’s Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 is a great companion piece next to his debut feature. Not only does it carry across similar themes but it also wrestles with the strained relationship between Matsu and Goda, which finally comes to a gripping conclusion, while injecting the series with some beautiful imagery. A classic piece of Japanese exploitation that sadly fails to get the quality release it rightfully deserves.
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Last updated: 28/05/2018 11:44:52