Female Prisoner #701: Beast Stable Review
Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion: Beast Stable marked the end of Shunya Ito’s Joshuu Sasori trilogy, although it’s one which belongs in a more unofficial capacity, being that the adventures of Matsu/Sasori had continued for a little while longer due to its increasing popularity. But the strong consistency in quality of Ito’s work between 1972 and 1973 since his debut is evident, with a fitting story arc for our heroine Nami Matsushima, ultimately seeing to it that these three original productions would long be the most highly regarded of the series.
The story this time sees Matsu (Meiko Kaji) trying to earn a reasonable living, having escaped once more from prison. Shortly after her break-out she barely got away from Detective Gondo (Mikio Narita) after a vicious encounter in which she hacked off his right arm and fled in desperation. Now she lives in the local slums, earning pittance as a seamstress, whilst remaining fully aware that at any moment her pursuer will come walking around the corner to take her back to a life unwanted. Things kind of look up for Matsu when she befriends a local young woman named Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), who’s only way of earning as she sees it is to prostitute herself. Like Matsu, Yuki has her own problems; she lives with her mentally retarded brother - a result of a factory accident - and sees to his every need, including having sex with him out of sheer pity. Matsu never questions Yuki (though she doesn’t say much in general really), and vice versa, and when Yuki announces that she’s pregnant with her brother’s child the bond between the two becomes ever stronger. With only each other to lean on they try to their best to look out for one another.
But soon Matsu is drawn back into the world she long hoped to leave behind. Gangsters try to snap her up for themselves, while an old prison acquaintance named Katsu (Reisen Lee), who raises pet crows, seeks to gain her revenge on the one they call “Sasori”. Just another day in the life then.
After the surreal and hauntingly beautiful transitional second film, Beast Stable firmly grounds itself closer to reality. Not that it loses any of its potency, however. Hope still springs eternal for Matsu, who seems to be perpetually stuck in a cycle of decay and misery - but she’s not the only one. In Beast Stable Ito once more provides us with a new surrounding for Matsu to explore, while maintaining the well established format of the battle between sexes. Although Matsu may be free of her literal shackles she finds herself again trapped in a society which rests on the fringe of indecency and immoral values. Tokyo sets the scene of violence, corruption and whore houses; a seemingly inescapable prison in itself where the weak live out their days in squalor as their hunters reap the rewards of their pitied labour. Cynicism is a word I often use when writing about seventies exploitation, but it’s a word befitting of most productions from that specific era. Shunya Ito is no different in this respect at employing social digs, but what does set him apart a great deal is his conviction in depicting male and female standings. Not a single moment throughout his three Sasori films has he strayed from the point at hand, which is to show men as being unjust and women as the often helpless victims of their tormentor’s rage and greed. Furthermore his films are about survival - and survival at any cost.
There’s a strong feeling that Ito loves the character of Matsu; he puts her through hell and back but he never lets her wane under pressure. He fills her with cold determination, making her a symbol of hope and retribution, but he humanises her greatly, no more so than in this third outing when her emotions finally catch up to her. Meiko Kaji, of course, continues to excel in a role tailored to her needs and it’s this partnership between her and Ito that gives rise to a tremendous and memorable Japanese cinema icon. We witness Matsu in a light that we never have done before: she smiles and sheds tears, not only for herself, but for others around her. Her relationship with the equally - if not more so tragic - Yuki places things into an embittered perspective, with both women having been shunned by society and with no one else to turn to but each other. Their journey together isn’t particularly pleasant, with Matsu constantly on the run and Yuki torn between ethical decisions pertaining to her retarded brother and her desire to live a better life constantly mixing up affairs. Of course the exploitative hand is certainly played throughout, but to say that the Joshuu Sasori series by this point was fixated on titillation would be somewhat naïve. The sub-plot involving an incestuous relationship between sister and brother may seem torrid enough, but it’s handled with remarkable care and consideration, never conforming to standard exploitation ideals, but instead lending a bittersweet and tragic air to a topic that’s never easy to portray in any light.
Of course it helps immeasurably that Shunya Ito does have such a firm handle on proceedings. In any other director’s hands such things may easily go off tangent, but there’s a true artist at work here, one who believes whole heartedly in his endeavour to speak out about the injustices that - predominantly - women face, while painting a canvas of dingy and delightful imagery. And indeed Beast Stable is a beautiful film despite its dank and depressing aesthetics. Although arguably Ito’s finest work of the three films can be seen in Jailhouse 41, what with its fascinating colour schemes, surreal visual aids and compositions, his partnership here with Osamu Tanaka (returning after the first instalment) is simply wonderful. Of the three features being explored to date the editing here is second to none, with Tanaka skilfully juxtaposing Matsu’s and Yuki’s lives in perfect tandem; effortlessly capturing a sorrowful streak with fabulous inter-cutting techniques which enable the visuals to act as a second voice (as all good films should do): one scene involving the transitions between the two women in which Matsu sparks off match after match, while Yuki contemplates another night out is amongst the best we’ve ever seen from Ito; silently expressing pure emotion and allowing this instalment to be Matsu’s most poignant to date. It’s truly wonderful, then, that Shunya Ito kept his passion alive for these early films, seeing Matsu go out not necessarily on a high note (nor Yuki for that matter) but with a sense of hope: the key word I feel which binds together these features and the very thing which has made her character all the more sympathetic during her difficult journey.
With Beast Stable also being the third in this series from Eureka it’s no surprise to learn that we’re again dealing with a standards conversion. While this is far from ideal it’s at least a step up from the almost disastrous Jailhouse 41 outing a few months back. We’re looking at a transfer that’s pretty much up there with the first film: a remastered effort from Toei which preserves the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. As such you can expect pleasing detail, nice film grain and accurate colours, while contrast looks a tad high, but not unusual. It’s also nice again to see that the ol’ edge enhancement has been kept at bay.
As for the soundtrack it’s a fine original mono presentation; not a great deal to speak of, other than it does its job admirably, while the optional English subtitles provide a solid translation, with good timing and no grammatical errors.
Bonus features consist solely of the film’s original theatrical trailer, presented anamorphically.
According to some Beast Stable is a perfectly good stand-alone feature, which is something I’d have to personally dispute. With little back-story on Matsu’s behalf newcomers will find themselves none the wiser to her situation, but as a sequel it nicely rounds off a perfect trilogy from director Shunya Ito, which proudly deserves its place as being one of the most stand out efforts from the seventies Pinku scene.
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