Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion Review
Meiko Kaji was twenty five years of age when she took on the role that would define her as a cult icon. She boldly moved to Toei Studios, having been disparaged by Nikkatsu’s new direction in making roman-porno movies, and naturally they wanted her to partake. Although she still left behind some notable works, in particular the Stray Cat Rock series, new doors opened up for her that helped seal her reputation. 1972 saw the first of a four part series known as Female Prisoner Scorpion in which she appeared as the downtrodden heroine Nami “Matsu” Matsushima. Helming Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion was Shunya Ito, in his debut feature, and the first of three - which were all made within a one year period - that he’d stick around for.
Based on (surprise) Toru Shinohara’s manga of the same name, the story tells the tale of Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) who has been sent to prison after attempting to kill her ex-boyfriend and corrupt police officer Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi). Sugimi had used her as yakuza bait after buttering her up with his wiley charm, but little did he know that it would soon be his biggest mistake. While in prison Matsu attempts to escape, but she’s quickly caught and sent into solitary, which in turns screws everything else up for her fellow inmates, who are no facing punishment for her disobedient acts. These women soon make her time spent at the prison very uncomfortable, in addition to trying to fight off the evil police officers who run the joint. But Matsu is left undeterred; her only focus is getting out and wreaking revenge on the man who set her up and not even a dozen police men and the prison’s entire population is going to prevent her from doing so.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is, quite literally, an intimate piece of work; it’s production values, though slight, lend themselves to a cold and concerning climate in which the atrocities surrounding its given prison environment are echoed a thousand times over. The exploitation films of the sixties and seventies that we can attribute Roman Porno and Pinky Violence to were often laced with subtle social commentary, although certainly various directors like Norifumi Suzuki, Chusei Sone and Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, for example, took many liberties with their material. Certainly for the most part the Pinky Violence flicks were far too outlandish and humorous to hammer home any fierce statement, but nonetheless they had merit and oodles of style. In that respect Shunya Ito’s debut feature isn’t much different; yes it pinpoints an abusive legal system, whereby prison wardens and police officers take advantage of their watch and indeed it depicts a low end tolerance throughout, but equally so and more importantly it delivers the goods, and that’s what any self-respecting genre fan wants.
But if we try to look deeper for a moment we should probably wonder what Ito is trying to dig at. It’s obvious that every woman in the prison is there for a reason, but clearly, next to that of corruption, there’s an equal underlying theme of contradiction. This is part of a system that works at reforming and reprogramming criminals so that they might be released into normal society and start life anew, which of course begs the question of “why are these officers savagely beating and ridiculing the very women they’re trying to change?” By doing this they’re no better than the criminals they take off the street and perhaps this is a point that Ito is trying to illustrate. We’re not really sympathising with the majority, and nor should we, but they’ve been violated beyond justice regulations which therefore justifies a rise against the system. In saying though most of them are intent on killing Matsu, who seems to have done more harm than good and somehow manages to cloud their hatred toward other opposing factors. These themes largely fit in with some of Ito’s stylistic touches which follow next.
With the prison setting being the primary focus throughout it doesn’t appear as if Shinya Ito has much room to play with, but he manages to surprise us with his bag of tricks, and while not all of them are entirely original some are unquestionably effective. The director stages his film quite masterfully after an elaborate chase sequence through a marshland, which introduces us to Matsu and her friend Yuki. From here on in his camera voyeuristically leans on the daily workings of prison life, in this case strictly female incarceration, where the guards look on starry-eyed as naked convicts pass them by one by one. But Ito opens up the film the further it goes on by utilising several interesting perspectives, including a “fifth wall”, or rather a glass floorboard technique which director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi had put into effect one year prior in Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess. He also develops some unique camera movements during fight sequences, which do plenty to compliment the disorienting action. On occasion, however, Ito deviates into surreal territory, harking back to other directors such as Seijun Suzuki and Norifumi Suzuki, with several artistic flourishes that bare far greater impact as metaphorical aids. Again it’s a gradual progression, with characters early on being equipped with almost demonic qualities: Masaki’s (Yoko Mihara) plan against Matsu back-firing, turning her into an Akuma-like nightmarish vision is but a taster of Ito’s hidden talent to unnerve in unusual ways. Likewise as he approaches the final act - after some lengthy digging - in which the female convicts lead a huge revolt against their suppressors he paints a literal Hellish landscape, with extreme emphasis on manipulated red skies, which forewarn a bleak outcome.
Much like Miki Sugimoto in her Zero Woman outing two years later - perhaps being directly influenced - Meiko Kaji’s tailored role of Matsu draws familiar parallels: both women are driven by revenge in relation to someone they once trusted and similarly they bare the same passive façade, where only their eyes and subtle body language deliver the message that all those who oppose them will end up face down on a cold slab. It’s a bone of contention when trying to unravel the personality behind the characters, because in terms of what we see on film we never truly get an understanding of what these heroines were like before they were traumatized; in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion for example we’re only led to believe that Matsu’s life was much nicer and that she lived a better existence prior to her betrayal. Where we might be taken deeper into a particular character’s history, had it been made anywhere else, we find that as with most exploitation films from Japan it’s more about getting into the action and less about delivering what might be considered measly padding. After all the audiences of the time were never going to see these features for anything else other than tits and blood letting. If one is willing to let go of the fact that Matsu is something of an elusive figure, much like Sugimoto’s Rei, and that he or she should simply back her and cheer her on as she enacts furious revenge against corrupt officials then there’s a lot of fun to be had. For that matter Kaji isn’t half that bad, despite a thinly veiled script and a huge lack of dialogue which was incidentally at the behest of the actress, so that she could convey far more with her natural assets, much in the same way that other celebrated sex icons such as Christina Lindberg and Sugimoto worked best at doing. But it was also an era in which female protagonists seen in these films only reached equality after being manipulated or having had the shit kicked out of them. These figures have to earn respect by dishing out the same levels of violence unto their tormentors, which may not make them perfect heroines in the strictest sense, but at least they’re woman who kick major ass and look great doing so.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is released in the UK uncut, through our friends at Eureka. It’s an interesting release, mainly because they’ve not gone mad in the past over releasing titles such as this, though it’s a welcome move all the same. Rather predictably though they’ve decided to ride the Kill Bill bandwagon (which is surely old and rickety now?) by stating that this is the film responsible for inspiring Tarantino’s double-feature. Kill Bill was inspired by a hundred films, including another Kaji vehicle Lady Snowblood, Thriller: A Cruel Picture and so on. There are certainly similarities in that the protagonist had been mislead and abused and turned things around for herself, but hey, this advertising malarkey is what sell ‘em. Also included is a small essay by Matt Palmer, co-curator of the Wild Japan: Outlaw Masters Festival.
The actual running time of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion on this PAL disc is just shy of eighty seven minutes, with an extra minute of credits tacked on the end (taking it up to 86.49) which provide English translations for cast and crew, in addition to a few bits on the disc’s authoring. There is also a mention of Tokyo Shock, which is a division of Media Blasters who put this remastered print out in 2003. As such we’re looking at an identical transfer. Unfortunately that means a standards conversion which exhibits combing and ghosting, but curiously the R1 release also shows the exact same problems, so I’ve no idea what Media Blasters was playing at. Either way you look at it both versions are flawed. I had hoped that Eureka were going to get the one up by producing a solid PAL transfer. Below is a comparison between the two, which highlights the problem. Eureka top, Tokyo Shock bottom:
Aside from this glaring problem the transfer is relatively nice, being presented anamorphically in its original ToeiScope 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It’s naturally soft in certain areas, but it retains a good amount of detail overall and showcases a spot on palette, with nice looking flesh tones and suitably vibrant colours during the more surreal moments. Black levels and contrast are fine and don’t appear to be tinkered with beyond the intended look, while edge enhancement has thankfully been kept at bay.
The film is accompanied by the original Japanese mono track, which is obviously limited but the only way to take in the feature. While it won’t pummel your surround system into submission it caters for the film’s score well and punctuates some of the more violent acts effectively. Dialogue is of course placed centrally and there are no issues with distortion and clarity, past a slight hissing during some quieter moments.
Optional English subtitles are also included and there are no problems to report. These are set to a reasonably sized white font, which offers a well timed translation.
As with the Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock release we get the original theatrical trailer and a small stills gallery.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion could be considered tame, next to the standards set by its forbearers and even those since, but there is still no denying its effectiveness. It’s suitably brutal and charged with a unique display from Meiko Kaji, while being equally ridiculous thanks to some stereotyped villains and scenarios that our heroine somehow - magically perhaps - gets herself out of. I suppose, then, that if you’re trying to acquaint yourself with Japanese exploitation cinema then you can’t really go wrong with this cult classic, which has deservedly been given distribution in the UK.