Actors – Meiko Kaji, Reisen Lee, Kayoko Shiraishi
Director – Shunya Ito and Yasuharu Hasebe
Limited edition of 4,000 copies
Released by Arrow US
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Artful and atrocious. Brutal and beautiful. This is where exploitation meets art house and both are well served. If you watch enough of these more obscure genre films, as you wade through the good, the bad and the ugly every once in a while you will find a real gem. The first three Female Prisoner Scorpion films directed by Shunya Ito stand out from the pack with a bold originality. Make no mistake about it though when you sit down to watch the first one of these that the requirements of a women in prison picture are met. There are salacious shower sequences, rapes, torture, naked women are hosed down and clothes are ripped off frequently. There is the standard girl versus girl cat fight and the obligatory lesbian seduction scene. However creative camera angles are in abundance. At the slightest excuse the director with take off on a psychedelic excursion filed with bold colorful lighting drawing inspiration from Kabuki theater, French New Wave cinema, comic books, and rock and roll lighting.
Female Prisoner 701 (1972)
Early on in the film the female prisoners are paraded up a metal staircase, over a short metal grid traverse and then down another stairway. There are horizontal bars inserted for the girls to high step over. There are all completely naked. A leering guard stands under the stairway looking up at them. That is for the exploitation crowd but when it comes to the back story of the lead Nami Matushima or Matsu the sequence takes on a completely different feel. We see Matsu in bed with her lover, a police detective. She surrenders herself to him and lets him take her virginity. The floor, the walls and the ceiling are all blue. Instead of a bed they are in a white sheet that is several yards long. When Matsu bleeds the blood forms a stain on the sheet that is unmistakably the Japanese flag. When her lover goes over to the dresser bureau to have a smoke the whole wall turns around so we see him laughing with his police supervisor about how he tricked his girlfriend to infiltrate a Yakuza gang at a nightclub. The camera keeps rolling as Matsu dresses up nice and walks across the set which becomes the nightclub. The gangsters spot that she is a plant, rip her clothes off and begin to pile on her in a gang rape. Shunya takes his camera underneath her and shoots up through the floor made of glass cubes. He reverses the shot, moves in close and shows quick staccato cuts of Matsu’s long black hair against the glass which is now lit bright red. When this scene is through two things are very clear. One is that we are in the hands of a very inventive visual director. The other is that Matsu will get her revenge on the guys letting us know why she is called The Scorpion.
Later on in the film Matsu is attacked by a prisoner during shower time. When Matsu cuts her opponent the blood runs down her face transforming the dripping crimson into lines of make up. Now lit with an aggressive green light this naked women is a demon from hell. Her face resembles a Kabuki style mask. It is simply outrageous. Throughout the film Matsu is subjected to solitary confinement in a deep dank hole. Even when she is tortured she remains stoic rarely showing any emotion on her face at all. She speaks less that Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name. In The Roger Corman WIP (women in prison) films there is always some humor to balance the pace. Here in Scorpion’s world there is no let up from the horrible treatment she must endure. The only respite from the pain is the artful displays of lighting, staging and camera angles that take us to another world. Prisoner 701 works solidly on two levels. It was so successful that a sequel was rushed into production.
Jailhouse #41 (1972)
This one combines the familiar WIP tone of the first with the escaped convicts on the run theme. Seven prisoners manage to escape and take off into the countryside. They climb over piles of sewage and trash. They scamper over fields that have been mined. At one point as we watch from high overhead it looks like the women are scrambling over some kind of oil painting. The ripples in the dirt and the discoloration make the landscape into something otherworldly. There are tensions between the escapees. One of them takes control and you know she is too emotional and will eventually ruin it for all of them. The plot borrows from a real life incident where a bus was captured and the riders held hostage. The police finally decided to storm the surrounded vehicle. There is a sequence that was directly inspired by that. It was apparently a bold move by the director as we learn in one of the extras. The seven women hijack a bus full of disgusting tourists. One of the men on the bus tells a vile story of abusing a prisoner during the war. The belligerent group molests the young woman who is leading the bus tour. It should be noted that every single guy in these films is either a filthy pervert, sadistic guard or a man who will do anything to advance their career. None of them can be trusted. The stand off at the bus turns out as bad as expected.
Beast Stable (1973)
This one starts out with Matsu on the run in a city. She gets stopped by a detective while riding the subway. He snaps the handcuffs on her. Just as Matsu tries to make a break for it through the closing car doors he pulls at her. She whips out a knife and cuts the guy’s arms off. Then she goes running up the subways steps and through the streets with this poor guy’s arm dangling from her wrist. Beast stable may be the most depressing of all of them. Hiding out in a graveyard, still with that severed arm attached to her she befriends a young girl who works in the sex industry. She charges guys to light a match and look up her skirt till the flame burns out. Back at home she keeps her mentally unstable brother locked in a room. In order to keep him calm she let shim screw her. To make matters worse an old nemesis from Matsu’s prison days is in charge of the local sex trade. Reisen Lee is wonderful as Katsu. She is dressed in an outlandish outfit that looks like a cross between a female impersonator and a new villain in the Batman TV series. Her make up is exaggerated and she has a bouquet of black bird feathers around her neck. At one point Matsu gets locked up in a wooden cage with a bunch of large crows. Very strange.
This film has what for me is the most beautiful image from the whole series. Matsu has been hiding out in the sewers. Her friend, the one with the incestuous relationship walks the night streets looking for her. You can hear her calling, “Sasori” on the soundtrack. That’s the Japanese word for scorpion. She kneels down by at a storm grate and lights a match. She lets it drops down. She lights another and drops it. As she keeps calling out for her we see the angle looking up from way below. A few matches drift down from high above. Then more. Soon it morphs into a beautiful series of flares that look like falling stars. It’s gorgeous. Matsu gets hunted in these same subways and has to dodge the cops. As if that weren’t enough gasoline is dropped in and lit making her run through the tunnels, sloshing the water beneath her feet as the flames rush toward her. Director Shunya Ito has a real knack for combining sheer terror with lovely visuals.
Grudge Song (1973)
Shunya Ito let it be known that he had said all he had to say with this series so the last one fell to a different director. Even though Meiko Kaje is still playing the lead director Yasuharu Hasebe comes up short. For most of the film Matsu is one the run with a sort of boyfriend. They dress in drab army surplus jackets. It’s odd and a break with tradition to see her out of either her prison stripes or the iconic coat and hat. The film ambles on without really engaging you. The imagery of the tall wooden gallows in the woods is pretty good. It’s one of the few times that we see something of the old familiar style. There are directorial flourishes no doubt but they are bound to pale compared to what came before. There is a bit when Matsu slashes her knife at a victim. The screen is cut imhalf for us to see the same thing from another angle. It’s clever but not in keeping with the series. How could it be?
Meiko Kaje is riveting in these films. She plays it low key, stoic and committed. She seethes and boils just below the surface. So much of her acting is conveyed with her eyes. It helps that she is costumed wonderfully, too. Here in the states director Shinya Ito is not known. This series has so much style and imagination to it one wonders why there isn’t more of his work available. The Scorpion films were the first three he made. He did about ten others between the end of this series and 2013. These first three films stand as a real achievement in style and technique. It’s hard not to get completely captivated by the world he created that changed Nami Matushima into Sasori, The Scorpion. This set is highly recommended. The extras will only enhance your appreciation for the series.
Video – 2.35:1
My first impression was that this was grainier than I remembered. However it is clearer in many spots. There is some nice detail in the background that is much easier to appreciate. The second impression is that the colors are nice and vibrant although some of the colors may not be the ones I remembered from the last time I took in the series. There is a teal, light blue or cyan color that tints some scenes that was not apparent in the previous DVD editions put out by Media Blasters or Eastern Star’s Jailhouse 41. If you have seen these films before that is gong to stick out to you. If you’ve never seen them it is very likely to just go by without notice. One of the great things about this series is the director’s use of exaggerated colored lighting. Greens and reds are applied like a graphic comic book or a wild stage show production. The blues were never this prominent. It is clearer and it definitely looks better than previous editions. The price of that is the increase in grain. These were not made from the original camera negative and the further you get from that the more difficult the grain becomes to manage. All four titles are brand new 2K restorations made from a low contrast print source. How far removed from the original we do not know. Jailhouse #41 looks the best while Grudge Song lags behind the others in overall appearance. The blue color issue is there but, at least for me it is not a deal breaker as there is just too much to appreciate in these discs to let that spoil it. (the images in this review were not taken from the new Arrow edition)
Audio – Mono PCM with subtitles offered in English
The subtitles are fine. They move at a pace that is easily readable and matches the action on screen. The music sounds fine. There are lots of old school stingers on the track to give the proper jolt when called for. The title song will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen the Kill Bill films.
Extras – Eight discs, one for each Blu-ray and DVD
•Double-sided fold out poster of two original artworks
•Reversible sleeves for all films • Booklet featuring critic Chuck Stephens, a brand new interview with Toru Shinohara, creator of the original Scorpion manga and an archive interview with Meiko Kaji by Chris D.
FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION
•Newly filmed appreciation by filmmaker Gareth Evans (The Raid)
•Shunya Ito: Birth of an Outlaw, an archive interview with the director
•Scorpion Old and New, a new interview with assistant director Yutaka Kohira
•Theatrical Trailers for all four films in the series
FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41
•Newly filmed appreciation by critic Kier-La Janisse
•Japanese cinema critic Jasper Sharp looks over the career of Shunya Ito
•Designing Scorpion, a new interview with production designer Tadayuki Kuwana
•Original Theatrical Trailer and Teaser
FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: BEAST STABLE
•Newly filmed appreciation by critic Kat Ellinger
•Shunya Ito: Directing Meiko Kaji, an archive interview with the director
•Unchained Melody, a new visual essay by Tom Mes on the career of Meiko Kaji
•Original Theatrical Trailer and Teaser
FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: #701’s GRUDGE SONG
•Newly filmed appreciation by filmmaker Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts)
•Yasuharu Hasebe: Finishing the Series, an archive interview with the director
•Japanese cinema critic Jasper Sharp looks over the career of Yasuharu Hasebe
•They Call Her Scorpion, a new visual essay by Tom Mes on the film series
•Original Theatrical Trailer
The interview with Gareth Evans on the fist film is terrific. He knows the genre and has a genuine enthusiasm for the films. The talk with production designer Tadayuki Kuwana on the second film is also a real highlight. We hear about how they collaborated and solved some of the problems on set together. There is an archival interview with director Ito on the third disc that is very interesting. Apparently he did not care for Meiko Kaji at all. The way he finally found of working with her is a good story.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :
Blu-Ray – Excellent (there are some reservations about the color, but they are not insurmountable)
Movies – Excellent / Classic