“Wanted for the murder of 8 police officers, 3 prison breaks, and 28 attempts…She’s evil incarnate!” This is how a detective describes Nami Matsushima (the iconic Meiko Kaji), better known as Matsu, or by her semi-mythic prisoner name ‘Scorpion’, by the time the fourth film in this quick-fire franchise rolls around. All released in 1972-73, the quartet of Female Prisoner Scorpion films starring Kaji are what happens when an ambitious young director with verve and something to say tackles otherwise rote exploitation material. Based on Toru Shinohara’s manga series, Shunya Ito’s films apply arthouse flourish to the conventions of women-in-prison genre flicks with the same relish as Matsu slices at her tormentors with a handily concealed shiv.
Tarantino was famously taken with Matsu – her theme song makes a timely appearance in Kill Bill (that film’s O-Ren Ishii is also clearly inspired by Kaji’s other seminal role, Lady Snowblood) – and it’s clear to see why. She’s a pitch-perfect exploitation genre creation; determined and deadly, she utters only a handful of words in each film, preferring to let blades and arcs of her adversaries’ luminous blood do her talking for her. The character in the original manga is known for uttering strings of expletives, but Kaji convinced the filmmakers that silence was golden and she relishes the opportunity to set her jaw and burn holes in the celluloid with her unflinching gaze. In the first instance, this is aimed squarely at her former lover, the corrupt cop whose manipulations saw her the victim of a brutal gang-rape.
Matsu ends up in prison for a botched attempt at revenge and so begins Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. This is the most straightforward take on the women-in-prison subgenre in the series, overflowing with the requisite elements: nubile inmates; steamy showers; lesbian liaisons; cruel punishments from sadistic guards. However, as much as soapy breasts are intended to titillate, the mistreatment of the women in Ito’s film is the catalyst for an uprising, and the director attempts to weave into a spurious narrative allegorical examination of the patriarchy of modern Japanese society. The two sequels that Ito directed, Jailhouse 41 and Beast Stable, continue these thematic preoccupations, creating female characters that may lack psychological realism, but whose stories confront misogyny and violence towards women without portraying them as helpless victims – often, indeed, they’re as vicious as, and all the more tragic than, the men.
The opening scene of Beast Stable sees Matsu hack off the arm of the policeman who has just cuffed himself to her before escaping through the subway with the severed limb flailing around her as she runs. Ito crafts so many sequences and images like this; provocative, gruesome, and unforgettable. He takes great pleasure in toying with representations of the Japanese flag – masterfully and damning framing it in the moment that Matsu’s virginal blood spreads over a white sheet in the aftermath of her rape. Elsewhere he proves himself a consummate visual stylist, not least with his use of strong lighting to incredible effect, while also calling upon references to traditional Japanese (Noh and Kabuki) and western theatrical practices and motifs to emphasise the drama. Ito’s original plan was to make ten of these films, but he ended up only completing the three and his creative handling is sorely lacking in the fourth film #701’s Grudge Song which plays as more of a straight Yakuza thriller than the symphony of vengeance you expect from Kaji.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson