As I look to explore the cult and classic movies of Japanese cinema from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, I’m limited by what’s actually available in the West and guided by recommendations from other film fans and critics. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) was an early suggestion for this blog and one that I’m glad I sought out. The directorial debut of Shunya Itō, starring Meiko Kaji, Scorpion is a brutal exploitation film and a subversive example of the women in prison subgenre.
Not to undersell Kaji’s career, but she seems best remembered for her title roles in the Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion films. Watching her as Lady Snowblood, my first exposure to her outside of a smaller role in Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, I thought I immediately understood why she casts such an outsized shadow. Back then, I wrote:
…it is somewhat difficult to compare her performance to other major roles for Japanese women in older films, because they hardly seem to exist… women are mainly relegated to hapless love interests (Chieko Matsubara in the Outlaw Gangster VIP series, Keiko Tsushima in Seven Samurai) or Lady Macbeth-like schemers (Isuzu Yamada in Throne of Blood, admittedly perfect in the role, or Toshie Kimura as Yamamori’s wife in Battles Without Honour and Humanity, likewise).
In Lady Snowblood, Kaji doesn’t fall into either category. Yet visiting other films from her career in the same era, I was underwhelmed. Lady Snowblood 2 was an overall disappointment, Blind Woman’s Curse was okay but less of a Kaji vehicle than expected, and in the first Stray Cat Rock the focus is very much on Akiko Wada while Kaji is given little to do. It was immediately refreshing, then, to find another film that justifies Kaji’s reputation.
As in Lady Snowblood, Kaji’s Nami Matsushima is a wronged woman out for revenge. ‘Matsu’, though, is in prison, suffering the abuse of both leering prison guards and cruel trustees. Our introduction to her is a failed breakout, but it’s clear she isn’t after freedom; if she gets out, she’s after revenge. Also like Snowblood, Matsu is unlike most other women in Japanese cinema of the era: she is not helpless, she is not scheming, she is not even an Annu Mari-style femme fatale.
It’s also worth comparing her to modern characters. In some shameless cross-promotion, I host a podcast that discusses films and games. My co-host has a pet peeve when it comes to certain kinds of female characters that he perceives as an overreaction to or overcompensation for ‘weak’ female characters, resulting in flawless superheroines who can take a punch or take out the enemy without a hair falling out of place. Matsu is definitely not that sort of character. She is a protagonist more in the vein of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) in Oldboy, who struggled through a corridor full of goons and came out the other side breathless, bloody, but victorious. Matsu isn’t immune to the torture dealt out by her captors, but she endures it. She doesn’t overpower her male opponents, but she does outlast them. Given the film’s proximity to her performance in Lady Snowblood, I expected her to be more like Rorschach in Watchmen. Matsu is actually somewhat more realistic than that, and perhaps a better character for it.
Of course, it can be hard to square Kaji’s Matsu as a feminist protagonist in the middle of a film as exploitative as Female Prisoner #701. Though rarely played for straight-up titillation, there’s wall-to-wall nudity on par with Orange is the New Black. The torture is brutal and pervasive. There’s a lesbian sex scene that could be read as assault, seduction, or self-defense. It actually seems somewhat ironic that Kaji left Nikkatsu, which in the ‘70s moved into the pink film industry, and joined Toei given how explicit the film is. I would read the visuals more as shocking than sexy and meant to underscore Matsu as a protagonist rather than undermine her, but I can see why some critics disagree.
Beyond Kaji’s performance, the film is interesting both visually and technically. Debut director Shunya Itō was completely unknown to me before this, but the flourishes he adds would be at home in Seijun Suzuki’s more bizarre fare. A flashback sequence incorporates a revolving set in a startling bit of physical stage-dressing, shots are filled with coloured lighting to set the tone and link scenes thematically, and the sky is manipulated into a terrifying vortex straight out of Blind Woman’s Curse during one riot scene. The use of lighting and colour is especially interesting considering the scene in the prison showers where, her face slashed and covered in blood, one prisoner is transformed into a kabuki-like figure with kumadori makeup. The whole scene is imbued with unnatural blues, but when the scene is broken and normal lighting returns, the makeup disappears with it. Elsewhere, Kaji’s Matsu is illuminated in green, a colour recalled as she metes out revenge on the yakuza and corrupt cops that led to her imprisonment.
It hardly seems surprising that, again, the film is rife with abusive prison guards, corrupt cops, and organised criminals (after all, the name of this blog is a riff on yakuza, ha-kyu-san, or eight-nine-three). Yet it still feels like a subversive look at both Japanese society and authority in particular for the 1970s, when not long ago in the ‘60s ninkyo eiga were being made that framed the yakuza as almost aspirational rebels. Of course even now, decades later, there are still yakuza magazines and newsletters that ordinary Japanese read, with the yakuza still perceived in some ways as a throwback to a time when men were men and duty and honour meant something. Scorpion has no such illusions, and lumps in the police and the prison system, too. I particularly liked one shot of the yakuza’s headquarters, with its huge nationalist banner proclaiming a ‘beautiful Japan’ (美しい日本), juxtaposed with the hanging body of one of Matsu’s revenge victims. Somewhat less successful was the shot of the Japanese flag rippling in the wind as one victim pulls the knife from his stomach and hurls it into the air, silhouetted against the flag. It’s just not a very good take. I at least expected the knife to cut the flag or spatter it with blood!
Though I’m keen to heap praise on the film where it succeeds, a few details struck me. The brutal torture only seems to show up how badly performed some of the action is, with amateur wrestling-level attempts to sell hits with truncheons and shovels – when weapons are swung, they’re clearly nowhere near their target, and it’s amazing the scenes aren’t framed better to hide that. It was also remarkable that apart from Matsu the prisoners got very little backstory, something that only became obvious when watching the trailer (included on the Arrow Video restoration) that introduces the cast and actually lists their past crimes. That was also when I realised that one of the other prisoners, one of the few who actually supports Matsu, is played by Hiroko Ōgi. Ōgi was actually replaced by Meiko Kaji in Blind Woman’s Curse, which makes their appearance together in Female Prisoner #701 seem more loaded than was perhaps intended.
But on the other hand, there’s the hat. Need I say more?
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion / 女囚701号/さそり (Joshū Nana-maru-ichi Gō / Sasori)
Director: Shunya Itō
Japanese Release Date: 25th August 1972
Version Watched: 87 min, Arrow Video release