Review: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972)

The Female Prisoner Scorpion and Lady Snowblood film series present a similar SONY DSCchallenge: at the end of the first film in each, Meiko Kaji’s protagonist has found her revenge, so how will the series continue? I suspected Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) might be a sequel in name only, starring Kaji and her titular, vengeful protagonist in a new scenario, rather like the Outlaw films of the 60s. Instead, Jailhouse 41 picks up where the first film left off, with a brutal reminder that Scorpion’s vengeance is not complete: the prison warden yet lives.

What follows is a truly exploitative exploitation film, one that frequently puts its female characters at the mercy of violence and rape. Yet it is also beautifully and inventively shot, expanding out of the prison featured in the first film when Kaji’s Nami Matsushima, nicknamed Scorpion, and several of her fellow prisoners manage to break free of a prison transport on the way back from hard labour. An interview, included in the Arrow release, with production designer Tadayuki Kuwana goes into detail about just how much thought and preparation went into set design and the choice of locations. Everything from the extremely tall, cave-like solitary confinement cells featured in the opening of the film to the way they blended the very real Ashio copper mine into a ruined town built as a set is stunning.

jailhouse41knife
While Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) had few lines in the first film, in Jailhouse 41, she returns as an almost completely silent protagonist.

Other choices are interesting, too. The backgrounds and crimes of Scorpion’s fellow escapees are told in a surreal experience echoing traditional Japanese theatre and storytelling. In ruined town, the escapees discover an old woman, alone, recalling a practice from Japanese folklore of ubasute or obasute; the old woman, it is implied, has been exiled to die instead of being a drain on her family. It is the old woman who narrates the crimes of the escapees as a haunting, traditional song in the film’s most striking sequence.

jailhouse41crimes
The female prisoners have their crimes and histories recited in haunting song in this visually striking sequence.

Almost unrelentingly dark, every interaction the prisoners have with the prison guards and the outside world is tragic and violent. It can be hard to square exactly what message Ito, the director returning from the first instalment, was trying to convey; in some ways it is hard to see why Kaji’s female protagonist isn’t a subversive feminist icon, pitted against a system – and more importantly, the men in that system – that seek to do her and the other female characters harm. On the other hand, the amount of violence, including sexual violence, directed against the female characters, Kaji included, could make this a difficult film for many viewers. For me, the positives outweigh the negatives, and the surreal filmmaking on display here is truly a sight to behold.

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 / 女囚さそり 第41雑居房

Director: Shunya Ito

Japanese Release Date: 30th December 1972

Version Watched: 94 min (Arrow Video release)

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