Director Shunya Ito returns with his final entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973). Loosely picking up where Jailhouse 41 left off, Meiko Kaji’s escaped convict Matsushima, aka the titular Scorpion, is on the run and still doggedly pursued by the police. Taking place largely outside of any actual prison and in an urban setting would already give the movie a different feel to its predecessors, even Jailhouse 41 that also prominently featured an escape attempt, but Ito also gives Beast Stable a far stranger, more horror-oriented tone than his earlier entries. At times, it feels more like watching something as surreal as Blind Woman’s Curse – not coincidentally, also starring Meiko Kaji. So different is the tone that in the back of my mind I knew that Ito didn’t direct all four Female Prisoner Scorpion movies and I found myself wondering if this, and not the final #701’s Grudge Song, was the movie he skipped.
A thrilling, gory close escape from the hands of the police (personified in frequent Kinji Fukasaku collaborator Mikio Narita’s Detective Kondo) opens the film and establishes Scorpion’s new role as a convict on the run. Unlike the second film, that called back to the first with Scorpion’s ongoing feud with a sadistic prison warden, Beast Stable more or less stands alone – even the main antagonist, Katsu, an ex-con implied to have a history with Scorpion, is a new character. For the most part, Scorpion’s life as a fugitive is a tangent; the film is mostly concerned with the fate of a freelance prostitute, Yuki, who earns the ire of a gang led by Katsu and her yakuza husband when she plies her trade in their territory. By this point in the series, Scorpion seems almost resigned to the succession of terrible events that befall her, but when another woman is threatened she becomes a righteous agent of vengeance.
These two colliding storylines result in one of my favourite tropes, when Katsu captures Scorpion only for Scorpion to break free. It’s then that Katsu realises their mistake. By confining her in bizarre, crow-filled prison instead of killing her right away, Katsu has sealed the fate of the entire gang.
Beast Stable is rife with bizarre imagery like that: beyond keeping crows in a huge aviary-prison, Katsu is always dressed like a cartoon Disney villain circa the late 1980s. Skies are ugly, painted backdrops of off-putting purple hues and burning sunsets. A big chunk of the film revolves around Scorpion being cornered by the police in a series of claustrophobic storm drains, violently picking off the riot cops pursuing her, and dodging increasingly unhinged attempts to flush her out. A running plot thread is the incestuous relationship between Yuki and her brain-damaged brother, and I struggle to even articulate the intended takeaway.
As Ito put it, Scorpion is on a “tour of hell” and I suppose it’s meant to symbolise how outcast and isolated the prostitute and her brother are, in that they only have each other. A more unfortunate reading stems from the fact that in the same interview, Ito uses the Japanese word “buraku” when discussing the brother and sister and the subtitled translation didn’t seem to pick up on it; the burakumin are the modern descendants of a feudal caste isolated for their work in ‘unclean’ professions like slaughterhouses or tanneries and continue to face discrimination and ostracisation. It would potentially be either highly offensive or extremely transgressive for Ito to pin the depraved relationship on their being burakumin. On the other hand, it’s also possible he was simply describing the hamlet-like location without thinking of the connotations, and I’m reading far too much into his use of language.
Beast Stable is another solid entry in a series that transcends its exploitation roots – in many ways, it’s a real shame that Kaji is not better remembered for Female Prisoner Scorpion than she is the more flawed Lady Snowblood duology. This was Shunya Ito’s last film in the series, something he laments in interviews, before Yasuharu Hasebe (Retaliation, Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss) stepped in for the final film. The prospect of someone else taking over is both fascinating and daunting.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable / 女囚さそり けもの部屋
Director: Shunya Ito
Japanese Release Date: 29th July, 1973
Version Watched: 87 min (Arrow Video)