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Back in the late 1990s, the film schedulers of the American Cinematheque in Hollywood were partial to bizarre, overlooked international genre thrillers, the more weird the better. One of their "discoveries" was a Toei series called Female Prisoner Scorpion. These Japanese "women in prison" (WIP) pictures noted for outrageous comic book plotting, gross violence and unexpectedly beautiful visuals.
The story source was a Japanese adult Manga about a murderous female convict forever avenging herself on cruel wardens and brutal guards; when no prison officials are available any representative of the oppressive male sex will do. Star Meiko Kaji would later gain fame as a character known as "Lady Snowblood". Before the Female Prisoner Scorpion series she made a name in Nikkatsu's female biker "Stray Cat Rock" series. The switch to Toei occurred when Nikkatsu shifted to an all "Roman Porno" format to change with the times.
The second film in the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 is doubly shocking when one realizes that it was released in 1972. Just as the Yakuza and Samurai films of the early '70s were almost too extreme for American screens, this Female Prisoner Scorpion picture is years ahead of comparable American genre exploitation. At the time the idea of a movie emulating a comic book wasn't taken seriously; those that tried -- like John Frankenheimer's 99 & 44/100% Dead -- were ridiculed. Female Prisoner Scorpion is a total cinematic assault that uses its WIP premise as a springboard to launch a completely unreal, violent fantasy.
Matsu, a.k.a. Sasori (Meiko Kaji) has spent a year chained to the stone floor of her dungeon cell. Warders come in to hose her down. The nasty Inspector Goda (Fumio Watanabe) foolishly decides that Matsu is ready to join the rest of the prison population for a visit by a government official. But Matsu instead attacks Goda with a spoon she's been sharpening on the floor of her cell (with her teeth!). As punishment Goda has Matsu gang-raped where the other prisoners can see her. But they all escape while being transported in a prison bus, and Matsu becomes one of seven inmates fleeing across a weird landscape of garbage dumps and volcanic ash. They encounter a magical old woman, and take vengeance on a pair of guards that attempt to recapture them. They also have a run-in with some rape-crazy office workers on a holiday excursion. The deadly Matsu has only one thing in mind: Goda has moved on to a government job, and she wants to revenge herself on him.
Whereas the Corman New World WIPs were often ragtag no-frills productions, Female Prisoner Scorpion is a visual feast featuring highly stylized visual designs. The wide Toeiscope frame exaggerates angles, holding the wildest content in deep focus. Crowded to the left may be a huge close-up of the star Kaji, bathed in blue light, as a shower of water shoots at her from high above. Director Shunya Ito has a definite Sergio Leone thing going , alternating enormous close-ups with ultra-wide angles. His stylization goes even further to achieve startling effects. A couple of scenes feature strange pauses where everyone stands still for a moment, before the action continuesÉ effectively transforming the screen into a giant comic book panel.
Color is used to strike moods -- baleful blues bathe figures in isolation -- but also evoke more complex reactions. Matsu walks into a forest clearing, an elaborate interior set with lighting that changes with every mood swing. A flurry of red and yellow leaves blows past Matsu as she stares at the body of a woman on the ground. It's a perfect graphic statement -- both the character and the show's aggressively visual attitude are encapsuled in just a few seconds of striking images. These radical "mood swings" give Female Prisoner Scorpion a feverish, Mario Bava quality. At another juncture the water in a mountain stream suddenly changes into blood. Scenes can be alive with color and movement one second, and cold and dead the next. When it comes time to tell the stories of Matsu's fellow fugitives, Ito's camera swoops by each of the women in a hypnotic, repeated motion. Then they're all arrayed across the screen like little icons, with a huge candle frame hovering over each of them. There's not a predictable camera setup in the whole picture.
The movie dotes on mutilation. Inspector Goda nurses a right eye that Matsu jabbed out earlier (presumably in the first entry in the series) and almost loses another eye when she leaps at him like a rattlesnake. One of the unlucky rapist guards ends up with what looks like a tree trunk impaling his private parts, splayed out and left as a warning to the pursuing Goda. The only other prisoner with a standout role is Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi), who lives in a perpetual rage. She murdered her husband and child, and used a knife to slash through her belly to kill her other unborn infant. As if just telling us this were not enough, director Ito has Oba raise her blanket to reveal the exaggerated scar. When one of the group is raped by a trio of business vacationers, the fugitives hijack their bus and torment the passengers. The three rapists are made to lie on the floor naked, so as to be trod upon; as part of the terror-party atmosphere Oba has two of the women stripped as well.
Ito breaks up the violence with melodic musical interludes, sometimes with Meiko Kaji vocals. Matsu stays silent through most of the story, preferring to speak only with a knife. She quietly observes her more hysterical comrades. Matsu has been likened to a female Charles Bronson character, the silent but deadly hero template that would proliferate through martial arts movies in the 70s and 80s. She frequently stands staring through her long, jet black hair, with a deceptively stoic expression on her face. For her final revenge scene, Matsu finally gets to wear more than a ragged blanket, and stalks a modern street in a black dress and large 'mystery woman' hat.
Female Prisoner Scorpion is a standard genre film pushed to lurid extremes of shock and beauty. Assuming it was even screened in America, it would have been perceived as an outrageously piece of graphic exploitation from twenty years in the future. Its artful images have little in common with our exploitation films of the time, that are shot cheaply and trade on female nudity.
Eastern Star's DVD of Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 is a good enhanced transfer of this exotic slice of wild Japanese filmmaking. Like many color films from Japan, the image can sometimes look a bit light, but all of the key sequences make their intended impact. Hues are rich and dark -- when bright colors invade predominantly gray and blue scenes, we can almost feel the impact.
Although the packaging doesn't mention it, the disc contains a pair of interviews, with the director Shunya Ito and a longer piece with critic Risaku Kiridoushi. The interviews meander about quite a bit, lacking the organization of an extra on an AnimEigo disc. But involved Japanese genre fans will probably be more than interested. An original trailer is also included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 rates:
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