Based on the manga by Toru Shinohara, the original run of Toei's Female Prisoner Scoprion films ran for four entries, with the first (and best) of the three movies directed by Shunya Ito. Arrow Video has collected the four films and, with this boxed set release, brought them to Blu-ray for the first time (accompanied by DVD versions as well). But more on that in a bit. Let's start with the movies themselves.
Female Prisoner Scorpion #701:
The first film in the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion #701, introduces us to Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji), a beautiful young woman who makes an unfortunate mistake when she falls in love with a narc named Tsugio Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi). See, after she gives herself to him, he manages to convince her to help him out on a sting by going undercover, infiltrating an underground casino and fingering some drug dealers for him. With some trepidation, she agrees but when her cover is blown, the criminals turn on her. She is, in turn, beaten and brutally raped. Adding insult to injury, it turns out that Sugimi was only trying to take out these dealers so that he could gain the trust of a local yakuza and that now that things have turned out the way they have, he wants nothing to do with her. When she learns this, she assaults him and is in turn thrown into jail.
Once she's behind bars in the prison lorded over by Warden Godo (Fumio Watanabe), Matsu's luck goes from bad to worse. It seems that every other inmate inside the big house would love to either take advantage of her or kill her. All the guards are either on the take or rapists themselves and if they're not interested in exploiting the pretty new inmate for their own sexual desires, then they're not interested in her at all. Matsu is a lot tougher than she looks, however, and those who cross this scorpion's path will soon know her sting! Eventually, however, she and fellow inmate Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) will plan their escape…
This one works and it works well. Like all four of the films in the series, there's a substantial exploitation element here but Shunya Ito handles all of this with such impressive artistry that even when the movie is dealing in rather base elements, it's something different. Yes, in many ways the film deals in the clichés of the women in prison film genre, but rarely are women in prison films shot with such care, with such an eye for composition and with such wild, swirling, psychedelic color schemes. The visuals here alone make it worth seeing. On top of that, the film has plenty of social commentary that make it more than just a pretty looking trash film. Here the central female character is exploited constantly by the male members of Japanese society, but she constantly rises above. Outsmarting them at every turn and more than able to hold her own in a fight, Matsu will not yield to the men in her life. She does things on her own terms and with her own sense of honor. Even when she's raped (which happens a lot in the series) she will not crack.
Of course, the film also benefits from the scorching screen presence of Meiko Kaji, playing the character she's always be best known as for the first time. She brings to the role such smoldering intensity and unbridled ferocity that, even being small in stature as she is, she ensures that Matsu comes across as a true force to be reckoned with. She also sings the film's iconic theme song (which would then be recycled by Quentin Tarantino in the Kill Bill movies).
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41:
The second film in the series Jailhouse 41 was again directed by Shunya Ito. You don't necessarily need to see the first picture to understand what's going on here, though it doesn't hurt (not everyone prefers to watch these films in the order that they were made!).
When the movie begins, Matsu (Kaji again), now dubbed Scorpion by the prison warden because of her tendency to strike back at her oppressors quickly and violently, is locked in solitary confinement. Here she is gang raped by some of the guards, Matsu's got it pretty bad but is eventually let out to work on a chain gang of sorts. When Matsu and the other six women she's with decide to make an escape, they wind up leading the warden and his men on a wild chase through a mountainous area of rural Japan, an area wiped almost bare by a volcano. This eventually results in a hostage situation, an encounter with a witch, and plenty of violent carnage.
The biggest difference between the first entry in the series and this second film is how Matsu is portrayed. In the first film she had quite a bit of dialogue, in this second entry, she's almost a mute. She doesn't speak to anyone unless she absolutely has to (the exception being the scene in which she's let out of solitary and attacks the warden with a sharpened spoon, an act which finds her bound to a cross as punishment) and her involvement in the plot isn't necessarily willingly. She is, more often than not, forced into action, choosing to remain in the sidelines until she has no other choice but to react. This almost silent performance lets Kaji do what she does best, and that's play her character with body language more than anything else. She has such a seething intensity to her eyes, such a solid and frightening stare, that the film plays to her strengths this way, letting her natural looks really hammer home what her character is going through. If looks could kill, Kaji would leave a mountain of corpses in her wake.
As fantastic as Kaji is in this movie, she can't take all the credit. Much of this is due to Shunya Ito, who again directs with a masterfully surreal touch. Much like Suzuki's School Of The Holy Beast, this film shows the strong influence of a lot of European horror films being made around the same time. Expect to see all manner of colored lighting gels employed to give the film a very alien look. This is complimented by the sparse set design. There are scenes that take place outside that are very obviously shot on a set rather than a location, and while sometimes this would take away from a film like this, here it works. It almost serves to give us the impression that its taking place on a different planet.
Very straightforward in terms of the story that it's telling, the film sees Ito layering the narrative with some interesting feminist sentiment. Once again, every man in this film is despicable and the woman state, in no uncertain terms, that it was the men in their lives who led them to the criminal acts that landed them in prison. A completely surreal musical gives us background information on each of the escape prisoners, allowing each one to have a bit of personality that helps us to differentiate them from one another (they all wear matching outfits and could very easily have all basically blended into the same character had this step not been taken). However, this is basically Kaji's show all the way. Even when the other characters take center stage, she's in the background, brooding, pacing, planning and demanding our full attention.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable:
The third film was the last one to be directed by Shunya Ito. Beast Stable turns up the sleaze without sacrificing story or style, resulting in one of the best entries in the series. The movie starts off with a bang. Matsu, also called Sasori (Kaji), is on the run once more. This time out she's trying to escape nonchalantly by way of the subway. A cop comes up to her and handcuffs her to his arm. It looks like she's busted and that she'll be hauled back to jail, but no, she whips out a knife and hacks her would-be captor's arm off! Making a break for it with the handcuff still attached to her wrist and the cop's arm dangling at her side, she runs from the subway and up into the busy streets above. Matsu is, once again, destined to live her life on the run from a corrupt justice system.
She makes her way to a remote cemetery and uses her teeth to get the arm out of the cuffs to make her appearance a little less startling. It's here that a world weary prostitute named Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) discovers her. While most women would probably be shocked by what she's just seen, Yuki has lived a hard life. She has been the subject of non-stop sexual abuse thanks to her brother, a mentally unstable behemoth with a taste for rough incestuous sex. Unfortunately for both of the ladies, the Yakuza are none too keen on Yuki's way of life and they want to take her out of the picture. To take her down they dispatch Katsu (Reisen Lee), a flamboyant assassin type who ends up capturing Matsu and locking her up in a giant birdcage after roughing her up pretty severely.
Of course, Matsu busts her way out as no cage can really hold her. Sufficiently pissed off and ready to get her revenge she once more heads into the streets of the big city. Here she gets chased by the mob and the cops who still want to bring her in, led by the man whose very arm she removed in the opening scene (it should go without saying that he's not really happy about what she did to him). She heads into the sewers below the streets to rest and get her head together, and once she does, she puts her plan for revenge into motion…
This one truly has everything that a fan of Japanese exploitation films could ever want. Not only are we treated to the completely obsession inducing and unimaginably sexy Meiko Kaji in the lead for ninety-minutes, but we get sleaze, sex, and violence galore… all leading up to some seriously sweet revenge! From the opening scene where Matsu takes the cops arm to the finale where she's cornered by the cops and the Yakuza alike, Meiko Kaji is as intense as she is beautiful. Her cold hearted stare and almost completely silent performance in this film is as tough as anything given to us by the likes of Reiko Ike (of Sexy & Fury) or Miki Sugimoto (Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs), two very popular and excellent leading ladies of the pinky violence genre. As fun as she is to look at, one glance into her dark eyes shows a whole world of hurt and hatred, she's perfect in the part and it's no wonder that the Female Convict Scorpion films are the ones that she is best remembered for, even more so than the two Lady Snowblood movies she made.
That being said, as trashy as the film is in spots (and it is trashy what with the forced abortion and rape scenes), the pacing is quite deliberate. Ito knows how to let the story unfold with enough drama that we're able to care about Matsu and her prostitute pals. It's made very clear that we are supposed to understand and sympathize with their plight. This, contrasted with the nastiness that abounds, and further contrasted with the excellent set design and art direction, is what makes the movie so interesting. The sleaze of the story and the sex appeal of the leading lady definitely do their share of carrying the film but the technique behind it all is strong enough that even if some of those elements were toned down, we'd still have a very well made film.
This third film in the series manages to break some new ground in that it is definitely structured more like a drama than the women in prison/revenge film motifs used in the first two entries, albeit without removing what makes the character tick. She's still abused by men and pushed to the point where she needs to fight back. As such, the core of the character is there but there are moments in here where we see a softer side to her, and this growth and extension of Matsu' personality adds a lot to this entry.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song:
The fourth and final film in the original series finds Meiko Kaji reprising once again her most famous role for the final time, this time with a new director in the driver's seat in the form of Yasuharu Hasabe. The results are a little uneven compared to the three films that came before it, but Grudge Song still manages to get enough right that it's certainly worth a look for fans of the series.
When the movie begins, Matsu is once again on the run from the law. She tries to hide out at a wedding but the cops bust her and a scuffle ensues. She makes it away from the fuzz alive but injured and is soon found by Kudo (Masakazu Tamura of Kinji Fukasaku's excellent gender bending soap opera, Black Rose Mansion). He's a strange man who makes his living as a lighting technician at a seedy gentleman's club where finds her hiding out in the bathroom.
Kudo, curious about this woman he's found, takes her back to his place to help her rest and hide out from the law. At first, things look like they might cool down for our heroine until one of the ladies at Kudo's club rats her out to the cops. Kudo gets arrested by Matsu escapes and when they come down hard on Kudo to make him talk, he says nothing. Unfortunately, he's not smart enough to realize that once the cops let him go they'll tail him and so he inadvertently leads them right to their prize. Another chase is underway and the two fugitives put together a plan to turn things around on the cops by kidnapping the pregnant wife of the man leading the investigation. Unfortunately, things get out of hand and she falls to her death. This only serves to turn up the heat and finally they decide to split up. The cops get closer and closer as the movie comes to a close, and once more ‘Sasori''s faith in mankind is shattered to pieces.
The big difference between this film and the three that came before it is that we finally see the typically man-hating Matsu let her guard down around a member of the opposite sex. She lets herself trust Kudo fairly early on in their relationship, and it's an interesting and logical way of expanding some of the character development we see in the three movies that precede this one, Beast Stable especially. Though the police are shown to be as despicable as ever, it is interesting to see how the character reacts around a man who isn't nearly as despicable as those she has dealt with in the past and it makes for an interesting change.
Meiko Kaji is as sexy and as dangerous as she's ever been in this film, though her screen time isn't nearly as generous as it has been in the movies prior. There's as much emphasis given to Kudo's side story as there is to that of Matsu, as well as a whole lot of police related subplots. While this doesn't make for a bad movie at all, it does make this the weakest of the four movies as Kaji is really what this series is all about. As such, it suffers in the same way that Return Of The Streetfighter did. the lead we want to see (the mighty Sonny Chiba in the case of the other film) just isn't given enough time in the film.
Director Yasuharu Hasabe, who also worked with Meiko Kaji on Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, directs the film with style. Like the earlier movies in the series, Grudge Song is an interesting mix of arthouse aesthetics and exploitation raunch, and it works well. The color schemes used throughout the film in various stand out scenes, most of which involve naked ladies, is pretty trippy. This is complimented nicely by the score and on a technical level the movie is quite good. It's just a shame that Sasori herself isn't in the movie more.The Blu-ray:
Note that this review is based off of test discs, not finished retail product. For that reason, as per DVD Talk policy, no numeric grade is assigned for video/audio/extras. Additionally, as the physical 'bonus' items such as the book and DVD versions of the movies were not included with the test discs sent for review, they're not covered here either. When final retail product is provided, the review will be updated accordingly.
Here's where things get tricky. Arrow presents all four films in their original aspect 2.35.1 widescreen ratio "been exclusively restored in 2K resolution" in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. As to the ‘source' of these transfers, Arrow released a statement noting the following technical information about this release:
"A set of low-contrast 35mm prints struck from the original 35mm film elements were supplied by Toei Company, Ltd. These prints were scanned in 2K resolution on a pin-registered 4K Northlight Scanner. Picture grading was completed on a DaVinci Resolve and thousands of instances of dirt, debris and light scratches were removed using PFClean software. Overall image stability and instances of density fluctuation were also improved. All restoration work was completed at Pinewood Studios.
The images on all four Female Prisoner Scorpion films favor a noticeably cyan/blue look throughout. This look was inherent in the film materials supplied and relates to how these lab materials were created, as well as how the original elements have faded over time. With these restorations, we have aimed to present the films as close to their intended original style and appearance as possible."
How do they look? In short, sometimes they look very blue, and fairly washed out. Contrast is iffy in throughout, resulting in some of the Japanese actors looking very Caucasian with skintones that are very white, sometimes to the point where characters look like corpses! The contrast issue can sometimes wash out detail (white or really warm colored backgrounds seem to eat up edges of characters' faces!), while the teal/blue sometimes wreaks havoc with the wild color schemes that previous DVD releases of these movies have shown. So yeah, the colors and contrast levels on all four films in this set differ quite a LOT from how these movies have appeared on DVD, at least here in North America. Online comparisons to UK and Japanese DVD releases show the same issues. Did Arrow intentionally tint things blue and blow the contrast out, crush the blacks and mess with the picture? Probably not, it's very likely a case of doing the best with what was provided to them but there's no denying that something looks very off here. Some of those scenes that delve into wild psychedelic imagery just do not have the same effect when sapped of their stronger primary colors. These affect the indoor sequences less than the outdoor sequences where flora and fauna turn from green to blue, but the teal hues bath most of the sequences that take place inside the prisons as well (it's just not quite as distracting here because there's less color to be drained in the locations).
Now having said all of that, some shots look great and demonstrate reasonably nice colors. It really seems to vary from scene to scene in each movie, but all four films in the set do show the same problems (and is most noticeable on the second film for whatever reason). There are close ups where, when the contrast doesn't bloom, facial detail is impressive and there's noticeable texture in the costumes and in the backgrounds, easily trumping the previous domestic DVD releases in that department. Grain is present, sometimes to the point where it looks to swarm a bit, but there isn't much in the way of actual print damage to note. If that's enough to get you to bite, then go for it. But if you're at all familiar with how these films have looked in the past and are at all expecting the color timing to be in keeping with that, you might be in for a bit of a shock here. The end result, visually speaking, is a mixed bag: we get an increase in detail and texture sometimes, whereas other times the colors really throw a monkey wrench into things.Sound:
The four films are presented in LPCM Mono in their original Japanese language with optional white subtitles provided in English. The audio fares better but it is not without its own problem: whenever the letter ‘s' is uttered with any sort of strong annunciation there's an audible ‘ssssssssssss' that accompanies it resulting in a hiss. This is more pronounced and more noticeable in the first two films than the latter two and some might not notice it, but it is there. This was present on past DVDs as well and could very well just be inherent in the original recordings, but it seems more pronounced here. Aside from that, the audio is fine. Balance is good and there's decent depth and range to each of the four movies. The iconic theme song sounds great and really, it's quite haunting.Extras:
The extras in this set are specific to each film and play out as follows:
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion
The first film is afforded a newly filmed appreciation by filmmaker Gareth Evans (the man behind The Raid). In this twenty-four minute piece, Evans offers up his thoughts about the picture, making some interesting observations about its effectiveness, its visual style, how he came to appreciate the film, and quite a bit more. Interesting stuff. Also accompanying the first movie is a sixteen minute archival interview with director Shunya Ito from 2006 entitled Birth Of An Outlaw. In this piece, the late director talks about how he got his start in the film industry, some of his difficult experiences working within the confines of the studio system, his experiences working with Toei specifically and how certain social issues of the day tend to work their way into his films. The third and final featurette for the first film is a newly shot interview with assistant director Yutaka Kohira that runs fifteen minutes and is titled Scorpion Old And New. Here he talks about his early days behind the camera, his involvement in the first and last of the films in the series, and other projects that he's been involved with over the span of his career.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41
The second film is the recipient of a newly filmed appreciation courtesy of film critic Kier-La Janisse that runs just a hair over twenty-eight minutes. This is an interesting piece in that not only does she talk about how she was first exposed to the film after a festival screening, but it looks at the aspects of the film from a feminist angle. She talks up the tropes of both women in prison movies and rape/revenge films and makes the case that these pictures both abide by the genre conventions but also break some of those rules in their own way. There's a lot of food for thought included here, it's quite good. We also get a featurette wherein noted Japanese film critic and author Jasper Sharp spends eleven minutes discussing and elaborating on various aspects of Shunya Ito's career behind the camera. This doesn't just focus on the Scoprion films but gives us a broader overview of the man's work. Last up on this disc is the seventeen minute Designing Scoprion, which gets production designer Tadayuki Kuwana in front of the camera for a talk. Here we learn about how and why some of the series' more memorable set pieces came to be, how he worked with Ito on some of the more psychedelic moments in the film, and how/why the prison sets are dressed and put together the way that we see them in the movies.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable
The third film gets a newly filmed appreciation by film critic Kat Ellinger that clocks in at just under twenty-six minutes. Ellinger has quite a bit to say about the visuals that play such a big part in all four of the movies in this collection, and she also makes some interesting observations about the performances and the some of the moments throughout the series that have more in common with horror pictures of the day than prison or revenge films specifically. Also on hand is another archival interview with director Shunya Ito. Entitled Directing Meiki Kaji and running just under eighteen minutes, this, as you would guess, focuses on the director's relationship with his main star. He offers some interesting anecdotes about how their relationship evolved over the course of the three films Ito directed in this series, how they didn't always get along at first but eventually came to be quite close, and his thoughts on her work in front of the camera. Last but not least, the third film also gets a new visual essay on the Kaji's career by critic Tom Mes entitled Unchained Melody. Here Mes spends about twenty-one minutes talking not only about her iconic turn in the four films featured here, but also some of her other feature film roles as well as her work as a chanteuse and about some of her work on Japanese television.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song
The fourth and final film in this collection receives another newly filmed appreciation, this time courtesy of filmmaker Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (who directed the fantastic Kichiku: Banquet Of The Beasts) that was released domestically on DVD some years ago by Artsmagic). This is shorter than the other pieces at just over eleven minutes in length but here Kumakiri talks about the influence that these, and other, Meiko Kaji starring pictures influenced his own work as a director, particularly in terms of their visual style. A twenty-minute archival interview with director Yasuharu Hasebe entitled Finishing The Series. As you'd assume from the title, this piece also recorded in 2006, lets Hasebe discuss his work on this final film in the run and what went into following Ito's first three films in the series. Jasper Sharp shows up again for a seventeen minute piece that complements the interview, in that it examines the cinematic life and times of Yasuharu Hasebe, disussing not only Grudge Song but other entries in his filmography too. Sharp also makes the case that the man's films should grow to find a wider audience, and discusses some of the filmmakers who came before him and would seem to have had an influence on his output. Last but not least, Tom Mes also comes back for a second feataure, this time with They Call Her Scorpion. In this forty-minute segment, Mes goes quite in-depth on some of the socio-political themes that so clearly run rampant throughout all four of the movies in this collection. So too does he cover what makes the films as visually arresting as they are, the importance of Kaji's work in the pictures and a fair bit more.
Each disc also includes original theatrical trailers for each film in the set, menus and chapter selection.
As this is a combo pack release we get four DVDs included inside the set alongside the Blu-ray discs. These DVDs feature standard definition version of the same transfers found on the Blu-ray discs and carry over the same extra features found on those discs. The discs all fit into a sturdy cardboard box along with a double-sided fold out poster of two original pieces of poster art. Each film gets its own case that houses the Blu-ray and the DVD discs, and that also contains a reversible sleeve with vintage poster art on one side and featuring newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan. Also included in the box with the discs is a hardcover book that contains a selection culled from Tom Mes' upcoming book, Unchained Melody: The Films of Meiko Kaji. Also in the book is a reprinted archival interview with Meiko Kaji, and a new interview with Toru Shinohara (the creator of the original Female Prisoner Scorpion manga) and credits for the movies and the boxed set release.Final Thoughts:
Arrow's release of Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection is beautifully packaged and packed with an impressive array of supplements, the kind that fans of the series should absolutely appreciate. It's also marred by some transfer issues that simply cannot be ignored. These will understandably bother some viewers more than others, but right or wrong, the films really do look quite different here than past presentations. The movies themselves, however, are excellent, so we'll go ahead and recommend this based on the strength of the movies and the supplements with the caveat that the visual presentation is definitely not consistent with past presentations.