By Keri O’Shea
Imagine a sequence of films, emanating from Japan over forty years ago, which melded – literally – riotously strong female characters with insurrection, violence, sexuality and even the odd dash of social commentary. ‘Women in prison’ films (for the most part) like no other, the Female Convict movies (or ‘Female Prisoner’, in the translation being used by Arrow) are completely unique in 70s cult cinema – a well-crafted, artistic foray into the genre which soon superseded it, with the various films looking one minute like an arthouse project, the next a pure exploitation venture, and the next, something Sergio Leone would have been proud to call his own. Ambitious, beautifully well-made – but only available piecemeal until now, in a handful of releases in the US and Europe over the past ten to fifteen years, give or take. Perhaps in part because lead actress Meiko Kaji has resurfaced in cult film consciousness via her influence on, and singing on (!) in Kill Bill (say what you like about Quentin Tarantino, but he has introduced a lot of people to interesting films via his own fandom and references in his work) and of course thanks to the efforts of Arrow, who have already released some of Meiko’s early work, such as Blind Woman’s Curse, an appetite has developed for these films to be released in one definitive version – which, with this four-film box set, Arrow have delivered.
Because of the extraordinary type of these movies, made during a frenetic period of activity between just 1972-74, I’m going to avoid a lengthy review of each. For one thing, with four films in all, this would turn into a fairly lengthy, probably tedious read. Instead, save for a quick discussion of the barest details of each movie, I’m going to explain why these films are more than worthy of your time, in the hopes that if you haven’t encountered these films, you will. Slight bias? You betcha. These films are an absolute feast.
The first film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) quickly introduces us to Matsu, sometimes Nami (Meiko), a notorious convict making an attempted escape alongside one companion – the only person in the prison she seems to not disregard or loathe completely. This attempt fails and Matsu is punished horribly, spending a large share of the film hogtied…and utterly, utterly silent, whatever is being done to her. The corrupt cop who fitted her up is still worried about the implacable Matsu, however, and wants her assassinated inside the prison. Matsu fights for survival, a victim of unprecedented brutality by the guards, still quietly driven by her own desire for revenge – and the circumstances which arise from her treatment allows a few changes to take place…
Made later the same year, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) has many of the same plot devices, with Matsu now being openly referred to by her nickname – ‘Sasori’ (Scorpion) – and when we meet again, she has spent a whole year in isolation. She gets a short reprieve due to the arrival of an official who wishes to see all the inmates, and she of course takes her chances to escape again – though not before her rage and indignity is increased sevenfold by a ‘correctional’ rape. Alongside a new clutch of, in my opinion, a more fearsome group of convicts, including the incomparable Ôba, they and Sasori flee across and incredibly beautiful, if desolate landscape, back to civilisation – where the havoc of their lives and that which brought them to their current state turns out to be a deeply unsettling prospect for those they encounter, be they pursuing wardens, those once close to them, or members of the public.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) is the first film to differ from the ‘women in prison’ genre, turning instead into something of a yakuza thriller, with the renegade Sasori trying to live incognito, albeit that the opening scene rather blows her cover in a spectacularly grisly and almost comic way. This, our first protracted glimpse of life beyond the jailhouse walls, lacks the pace of the first two films, but the by-now characteristic flashes of ultraviolence and exploitation still link arms effectively with artistic shots and content. Another interesting aspect of the film is in its glimpses of urban sprawl and poverty, factors which eventually justify Nami’s ongoing and quenchless pursuit of vengeance for wrongs.
With the departure at this point of director Shunya Itô, I feel that the series could easily have wound to a close. However, there was one more part yet to come: Female Prisoner Scorpion #701: Grudge Song (1974). Here, the character of Sasori probably undergoes the biggest changes to date, saying more (which breaks a spell, of sorts) and committing a range of crimes which seem to show her as amoral or even immoral, rather than an agent of justice – which she has plausibly been until this point. Still, the symbolism is there for the asking, and the ongoing theme of police brutality is given free rein here. There are many strengths in the film, and so to an extent to call it the weakest of the four is not to damn it too much with faint praise. Considering the issues of a directorial swap mid-way through a series, this is still an accomplished movie which looks brilliant.
So, how to sum this set of films up…
Under the incredibly skilled hand of director Shunya Itô – who was at the helm for the first three of the films, before handing over to Yasuharu Hasebe for Grudge Song (himself a talented fella who had previously directed Meiko Kaji in the Stray Cat Rock films, though had a rather different style) – these movies are the very embodiment of the ‘broiling pot’ which encapsulates so many women in prison films, all frustrated sexuality, rivalry, high emotions and violence as an ever-present force. But – and with the greatest of respect to the many WIP films which have all of those elements and use them very well – it’s never, ever been handled in such a painterly, exploratory way as the Female Prisoner Scorpion films.
These films certainly use exploitation elements, and don’t shy away from what can be described in no other way than reprehensible plot lines – rape, beatings, psychological torment, humiliation – but these interludes are balanced against an almost delicate understanding of colour, camera angle, choreography and photography – particularly, I feel, in the first two films. And it all works together so seamlessly. For example, in the second film: a hijacked vehicle scene permits some catharsis for the women, straight after the passengers – men who had fought in World War II – have finished boasting of their rapes of Chinese women. The tables are turned, the men are being singularly tormented for the women’s pleasure, and yet ten seconds later, Sasori, simply looking out of the window as they pass through a tunnel, is transported into a dreamscape – one where primary colours light tableaux of the women’s initial crimes being performed, and act as foreshadowing, showing her internal life in a very different way than her largely mute, if still completely striking, performance (she actually speaks just a handful of words during this entire film, and none until almost the close, without missing a beat in terms of strong characterisation.)
These are, throughout, very physical women, demonic instead of demure, where scenes of their prostration (such as rape) make the men look endlessly like clowns and caricatures, but simply send the women inwards – where they wait, Sasori and the others, ready to explode into violence. Meiko Kaji is, throughout the first three films, almost otherworldly. Indeed, the trials this actress went through for the part (such as being drenched with freezing water in the second film – warm water would have created steam and destroyed the effect, see) combine with her taciturn, cold presence and make her seem more like a supernatural force than a woman. Yet for all her single-minded cruelty, it’s impossible (for me at least) not to like her a great deal, perhaps Grudge Song notwithstanding. It all works, perhaps also because of the expected fragility of such a petite young woman, particularly in the Japanese culture of the day.
And as for Japan, whilst the films don’t hammer home any political messages per se, you may be pleasantly surprised to pick up on some of the layers of symbolism therein: the Japanese flag becomes a dab of blood on occasions, or forms the backdrop to a hurled blade in the first movie; the women in the prison rose garden in the first film accidentally give themselves Geisha-painted lips as they discuss their frustrated sex drives; there are teasing references to Japanese kabuki theatre or traditional music throughout the films. So – this all leads us to one of the most iconic Japanese actresses ever to grace our screens, in a unique and strongly-drawn role, amongst a whole host of agents of feminine strength and cruelty, filmed by visually-creative artists who have made films sharp enough to accommodate a whole wealth of styles and subtle symbols, too.
The Arrow release is, as I have suggested, the definitive deal, containing all of the films in their entirety: the prints look good, though the third film retains a rather grainy veneer, and the audio is solid throughout. This all brings me, however, to a rare smattering of criticisms. Firstly – the main cover art for this is rather lacklustre. No personal disrespect intended towards the artist, but this isn’t the usual calibre for an Arrow release, neither clearly in keeping with the manga style to my eye (which I dislike actually, but would tie in with the films’ origins) nor showing the draftsmanship I’ve come to expect. It surely takes some doing to make Meiko Kaji look ugly. Sorry. However, I haven’t seen the fold-outs or other materials, so these may be another story altogether.
Then we come to the now obligatory plethora of extras on the discs, and I’ll be the first to admit my heart tends to sink when I get a review disc packed with ‘special features’ because for the most part, I find special features rather unnecessary and laboursome. Were I not reviewing the release, I’d very likely not watch them at all; a quick straw poll on Twitter shows that many people disagree with me, mind you, but this is my own proviso for what follows. So, here, we have the usual trailers and chapters, some interesting input, such as from the art director Tadayuki Kuwana and director Shunya Itô, but also something called ‘appreciations’, half an hour or so apiece, which mean fans/critics talking you back through the film you’ve just seen – something I can’t see the point of, honestly. It would have been amazing to have had some new footage with Meiko Kaji, but sadly this hasn’t come to pass; ultimately I would say that, of all the special features, it’s the archive extras which lend the greatest insight, which suggests to me that the rush to add one’s own extras to a remastered release may reflect more what viewers expect than what they want, and extras may now also be a key consideration to justify the purchase price, when the films chosen for release should justify that in and of themselves.
Happily, here, the films do justify it in spades, and I have no hesitation in recommending these movies. They really are extraordinary pieces of work and you will not find their like anywhere else.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection will be released as a limited edition by Arrow Video on August 8th 2016.