Mixing exploitation with politics and formal experimentation, the Female Prisoner Scorpion series created a mythical female avenger that fired off the imagination of 1970s Japanese audiences. It sparked numerous sequels, although none ever came close to the original three films, directed by Shunya Itô and starring Meiko Kaji. Adapted from Tôru Shinohara’s violent manga, it was Itô’s first directorial effort, pairing him with the charismatic Kaji, who was known for the 1970 girl gang action series Stray Cat Rock. After Itô left the Female Prisoner Scorpion series in 1973, Yasuharu Hasebe, who had directed Kaji in Stray Cat Rock, made one more episode, the last to feature the actress whose dagger-like glare and silky black mane had by then come to define the character.
Released in 1970, Female Prisoner Scorpion #701 shows how the naïve Nami Matsushima turned into the stoic, silent assassin nicknamed Sasori (‘Scorpion’). As she lies shackled on the floor of a bleak cell, a flashback reveals how she was seduced by a crooked cop who cruelly betrayed her to serve his nefarious schemes. After a failed revenge attempt, Sasori is sent to prison, but despite the abuse to which she is subjected, the authorities cannot break her spirit.
Made shortly after the failure of the student protests in Japan, #701 is the most political of the three films directed by the left-leaning Itô. It opens as Sasori attempts to escape during an official ceremony at the prison, over which floats the Japanese flag, her action directly undermining the male authority being celebrated. It would be easy to see Sasori as a feminist heroine, but although Itô’s sympathies clearly lie with her (and other female characters in the series), he is more interested in the fact that as a, by nature powerless, woman in a profoundly misogynistic society, Sasori embodies the most radical form of rebellion against the corrupt and repressive male-dominated social order.
The unexpected success of #701 led to the creation of a series that the Toei studio hoped to be long-running. With Jailhouse 41 Itô fully turned Sasori into a myth, a lone rebel apart from any social group, too far beyond common human strictures to enter into any kind of relationship. With no reference to the original betrayal that set her on her vengeful path, Sasori becomes the incarnation of pure individual revolt against brutal authority. Stylistically, Jailhouse 41 is the most deliriously inventive of all four films, and arguably the most accomplished, with the visual flourishes and theatricality already present in #701 developed into a wildly fanciful, symbolic tale. Desolate landscapes, bloodied waterfalls and autumnal woods create the expressive background of Sasori’s detached resistance to the violence and aggression that seem to characterise all human relationships.
It is to Itô’s credit that with Beast Stable he attempted to break the rules he had established in the first films. Although Sasori is initially presented as a near-demonic creature in a nightmarish cemetery sequence, Itô also attempts to humanise her. A friendship of sorts develops between her and Yuki, a tragic prostitute forced to look after her severely disabled brother’s needs, including sexual. There is a more grotesque side to this film, seen also in Sasori’s nemesis, a flamboyantly sadistic lady gang boss who keeps a murder of pet crows. The animal associations run through the film, suggesting a vision of humanity as irredeemably bestial, whether brutishly carnal or savagely predatory. And yet, the central female friendship offers a glimmer of hope and moments of poetry, such as when Yuki drops fleetingly lit matches down dark sewers in search of the fugitive Sasori. Beast Stable is full of such memorable images, but it was the last film to be directed by Itô, who felt he had done everything he could with the character.
Desperate for the lucrative series to continue, Toei hired Yasuharu Hasebe to direct #701’s Grudge Song with Meiko Kaji. Although both director and star make a valiant effort, it is the weakest of the four films. Much less visually adventurous than its predecessors, it is also more overtly political, with explicit reference made to the 1960s student protests. The focus switches to Teruo, a former political activist irreparably scarred after being tortured during police interrogation, which relegates Sasori to a more passive role. The relationship that develops between them, the first one Sasori has had with a man since the initial film, seemed intended to further humanise her, but only weakens the character.
Meiko Kaji went on to star as another iconic avenger in the influential Lady Snowblood films while Itô turned to award-worthy social-issue films. Together they have created an endurable myth, stylistically audacious and artistically ambitious, not to mention enormously entertaining. This lovingly produced release from Arrow does it justice, with its high-quality transfer, 56-page booklet and a wealth of informative extras.
Review published in Sight & Sound, Vol. 26, no. 11 (November 2016).
Picture credit: Female Convict Scorpion – Jailhouse 41 (Dir. Shunya Itô, 1972).