Joshū Nana-maru-ichi Gō / Sasori, 1972
Meiko Kaji was twenty five years of age when she took on the role that would define her as a cult icon. She boldly moved to Toei Studios, having been disparaged by Nikkatsu’s new direction in making roman-porno movies, which they had naturally wished for her to partake in. Although she still left behind some notable works, in particular the Stray Cat Rock series, new doors opened up for her, which helped seal her reputation. 1972 saw the first of a four-part series known as Female Prisoner Scorpion, in which she appeared as the downtrodden heroine Nami “Matsu” Matsushima. Helming the first picture, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was Shunya Ito making his debut; the first of three pictures – which were all made within a one year period – that he would direct.
Based on Toru Shinohara’s manga of the same name, the story tells the tale of Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) who has been sent to prison after attempting to kill her ex-boyfriend and corrupt police officer Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi). Sugimi had used her as yakuza bait after buttering her up with his wiley charm, but little did he know that it would soon be his biggest mistake. While in prison Matsu attempts to escape, but she’s quickly caught and sent into solitary confinement, which in turn screws everything else up for her fellow inmates, who are now facing punishment for her disobedient acts. These women soon make her time spent at the prison very uncomfortable, in addition to trying to fight off the evil police officers who run the joint. But Matsu is left undeterred; her only focus is getting out and wreaking revenge on the man who set her up and not even a dozen police men and the prison’s entire population is going to prevent her from doing so.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is something of an intimate piece of work; its production values lending themselves to a cold and concerning climate, whereby any atrocity witnessed within the walls of Matsu’s enclosure is echoed a thousand times over. The exploitation films of the sixties and seventies that we can attribute Roman Porno and Pinku Violence to were often laced with subtle social commentary, although certainly various directors like Norifumi Suzuki, Chusei Sone and Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, took many liberties with their material. Certainly for the most part the Pinku Violence flicks were far too outlandish and humorous to hammer home any fierce statement, but nonetheless they had merit and oodles of style. In that respect Shunya Ito’s debut feature isn’t much different: yes it portrays an abusive legal system, whereby prison wardens and police officers take advantage of their watch and indeed it depicts low-end tolerance throughout, but equally so it delivers some gruelling visuals, comic inspiration and tense encounters.
Much of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion’s impact relies on the corruption that it speaks of; the basis of such incarceration is to reprogram and reform criminals so that they might be released back into society in order to start life anew is one fraught with contradiction, as officers mercilessly beat and ridicule every inmate they come into contact with. Ito paints events in very black and white terms, as we see convicts being violated beyond justice regulations, prompting a rise against the system. However, the director also spends as much time on trying to have the majority of fellow inmates attempt to kill Matsu, who has somehow managed to cloud their judgement toward more obvious opposing factors.
With the prison setting being the primary focus throughout it doesn’t appear as if Shunya Ito has much room to play with, but he manages to surprise us with his bag of tricks, and while not all of them are entirely original some are unquestionably effective. The director stages his film quite masterfully, beginning with an elaborate chase sequence set throughout marshland, which introduces us to Matsu and her friend Yuki. From here onward his camera voyeuristically leans on the daily workings of prison life, where guards look on starry-eyed as naked convicts pass them by one by one. Ito goes on to utilise several interesting framing devices, much in the vein of a manga brought to life, including a fifth wall, or rather a glass floorboard technique reminicent of Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess, put into effect one year prior. He also develops some unique camera movements during fight sequences, which do plenty to compliment the disorienting action; occasionally deviating into surreal territory and harking back to other directors such as Seijun Suzuki and Norifumi Suzuki, with several artistic flourishes that bare far greater impact as metaphorical aids. It’s a gradual progression, with characters early on being equipped with almost demonic qualities: Masaki’s (Yoko Mihara) plan against Matsu back-firing, subsequently turning her into an demonic vision is but a taster of Ito’s hidden talent to unnerve in unusual ways. Likewise, as he approaches the final act, in which the female convicts lead a huge revolt against their suppressors, he paints a literal Hellish landscape, with extreme emphasis placed on swirling red skies, which forewarn a bleak outcome.
Much like Miki Sugimoto in her Zero Woman outing two years later, Meiko Kaji’s tailored role of Matsu draws familiar parallels: both women are driven by revenge in relation to someone they once trusted and similarly they bare the same passive façade, where only their eyes and subtle body language deliver the message that all those who oppose them will end up face down on a cold slab. It’s a bone of contention when trying to unravel the personality behind the characters, because in terms of what we see on film we never truly get an understanding of what these heroines were like before they were traumatized. In Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, for example, we’re only led to believe that Matsu had lived a happier existence prior to her betrayal. Where we might be taken deeper into a particular character’s history, had it been made anywhere else, we find that as with most exploitation films from Japan it’s more about getting into the action and less about delivering what might be considered measly padding. After all the audiences of the time were never going to see these features for anything else other than boobs and blood-letting. If one is willing to let go of the fact that Matsu is something of an elusive figure, much like Sugimoto’s Rei, and that they can simply support her and cheer her on as she enacts furious revenge against corrupt officials, then there’s a lot of fun to be had. For that matter Kaji isn’t half that bad, despite a thinly veiled script and a huge lack of dialogue, which was incidentally at the behest of the actress, so that she could convey far more with her natural assets – much in the same way that other celebrated icons such as Christina Lindberg and Sugimoto worked best at doing. But it was also an era in which female protagonists seen in such motion pictures only reached equality after being manipulated, or having had the shit kicked out of them. These figures have to earn respect by dishing out the same levels of violence upon their tormentors, which may not make them perfect heroines in the strictest sense, but at least they’re woman who kick major ass and look great doing so.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion could be considered tame, next to the standards set by its forbearers and even those since, but this is clearly by design and there is still no denying its effectiveness. It’s suitably brutal and charged with a unique display from Meiko Kaji, while being equally ridiculous thanks to some stereotyped villains and scenarios that our heroine somehow – magically perhaps – gets herself out of.