Eye For Film >> Movies >> Female Prisoner Scorpion Trilogy (2009) Film Review
If the women-in-prison (or WIP) flick represents one of the lowest subgenres of cinema, then glowering jailbird Nami Matsushima - known as Matsu to her friends, and as Sasori (or 'Scorpion') to her enemies – is the elevated queen of the trashheap.
She first appeared as the foul-mouthed lady avenger in Tooru Shinohara's popular adult manga series (begun in 1970), before newbie director Shunya Ito transformed her into a near-silent avatar of feminine resistance to male fascism. Here collected into a single boxset by Eureka!, Ito's trilogy of unforgettable Scorpion films was made at breakneck speed between 1972 and 1973, and stars cult exploitation actress Meiko Kaji (of the Stray Cat Rock and Lady Snowblood franchises) in a performance of incomparable steely sullenness. She also sings the theme 'grudge' song Urami-bashi, which was borrowed, along with some of Ito's more defiantly genre-busting stylisations, by Quentin Tarantino for the Kill Bill films.
The first of Ito's films, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), is in many ways the most conventional, with all the stock WIP motifs - unjustly imprisoned protagonist, sadistic warden, badass inmates, rampant lesbianism, vicious fighting, raping, rioting, and the ever-obligatory shower scenes – present and correct. Yet it (mis)matches this with the visual sophistication of an arthouse picture, while (ab)using images of the Japanese flag (seen at the beginning saluted by vicious male guards, in the middle figured as Matsu's virginal blood on a white sheet, and at the end flapping in silhouette over a treacherous cop's bloody body) to subvert traditional notions of patriarchal authority in Japan. It is one hell of a calling card for a first-time director.
The second, and best, film of the trilogy, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972), opens with Matsu, tightly bound and half-naked in a dank underground cell, still trying to dig through the solid stone floor with a spoon that she clenches defiantly between her teeth – and from that point on, neither brutal prison guards, nor murderous fellow inmates, nor holidaying rape-minded Pacific War veterans, nor even the expectations of genre itself, prove able to contain the irrepressible convict for long. As Matsu and six other escapees break out of their WIP confines, they must traverse a strange, nightmarish cinematic landscape, somewhere between classical tragedy (complete with formal chorus) and spaghetti western (jew's harp and ponchos!), where they come to embody the very spirit of women's liberation. A climactic scene may unfold in a junkyard, in celebration of the trashy roots, but Ito's experiment is as refined a work of art as they come, and one of the boldest grindhouse experiences of the Seventies.
Last, and bleakest by far, is Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973), an uncharacteristically downbeat and sombre affair in which even the implacable Matsu herself is at one point reduced to tears by what she sees. Shot with all the dark shadows, endless rain and moral ambivalence of a film noir, it is less outrageous and more brooding than its two predecessors, and while it boasts moments of genuine visual beauty (witness the flickering matches that shower down into the dark, damp sewer where Matsu has taken refuge), a focus on abortion and incest ensures that the universe of Beast Stable is a determinedly grim one where children, and the hope for the future that they might bring, have no place. Matsu may from the start be out of the joint and on the run (at least until an ambiguous return to penitentiary 'life' in the coda), but Ito makes the whole of Japan, outside or inside, seem like one big prison from which any escape is either short-lived or illusory.
Meiko Kaji would appear one last time as Matsu in Yasuharu Hasebe's middling Female Prisoner Scorpion #701's Grudge Song (1973), before herself bowing out of the project – and though there have been several subsequent attempts in the second half of the Seventies and in the Nineties to revive Matsu for new audiences – and even a fresh reimagining, called simply Sasori, as recently as 2008 - none has shown the special spark that Ito and Kaji together brought to the character. This is exploitation cinema of the highest order, and should not be missed by anyone who likes their genre filmmaking with an adventurous edge that knows no restraint.Reviewed on: 12 Apr 2009