by Jason Suzuki
There are three film series for which Meiko Kaji is mainly known for: the Stray Cat Rock Series, the two Lady Snowblood films, and the four in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series (editor's note: also Wandering Ginza Butterfly to avoid know-it-alls knowing it all). Her talent and her appeal as an actress in these genre works can be distilled and epitomized in her performance as Nami Matsushima aka Scorpion. Meiko Kaji plays her almost silent, framed by curtains of flowing black hair that can drape in front of her face while still exposing her cool stare. Taking an amount of abuse and betrayal that would kill most icons, exploitation or otherwise, these films are a showcase of solidarity and persistence. Not only is her character proven to be extremely iconic from references in such cult hits like Kill Bill and more amusingly Love Exposure, it can be argued that these films are just flat out better made than the other series. With a clear radical, anti-establishment edge and a freedom to experiment thank to Shunya Ito and Yasuharu Hasebe, the Female Prisoner films are dynamic and not as gratuitous as they would have been had they been made over at Nikkatsu thanks to their feminine subjectivity. Arrow has released a package of the four films with much historical significance for those in the know and a few appreciations for those who may disagree with the gratuitous elements of the film.
Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (Shunya Ito, 1971)
Like most filmmakers at the time, Shunya Ito cut his teeth as assistant director before making his debut feature. This gives the first entry into the series the type of wild energy that only a first time director can give. The feel that anything is possible as they are bursting with ideas. This sort of bursting creativity and a penchant for theatrics to maintain a low budget while at the same time incorporating a Brechtian distance/visually stunning experience while call to mind the works of Seijun Suzuki, who Ito happened to be assistant director under. At Toei Ito had the inimitable Meiko Kaji try out for the role of Nami Matsusushima/Scorpion. Abandoning Nikkatsu in the wake of their production shift towards the roman porno Kaji was uncertain of the material, and some of the illicit qualities of the work, but once she read the manga by Toru Shinohara she was on board.
In many ways the first film in the series is indeed the best one. Not only does it have that first time filmmaker energy from Ito, Kaji saw it as the culmination of her time being typecast as the convict role, meaning she was going to give it her all despite reducing the amount of her lines to becoming almost silent. While the next two installment would go further in terms of their surrealism and incorporation of the taboo and the overtly political, which is why they prove to be the favorites of the die hards of the franchise, the first film still retains many of those elements in more palatable fashion. The first film is also the least rapey of them all. Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion would have the most complete arc for Matsushima and establish the trend of betrayal followed by retaliatory stinging conclusion, and the fantastic supporting roles for other women seen in each further entry. Rie Yokohama shines as Matsushima's main non-male foe in the film, her performance will only be upstaged by Kayoko Shiraishi in the next film.
Female Prisoner 701: Jailhouse 41 (Shunya Ito, 1971)
The next outing for Scorpion is where things to start to get really good; the material becomes more challenging and the visuals more experimental. After being gang raped by some guards and then gang-beaten by a group of fellow prisoners, Scorpion makes her escape along with the women who beat her. While on the run their backstories are revealed and we are forced to confront issue after issue from rape, Japanese WWII war crimes, public indifference towards prisoners, the treatment of prisoners by guards, the treatment of women towards other women and so on. The film tackles a lot and is both beautiful in its hellish execution and hard to watch because of matters tackled.
Kayoko Shiraishi gives an ugly and audacious performance as Oba, a woman who killed her kids upon the discovery of her husband's infidelity, even stabbing the child out of her pregnant stomach. Shiraishi is perfectly counter-suited to Kaji's now virtually silent portrayal of Scorpion. Stoicism butts heads with Lady Macbeth level madness between the two women. Once again Ito blends artistic traditions mixing traditional Japanese theater with song narration reminiscent of joruri with the play with color and constructed sets ala Suzuki. The occasional handheld sequences, specifically in the prisoners's takeover of a bus housing some casual rapists and man proud of his life during wartime (his time in China which should be a strong indicator to everyone), recalls Ito's contemporaries such as Oshima and Wakamatsu. There is nothing pink about the violence depicted in the film.
Female Prisoner 701: Beast Stable (Shunya Ito, 1972)
My personal favorite of the series, the third entry presents what will become the height of taboo and visual presence of both Ito and Kaji, her performance showing newfound feral qualities at first and then her attempts to rehabilitate herself back into society when she takes up a sowing factory job. After a subway getaway in which she dismembers the arm of the detective she is handcuffed to, she is taken in by prostitute Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe in her second time playing a character named Yuki in the series) who has an incestuous relationship with her mentally ill brother. Beast Stable spends the least amount of time in an actual prison, replacing it with the jail qualities of the outside world. By relating the day to day existence of Yuki and Name to actual imprisonment is a continuation of the previous films' examination of women's issues at the time.
Despite still not saying much, Kaji gives the most varied performance as Nami/Sasori. Brief instances of vulnerability never weaken the character as we are still kept at a distance, never knowing her next move. The paths that intersect in Beast Stable are another reason this feels incredibly dynamic. Yuki and her brother, a crime syndicate led by former cellmate to Sasori played by Reisen Lee, a hotshot who lives in the same building as Nami who plans to force her into sex, his jealous wife, and the one armed detective out to get the prisoner who got away with his arm are all orbiting around Nami and interact in natural ways. Ito on the other hand gives direct shout out to Bunuel when Nami, before setting off on the Sasori revenge finale, takes the scalpel of an abortionist and moves it along her eye line Un chien andalou style.
Female prisoner 701: Grudge Song (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1972)
Feeling as though he had done all he could with the Scorpion series, Shunya Ito decided not to work on a fourth installment, despite being offered complete freedom by Toei. They were able to convince Kaji however despite her only wanting to do one, and before that not wanting to do it at all. She brought on Yasuharu Hasebe from Nikkatsu, a director whom she had worked with before when she being branded as the dour, innocent type (Retaliation) and also working with him when she was re-branded into what we remember her for: the outlaw badass in the Stray Cat Rock films. Ito's departure make Grudge Song the weakest entry but Hasebe and Kaji did not phone it in at all. Despite their best efforts they can't stop the fourth film from sticking out in negative ways.
Credit must be given to Hasebe's direction as he did not try to upend the visual groundwork Ito and company had made in the previous three films. Still with fewer surrealist flourishes (the majority of them pictured below) and a lighter tone in the "on-the-run" portion of the film, it feels out of place with the rest. If Beast Stable is the peak then Grudge Song is the steady tread downwards. Nami befriends a disfigured man Kudo (Masakazu Tamura) whose physical and mental scars are from the police brutality his time as a student protester was met with. This set up has all the elements for her redemption as it maintains the political subtext of the previous films and would provide the next passage of her life as Kudo is the first positive relationship she has had with a man since her initial betrayal. While on its own the film is incredibly enjoyable yet personally it strengthens Ito's decision to not continue on with the series.
Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly depending on your familiarity with the internet, Arrow's set has proven to be somewhat controversial regarding the transfers of the films themselves. Across all four films a teal tone is favored throughout; the amount and regularity of this teal looks varies from scene to scene as well as from film to film. If you have the Tokyo Shock DVDs released previously (which you might want to keep despite their washed out look depending on how you feel about the new transfers), or if you watch the original film trailers that are included in the set, you will see a more normal look to the film. Here is the statement Arrow offered in the wake of these early reviews:
A set of low-contrast 35mm prints struck from the original 35mm film elements were supplied by Toei Company, Ltd. 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.
Regardless of whether you think Arrow could have done more with the fading, they have done some great work in the supplements department which make the release substantial for fans of the films and those involved. Critic Kier-La Janisse (author of House of Psychotic Women) has a filmed appreciation of the films, specifically the second one which was her introduction to the series. Consistently insightful she does spend much time arguing for the existence of subtext within the films. It seems unnecessary as the political aspects are clear from the first film and onwards. Other appreciations for the films are delivered by critic Kat Ellinger and filmmakers Gareth Evans (The Raid) and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts) specifically the first and fourth films respectfully. Archival interviews with Ito and newly filmed interviews with the assistant director and production designer offer insight into why Ito did not return for the fourth film.
It is the pieces from the Midnight Eye boys Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, who thankfully are popping up on more and more home video releases since the dissolving of their site, that make this set integral. A wonderful visual essay by Mes on the career of Meiko Kaji entitled "Unchained Melody" gives some much needed information on her early career at Nikkatsu and her post-Toei star vehicles. Western exposure to her work has most certainly been curated with an eye favoring exploitation and easily iconic characters. Mes delivers another look at a women who chose roles as an actress and not a star, preferring challenge over spotlight. His other visual essay goes over the series as a whole, the most interesting bits are the attempts Toei made to revive the series over the years ever since Kaji and company declined to continue after the fourth. There are also two short overviews of the careers of the series' two directors by Sharp which will hopefully spark interest for fans as well as Arrow themselves to hopefully release more work from Ito specifically. Sharp's look at the work Ito did following the three Scorpion films shows a man whose career is hard to pin down and has not seen any real exposure outside of Japan, even on the festival circuit; Sharp lists an English title for one of Ito's films based off of a single screening at a Canadian film festival. Sharp has much more to say about Hasebe's career as more of it has been made available.
While the issue over the transfers and whether or not it is accurate to the way in which they were intended to look might be a dealbreaker for some, this set has so much more going for it beyond the films. Without saying anything in either film or supplement, Kaji steals the show, this set offering a closer look at her nuance and aspirations as an actress and what this series meant for her both good and bad. And honestly, given the high stylization of the films, the look fits right in, sort of a precursor to the type of monochrome in A Snake of June. For a series in which Kaji recorded the same theme song four different times, one vocal performance for each film, Arrow have matched that love. For those on the fence I say get it as it's a limited edition and try out the look for yourself. Film can fade and can be improperly stored causing more damage, given how often Arrow has delayed releases for one reason or another (just today they announced the pushing of their Raising Cain release to next year), I find it hard to believe that they wouldn't have delayed this set if they felt they could have done something extra. Once again they have released a must have set, only this time with an asterisk that I believe most will get over once they dive into the films and let their beauty and riveting visuals and lead grab hold.
"Films don't need to be wholesome as they're enjoyed in the darkness." -Kazuyoshi Kumakiri
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.