Japanese cinema became something of an epicentre for the exploitation movie world in the late 1960s and 70s. After Nikkatsu’s youth orientated action movies ran out of steam and the company descended headlong into its era as a producer of softcore pornography known as “Roman Porno”, several of its high profile cast and crew members understandably jumped ship. One such actress was Meiko Kaji, who had played several different kinds of roles at Nikkatsu from an earnest innocent in Retaliation to a hard bitten groovy hippy chick in the Stray Cat Rock series. Landing at Toei, Kaji quickly took on the role that was to make her a star and pop-culture icon as the titular heroine of the Female Prisoner Scorpion series.
Kaji played the “Sasori” or scorpion of the title in four different outings, each completed between 1972 and 1973. The series did continue without her in a kind of “reboot” imaginatively titled “New Female Prisoner Scorpion” but was never really the same. In fact even the fourth film is a severe departure from the original trilogy as director Shunya Ito viewed the Scorpion cycle as complete and left the project whereupon Stray Cat Rock director Yasuharu Hasebe came on board with an entirely different approach to the material.
In the original continuity, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion, based on the manga by Toru Shinohara, acts as the origin story for the eventual legendary spirit of vengeance that its heroine will become. Kaji plays Nami Matsushima, known as “Sasori” (meaning scorpion) or “Matsu” to her cellmates, and is first seen making a daring escape from the prison during a ceremony celebrating the heroic efforts of the prison staff. She is caught and thrown in solitary where she offers us a voice-over explaining how she was seduced and betrayed by a corrupt narcotics officer. Acting as a women in prison film, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion has its fair share of cat fights and petty betrayals as well as one lesbian scene as Matsu effortlessly seduces a guard sent in as a spy. However, the main thrust of the film is Matsu’s desire for vengeance against the men who landed her in this awful situation.
Still in the prison, part two - Jailhouse 41 - sees Matsu shift her target to the prison system itself and specifically to the prison warden who has a personal grudge against Matsu whom he holds responsible for the loss of his eye in the first film. Matsu undergoes even more degrading treatment including punishment by public gang rape organised by the warden and instigated by the guards before escaping with some of the other women and enjoying a bundle of psychedelic visions before reaching the city for more knife based vengeance.
Beast Stable would be the final pairing of Ito and Kaji and works as a culmination of the Female Prisoner Scorpion trilogy. After an insane sequence where Matsu escapes from police officers on the subway by cutting off one of their arms with a kitchen knife, Matsu continues life on the lam by making friends with prostitute Yuki who is hiding a dark secret in her back room. Brain damaged after a factory accident, Yuki’s brother is now little more than an animal who has to be locked away because of his violent and rapacious nature. Yuki is forced to satisfy her brother’s sexual needs out of fear that he will attack other women. Matsu becomes involved in Yuki’s struggle as well as in the cruel underworld of pimps, working girls and yakuza presided over by the heartless madam, Katsu.
Grudge Song acts an epilogue to the main trilogy and is directed by another frequent Kaji collaborator, Yasuharu Hasebe who dispenses with Ito’s arthouse aesthetic altogether for something more grungy and contemporary filled with ‘70s groovy exploitation hallmarks like whip pans, zooms, and stoner jazz electric guitar. Arrested at a wedding, Matsu is injured and on the run when she’s taken in by damaged former student protestor Kudo whereupon the pair continue their vengeance filled crime spree against the corrupt authority of the police force.
The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies are the landmark in the genre which came to be known as “pinky violence” for its erotically charged action. That is to say, they occupy the arthouse end of the genre and are actually quite tame on the classic exploitation elements. Ito makes sure to ground the nudity and sexualised violence firmly within the world of the film, often supporting Matsu’s oppressed existence and exploitation by the prison environment and cruelty of the patriarchal world outside.
Ito suggests less that he intended to make a specifically feminist revenge cycle, but that he wanted to represent the individual’s struggle against conformist authority. Matsu is truly a rebel, one who stands outside the accepted system and seeks to change it through non-cooperation. Hasebe shifts this emphasis in his instalment and opts for another common theme of the time - a lament for the death of the student movement. Grudge Song sits awkwardly alongside the other three films as it allows Matsu’s male comrade Kudo to take the lead, leaving this feminist heroine playing second fiddle to someone else’s vendetta born out of a fight she was never particularly a part of. In fact, the Matsu of Grudge Song is almost nothing like the Matsu of the previous three films and even allows an innocent bystander (and a pregnant woman at that) to be killed directly in front of her without even raising an eyebrow.
Arrow have put together an extremely impressive collection of supplementary materials here, including video essays and commentaries from film scholars and fellow directors testifying to the ongoing influence of the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, each of which is engagingly presented by the collection of talking heads offering up informative commentary on the material. The transfers themselves are a little more controversial as, according to Arrow, the 35mm negatives they obtained directly from Toei to create their restoration have a noticeably green/blue tint which is a marked difference to all previous versions of the Female Prisoner Scorpion films. In a similar fashion to Criterion’s Lady Snowblood release, the colour palate is aesthetically pleasing and often visually striking but is unlike anything you would expect from a Japanese film of this era and might not be the way Ito intended his films to look. That aside the transfers are generally strong and offer a marked improvement over previous home video releases.
At the end of Beast Stable we are told that Scorpion served out her sentence, was released, and disappeared into the ether. Completing her apotheosis into pure legend, the ballad of Matsu continues but it started here with Ito’s original trilogy and Hasebe’s less successful follow-up. Kaji is still as effortlessly cool with her silent rage and deadly sting as she was forty years ago and proves herself infinitely worthy of her pop culture icon status. Finally available once again in their entirety, this first cycle of Female Prisoner Scorpion films is essential viewing for fans of Japanese cinema and exploitation movies alike.