Mighty Meiko – Arrow Video’s Female Prisoner Scorpion Collection

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The Japanese genre of Pinky Violence movies is stuffed to the padded bra full of sex, violence and bad girls, and towering over all of them is a quartet of films made (incredibly) between 1972 and 1973. The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies are delightfully lurid, containing lashings of not only the sleazy elements vital to enjoying Women In Prison movies (violence, torture, rape, shower scenes and lesbian sex) but also qualities that show the filmmakers attempting to create something far above the norm, as they are shot full of quite stunning, delirious imagery – particularly in my favourite of the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41.

What sets them even higher above the competition, however, is the presence of the star of the films, Meiko Kaji. Actress and singer Kaji has appeared in around 100 films since the early 1970s, including the Stray Cat Rock and the Wandering Ginza Butterfly series and the two Lady Snowblood films (as well as making an appearance in the second Outlaw Gangster VIP film). Her screen persona is that of the lone outlaw, and this is perhaps never more sharply defined than as Nami Matsushima, wronged in the first film, Female Prisoner # 701: Scorpion, by her crooked police detective boyfriend and sent to prison after she attempts to murder him when he allows several drug dealers to gang rape her (buckle up, these films definitely aren’t for the squeamish).

Matsushima is allocated the prisoner number 701 and must fight to exist in a brutal prison run by corrupt, lecherous and sadistic male guards, as well as contend with the attentions of her fellow inmates.

Alongside Kaji, the first three films stand out as a result of the beautiful and often surreal work from director Shunya Ito (the fourth, Grudge Stable, is directed by by Yasuharu Hasebe). Ito worked at the grindhouse and tokusatsu farm, Toei Company, for most of his career and won a Directors Guild of Japan New Directors Citation for Female Prisoner # 701: Scorpion.

Opening the first film with a lovely piece of barbed commentary, the warden of the prison is awarded a commendation for his work in rehabilitating prisoners just as the sirens wail, announcing an escape attempt by prisoner 701, who takes time to explain to her fellow escapee that she’s bleeding profusely as a result of her period before beating a tracker dog to death with a log. 701 is then herself beaten brutally with a rifle butt by the guard who foils her escape.

701 is placed into a grim solitary confinement as she begins to recall the events that led her to this point, and it’s here that Ito’s direction begins to truly shine, with an expressionistic, dreamlike sequence showing Nami’s seduction and abuse by her slimy boyfriend. With shots through glass floors, vivid, comic book lighting and the motif of red used from Nami’s deflowering to her attempted revenge, this may be exploitation, but it’s avant-garde exploitation as seen through the eyes of an artist that transcends to become the very best the genre can offer. Orange Is The New Black this ain’t!

It would be all too easy for Nami/701 to become an unlikeable victim, but both the story and Kaji combine to give us instead a character who endures with a glowering, righteous anger and rises above these terrible events to finally become “Sasori” (Scorpion), an appellation for vengeance and a symbol of female resistance in a world dominated by untrustworthy men (as well as equally untrustworthy women). Virtually silent, absolutely unbreakable and hell bent on exacting revenge, it’s impossible to tear your eyes from the screen whenever she appears and she brings a simmering star quality to this extreme but thoughtful and inventive saga.

The films that follow, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable and Female Prisoner Scorpion: # 701’s Grudge Song offer a wild cinematic experience. It’s little wonder Quentin Tarantino, that wonderful magpie of outré movies, would be a fan of them – enough so that he used Urami Bushi, the recurring theme song from the Female Prisoner series, sung by Meiko Kaji herself of course, for his film, Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Now Arrow Video, the most essential of home video companies (alongside Criterion) have released all four films in an exquisitely packaged and packed box set. As well as brand new 2K restorations of all four films in the series presented both on Blu-ray and DVD, the set contains a treasure trove of video interviews and essays (with the likes of Japanese cinema critics Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes) as well as appreciations by filmmakers including Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts) and Gareth Evans (The Raid). There are archival and new interviews with director Shunya Ito and assistant director Yutaka Kohira, a new interview with production designer Tadayuki Kuwana, theatrical trailers and more.

The 4000 copy limited edition (the films are likely to be released separately at a later date) also contains a beautiful hardback book on the series, with writing by Chuck Stephens, Chris D and Yoshiki Hayashi, as well as a reproduction double-sided fold out poster of two original theatrical posters. The whole package is illustrated by striking, newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan.

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I’ve been in love with these films since first seeing them almost a decade ago and I really cannot recommend them enough. Now Arrow have done a remarkable job, making any previous releases redundant and hopefully exposing them to a wider audience. If I were to nitpick (and I will) I would say it’s a shame Arrow didn’t include the two films in the less widely regarded New Female Prisoner Scorpion series, made in 1976 and 1977. While not as vital they do have their charms and it seems like a missed opportunity. Of course this is only the kind of first world problem likely to worry completists, and perhaps it’s simply an opportunity for another box set.

Meiko Kaji is a powerhouse in Japanese genre cinema and this set really is a fine tribute to one of her signature roles. You might say that prisoner 701 has finally gotten the justice she deserves.

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