In the 1970s the Japanese film industry was taking a beating thanks to the proliferation of television in Japanese homes. For studios that didn’t simply fold they had to change up their game, giving viewers something they couldn’t easily see at home; which meant more skin and more violence. These new films were aimed at dense cities and greatly benefitted from the young men who were lured there for construction jobs and were now unemployed.
One such studio to take a much different path was Nikkatsu Studios who went from exploitation to Roman Porno exclusively to keep the lights on. Meiko Kaji, having just completed the Stray Cat Rock Series for Nikkatsu, was invited over to Toei who were looking to adapt Sasori, a manga by Tōru Shinohara. Sasori, or Scorpion, was a film project which Toei was looking to release in order to riff off of the already successful Abashiri Prison films (Ken Takacura). But the hook here was switching it up to a women’s prison. This would hopefully add more skin and a healthier box office.
The director recruited for the first film was Shunya Itō, who was an assistant director on the Abashiri Prison films and at first wasn’t terribly excited about being regulated to a knock off of the series he once worked on. But he eventually changed his mind after rewriting the script hoping to do something different with the sub-genre. The Female Convict Scorpion films differentiate themselves from the typical fodder at the time by infusing these sleazy narratives with a surreal theatricality that, combined with a feminist angle, delivered an unexpected hit for the studio and a new starring vehicle for Kaji.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion
The first film focuses on Scorpion’s origin story as Kaji plays Nami Matsushima, a naïve girl who after surrendering her love and virginity to an ambitious young detective is used in a drug sting. We soon find she was set up and used as bait. She is brutally raped by the yakuza, and her boyfriend, who was working for a rival boss, set the whole thing up to get rid of a competing family. In a frenzied act of vengeance Nami attacks her boyfriend at the police station where she is quickly apprehended and as we catch up to her she is attempting to escape prison to finish the job.
This being a ‘women in prison’ film, expect plenty of skin as those around her try to break “The Scorpion” (as Nami is now known after a failed attack in the shower that takes the warden’s eye and puts her in everyone’s sights). Knowing what would happen if she was ever to be released, even the detective responsible for putting her in this predicament gets into the mix hiring an inmate to hopefully assassinate her. This culminates in a riot where the women take the guards hostage in a storage shed as Scorpion tries to survive the ordeal, both guards and inmates wanting her dead.
Kaji sets the bar here for the series going forward with her almost mute performance, relying instead on her trademark icy stare to convey her defiance and resilience at all those who oppose her. Scorpion refuses to be objectified by both her captors and fellow inmates as Kaji exudes a confidence and cool that, thanks to the world crafted by Shunya Itō, adds a much-needed feminist twist to the genre. This film also establishes the almost dream-like world of Female Convict Scorpion as theatrical elements are infused into cinematic ones to give the film a very surreal and otherworldly quality reminiscent of films like the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41
The second film picks up roughly a year after the events of the first film, with Scorpion back in jail after finally getting vengeance on the man that broke her heart. She’s been in the hole almost a year since returning to prison and is brought out for a celebratory ceremony as the warden is getting a promotion, leaving the prison behind. When Scorpion uses the opportunity to attempt to get the Warden’s other eye for keeping her in solitary so long, he decides to stop at nothing to break her resolve once and for all, before leaving for his new post.
To do this the Warden orchestrates a brutal gang rape in front of all of the inmates that sparks a group of women into taking over a prison transport and escaping with Scorpion in tow. This film adds supernatural elements to its already surreal mix as the seven escapees find a crazy old woman in an abandoned village. She shows them through a pretty amazing dream sequence how man is ultimately responsible for the plight of woman, especially these seven. The prisoners, trying to make their way to the city, decide to hijack a tour bus and take the tourists hostage after one of their own is raped and killed by a few of the tourists out for a good time. This culminates in a bloody standoff to free the hostages, that luckily Nami survives after she is thrown from the bus as a distraction.
Jailhouse 41 is definitely one of the more brutal entries in the series as it also deals with some hefty themes that were inspired by a similar hostage situation that took place at the time. This is also the most visually daring of the films with its surreal sequence involving the old woman whom they discover and lay to rest in the small deserted town. Thanks to that, this film is probably the best representation of Shunya Itō’s fiction within fiction universe that these films are supposed to take place in that sounds vaguely reminiscent of Tarantino’s movie within a movie universe.
While rape is nothing new to this genre, it’s how this film deals with the act, using it as a metaphor for corruption and the abuse of power in the Japanese government, that gives a simple exploitative vice so much more weight. The cops that rape Scorpion are told it’s their “sacred duty” to do so and the men we later encounter on the bus that rape and kill a prisoner are inspired to do so by an old man’s tale of raping a Chinese woman at gunpoint during the war. These acts, disturbing within themselves, are given a much deeper context thanks to the old woman’s song and the treatment of the women prisoners as less than human by Japanese society.
Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable
In the third film we have Scorpion still on the loose thanks to her escape at the end of Jailhouse 41. After a spectacular opening where she is almost caught and chops off a detective’s arm to get her freedom we are then re-introduced to Yuki, her dead cellmate from the first film (Some folks believe this film actually happens in the afterlife). Yuki is now living as a prostitute with her brother who was left brain damaged after an accident at a factory. Yuki not only cares for her brother, but also allows him to have sex with her as well to quell his animalistic urges. After finding Scorpion in a graveyard still attached to the detective’s arm Yuki brings her home and nurses her back to health.
Since the last film Scorpion has attempted to resume a normal life, getting a job as a seamstress and even an apartment. This all comes crashing down around her as she causes the death of a low ranking Yakuza who was threatening to turn her in to the police if she didn’t have sex with him. Nami is then taken prisoner by his boss who just so happens to have served time with Scorpion and tortures her for the hardships she had to endure due to her insubordination in prison. This backfires when her captors force a prostitute to get a late stage abortion, who dies in front of Scorpion. The dead woman’s spirit then takes over Sasori’s body, fueling a rampage of vengeance on her behalf on all those responsible for her death.
Beast Stable is definitely the most lurid of the four films spotlighted in this set and the last for director Shunya Itō. The director chose to leave the series while it was still doing really well for Toei to pursue something a bit different, a decision he admittedly went on to regret to this day. While the films were never really grounded in any kind of reality, Itō definitely pushes the boundaries in Beast Stable both with its story and outlandish characters. Kaji here further devolves Sasori, scaling her dialog back to a single word in her performance. Relying more on the stare that has become simply a mirror reflecting back the efforts of those trying to break or oppress her.
Female Convict Scorpion: Grudge Song
Beast Stable was a tough act to follow. With the departure of Shunya Itō, Yasuharu Hasebe, who had worked with Kaji on the Stray Cat Rock Series, stepped to helm the most uneven film of the series. Grudge Song looks to somehow continue Nami’s road back to humanity by having her fall in love with a handicapped activist only to be betrayed yet again. This time the Scorpion has earned the death penalty for her crimes as she has to figure out how to avoid the gallows while still getting her bloody vengeance on the man that wronged her.
Grudge Song loses some of the the surreal visual style and cutting commentary of previous films to tell a rather on the nose story, as Kaji tries to find some redemption and closure for her character. The film was my least favorite of the set and really lacks the spirit and visual style that were the hallmarks of the series. While Grudge Song is by no means a bad film, by forcing the character to try to have a relationship only to once again have the same thing happen to her only made the decision to do so even more questionable from a plot standpoint.
Now for the set, which is limited to 4000 copies:
While the set boasts brand new 2K restorations of all four films in the series, the sources here seem to vary from film to film, with most appearing to be sourced from 35mm theatrical release prints. While this isn’t completely out of the ordinary given other Japanese releases, it may be a bummer for those looking for a pristine digital transfer. Personally, I always welcome some grain and damage as opposed to heavy DNR or even upscaling on older films. Overall the set was pretty consistent, quality-wise, with a fair contrast and heavy grain throughout. My only issue with the set had to be with Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, which even compared to the Tokyo Shock DVD you can definitely see noticeable details were lost due to boosting the contrast so high on this particular film.
While there are a few issues with image quality, the set more than redeems itself with a host of curated extras that fans of this series will spend hours culling through. Each disc is paired with interviews either with those involved with the film or those who were influenced by this great series. The best of these have to be the re-edited interview with director Shunya Itō who is fairly candid about his first impressions and working with Kaji on the series. Also a new interview with production designer Tadayuki Kuwan, who was responsible for the amazing look of these films, sheds some light on what it took to create the world of Scorpion.
Finally my personal favorite extra on the set: They Call Her Scorpion, a new visual essay by Tom Mes. This 40 minute look at the series feels like a documentary and is a very thorough look at the films and the themes running throughout the series. The essay manages to cover almost everything a fan could possibly hope, surprising me with the depth of his analysis, even covering its more current incarnations.
For fans of the series you’re not going to want to pass this set up. While the transfers here leave something to be desired you’re going to be hard pressed to find a better set elsewhere. Given the lack of existing extras, Arrow has done a great job at bringing forward those from previous editions and curating some great original content here as well. While my biggest complaint with any of these releases is Kaji’s lack of participation (included in this release is a translated interview with the actress finally giving some voice to this icon’s legacy). For those who love Japanese genre and haven’t seen these films I can’t recommend them enough. And for those already familiar with the story of Sasori, you’re going to be sorry if you let this one sell out.