Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a women-in-prison movie and if you’re familiar with that remarkably sleazy genre you probably think you know what to exist. But is is a Japanese women-in-prison movie and that’s a whole different thing. This is a female revenge movie of awesome intensity. It is also one of the classics of pinky violence.

At this stage I guess I should say something about the fascinating history of the pinky violence genre. It was an offshoot of the already well-established pink film (pinku eiga) genre which had appeared in the mid-60s. Pink films were Japanese movies dealing with sex and nudity. They were not exactly software porn films. They had more in common with the American sexploitation movies of the 60s, with film-makers being largely free to do what they wanted as long as there was enough nudity to keep audiences happy. By the beginning of the 70s the major Japanese studios were in serious financial trouble. Nikkatsu’s solution was to switch production entirely to its roman porno films (the name coming from the French name for an erotic novel), essentially much raunchier pink films. Toei’s solution was the pinky violence film. They figured that if they combined lots of startling violence, much of it sexual in nature, and lots of nudity they’d be on a winner. And they were right.

One of the most successful of Toei’s many pinky violence cycles was the Female Prisoner #701 cycle, kicking off with Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion in 1972.

All pinky violence films had female protagonists. The Japanese are not stupid. Put a woman in extreme danger, give her a reason to seek revenge and then unleash her - it was a formula that couldn’t fail. Much more exciting than having a male protagonist plus lots more opportunities for nudity.

Pinky violence produced three great female stars - Reiko Ike, Miki Sugimoto and Meiko Kaji. I have a soft spot for Miki Sugimoto but I’d have to go along with the majority view that Meiko Kaji was the queen of pinky violence. And Meiko Kaji was the star of the first four Female Prisoner #701 movies.

Nami Matsushima (Kaji), nicknamed Matsu the Scorpion, is a prisoner in a top-security women’s prison. It’s a hell on earth. The warders are vicious and brutal. The prisoners are vicious and brutal as well. It’s a powder-keg waiting to blow. Matsu will light the fuse.

Matsu is in prison because her boyfriend Sugimi, a corrupt drug squad cop, set her up. Part of the setup was to put her in a position where the bad guys would gang-rape her, thus giving Sugimi leverage to blackmail them. Matsu is rather annoyed by this. Annoyed enough to try to slice Sugimi up with a knife, hence her prison sentence. That was a chaotic act of violence. Matsu is now much cleverer, and much angrier.

Like most pinky violence films this one is filled to the brim with prime exploitation fare. The opening credits sequence treats us to not just a few naked women but dozens of them. The violence is continuous and it is at times hair-raising. Is there a shower scene and a lesbian sex scene? Of course there is (although the lesbian sex scene very cleverly turns out to be not at all what it seemed to be). But also like most pinky violence films this one has style to burn. And it has some arty pretensions as well - the flashback sequence giving us Matsu’s backstory is stylised to an extreme and with some hints of surrealism. Even the rape scene is surreal (and manages to be horrifying rather than erotic).

It’s not the only touch of surrealism. Director Shun'ya Itô gives the movie a weird slightly other-worldly vibe. He continually draws attention to the fact that this is a story, a kind of bizarre ultra-violent fairy tale.

The Eureka DVD release offers a good transfer. The only extra is a set of remarkably foolish liner notes demonstrating the ability of a critic with a political axe to grind to entirely misinterpret a film. Matsu is not attacking an unjust patriarchal system. She is not attacking any system. She has no interest in doing any such thing. When she gets the chance to do so, when the prisoners rebel, she does not join them. She is entirely focused on personal revenge. She takes her revenge on the men who wronged her, and on the women who wronged her. At no stage does she raise a hand against anyone unless she has a personal grudge against them. She is not a crusader for women’s rights or social justice or any other kind of justice. She is a woman who has been wronged by certain individuals and she takes her entirely personal vengeance.

The women in the movie are for the most part every bit as vicious, corrupt, sadistic and amoral as the men. Matsu doesn’t care unless their behaviour personally affects her. The boyfriend who was responsible for her misfortunes was a cop, so she intends to kill him. She has no intention of declaring war against the police (or the criminal justice system or the prison system). Any attempt to read the film as a political statement is entirely undercut by the ending.

This is a visually extravagant fast-paced roller-coaster ride of exploitation themes but executed with much greater style and skill than your average women-in-prison flick. It’s all held together by Meiko Kaji’s mesmerising performance. She deliberately underplays. Nami is no super-woman, she simply endures because her hate keeps her going. Her endurance is what makes her frightening. Even early on it’s clear that people are afraid of her. They are afraid of her because she has the perseverance and the stoicism to survive and to wait very very patiently for the opportunity to strike back. When she does strike she does so with the swiftness of a cobra. She is not physically strong and she has no martial arts skills but her patience, endurance, sharp wits and her breathtakingly single-minded focus on revenge can be quite enough.

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a finely crafted and very superior example of both the women-in-prison and the female revenge genres. Highly recommended.

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