World Cinema Wednesday: Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)
With plenty of sadistic violence, and some nudity here and there, viewers could be forgiven for thinking that Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is yet another in a glut of Women In Prison films that have been a mainstay of exploitation for many, many years. And being “just” a WIP film isn’t a terrible thing, by any means (as fans of that subgenre will be quick to attest), but this sensational film is much more than that.
Developed from the adult comic by Tooru Shinohara, Female Prisoner #701 (to abbreviate it slightly) is a consistently entertaining mix of scheming, violence, manipulative lovers, and revenge. Director Shunya Ito, making his feature directorial debut, gives all this to viewers with a side-serving of artistry and intelligence, undoubtedly helped by the script from Fumio Konami and Hiro Matsuda.
There’s also the major bonus of having Meiko Kaji in the lead role. An effortlessly cool and iconic presence, it’s hard to think of Kaji being anything less than the celebrated star that film fans have been in love with for many years. But it’s fair to say that, despite a number of films already under her belt (including her parts in the Stray Cat Rock movies), this was her first truly memorable lead character, followed only a year or so later by the unforgettable Lady Snowblood. And she also sings the haunting theme song, “Flower Of Carnage“.
Nami Matsushima AKA Matsu (Kaji) has been rotting in prison ever since attempting to murder a lover (Isao Natsuyagi) who betrayed her. But it’s just a matter of time until she figures out how to escape and exact her deserved revenge. Which is why arrangements are made with people like Katagiri (Rie Yokoyama) to make sure that Matsu meets an accidental death while serving her sentence. Matsu doesn’t react well to plans for her demise, and her passive demeanour belies a character that is smart, determined, and deadly.
Ito uses a mix of both theatrical and cinematic tricks here to tell this tale. Sets revolve while a backstory is communicated to viewers, with doubles cannily used until a quick cut allows the main player to come back into shot. Moments of violence are bathed in bright colours, often turning the whole sequence into something resembling a vivid nightmare. The camera watches events unfold through bars, or grilles, and numerous Dutch angles throw viewers into the middle of any onscreen melee. It’s never a dull watch, even during the few moments that are more contemplative.
But, let’s be honest, Ito, Konami and Matsuda aren’t the first names to spring to mind for fans of this movie (and the sequels). It’s all about Meiko Kaji, and she delivers in spades.
While I don’t have the time or space to go into much more detail here, the recent release from Arrow is an essential purchase for fans. Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection features this movie, as well as its three sequels, a booklet packed full of new writing on the films, appreciations by different film-makers and critics, visual essays, featurettes, and even a double-sided poster. You know what to do.
DIRECTOR: SHUNYA ITO
WRITER: FUMIO KONAMI, HIRO MATSUDA, BASED ON THE COMIC BY TOORU SHINOHARA
STARS: MEIKO KAJI, RIE YOKOYAMA, ISAO NATSUYAGI, FUMIO WATANABE, HIROKO OGI, AKEMI NEGISHI, YAYOI WATANABE, YOKO MIHARA
RUNTIME: 87 MINS APPROX