When you take a course in Japanese cinema,the instructor is going to keep going on about Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu and Shôhei Imamura. They’ll drone on and on about Rashomon until all the stories sound the same. They’ll make it sound like Japanese movies are extremely serious. They’ll skip the real cinematic masterpieces that will widen your eyes and excite the imagination. The Female Prisoner Scorpion films are essential viewing for anyone who wants to truly appreciate the best of Japan. There’s a scene in John Waters’ Polyester where the characters visit a drive-in Art House. It seems like a joke until you watch these four movies from the early ’70s and see how an exploitation genre film can push the boundaries of cinematic language. Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection brings the entire experience together.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972 – 87 minutes) introduces us to Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji). She’s a sweet girl dating a cop (Isao Natsuyagi). What she doesn’t know about the guy is that he’s shady and tied in with the Yakuza. He uses her as bait to trap his underworld criminal connections. She doesn’t like it. She shows up at his office and does her best to put an end to his wicked ways. Sadly this only leads to her being arrested and convicted of a felony. She’s packed off to a cell and given the name Female Prisoner #701. But she earns the nickname Scorpion because she has no desire to be a trustee. She needs to escape and get her vengeance on the cop who did her wrong. She really does need to escape since the cop and the mobster buddies want to have her killed behind bars to tie up all loose ends. But even when she’s wrapped up in ropes, Scorpion can’t be easily stopped. The greatness of the films can immediately be felt with a disclaimer that this is not how women’s prisons in Japan are run. This must mean that they don’t have nude workouts on the monkey bars in the joint. This is the over the top penal life found in most women prison films. Director Shunya Itō went beyond the rough and raw techniques that mark the genre. There’s a lot of German expressionist elements that give an extreme feel to the artifice. The reveal of how Nami was screwed over by her lover is pure stagecraft. He fully uses Meiko Kaji in a relatively wordless performance. The film embraces the fact that it was adapted from a comic book by Toru Shinohara.
Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972 – 90 minutes) picks up after Matsushima has been locked up in solitary for the events of the first film. The chief warden isn’t happy at what she did to him in the previous film and wants to break her hard. But she’s the Scorpion and won’t give up with extreme solitary confinement. He faces a larger problem that the other women prisoners are seeing her as a force. The guy can’t allow that since he’s about to move up to a major government job. He can’t let her be unfinished business. He comes up with a plan that will punish the others make them lose their respect for her. It’s a severe moment in the film that seems to have finally crushed Scorpion. But she finds the strength to make a break and bring along a few cellmates on what turns into one of the greatest prison breaks in film. This goes beyond The Defiant Ones and The Fugitive. There’s a vicious nature between the women as they will do anything to keep their new found freedom even if it means selling out their fellow prisoners. Of the four films, this is the best.
Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973 – 87 minutes) has Matsushima lurking in the underworld of the big city. She gets cuffed by a cop on the subway. Instead of giving up, she goes reverse coyote on the guy. She ends up bumping into a hooker while hiding out in a graveyard. The two become roommates although the hooker doesn’t quite mention her brother locked in the spare room. It’s a shocking scene. Things get nasty when she reunites with one of her old cellmates. Turns out they have extremely different career goals. No matter how scummy the city gets, Scorpion has no desire to head back to the big house with cops, pimps and mobsters on her tail.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (1973 – 89 minutes) replaces Shunya Ito with Yasuharu Hasebe. The new director had already worked with Meiko Kaji on her previous Alleycat Rock movie series (also out from Arrow). Hasebe doesn’t mess too much with the aesthetic of the series. There’s still a lot of hard angels and messing with the color. Scorpion remains as fierce as before. The cops show up at a wedding and do their best to bust her. Even though she’s injured, she escapes thanks to a guy who works at a live carnality review. He’s a former student protester laying low after his own battles with the cops. How far is he willing to go to help his new friend when the law comes down on him is central to the film. Is he willing to turn her over so her film series will end tragically?
Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection contains the best female prison movies that don’t star Pam Grier. Meiko Kaji completely dominates the camera without saying too much or overplaying her emotions. She gives a Louise Brooks level performance as she goes from a sweet nice girl to a harden Scorpion willing to kill anyone that does her wrong. She is iconic in her look, attitude and knife wielding skills. There’s only 3,000 copies of this boxset being released so don’t hesitate if you’re curious about seeing the plight of Scorpion. Damn shame none of too many Japanese cinema instructors skip over these entries.
The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The 1080p transfer has a blue tint to a lot of the scenes. There’s been a bit of debate about the color treatment. The film has so many experimental elements that the hue tint change fits the feel of the film. The audio is DTS-HD mono. The sound is fine. The movie is subtitled in English although Scorpion says so little and lets her knife do the talking.
DVDs of all the films with bonus features Double-sided fold out poster of two original artworks Reversible sleeves for all films featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan Booklet featuring an extract from Unchained Melody: The Films of Meiko Kaji, an upcoming book on the star by critic and author Tom Mes, an archive interview with Meiko Kaji, and a Brand new interview with Toru Shinohara, creator of the original comic books. Newly filmed appreciation by filmmaker Gareth Evans (The Raid) Archive interview with director Shunya Ito New interview with assistant director Yutaka Kohira Theatrical Trailers for all films in the series Newly filmed appreciation by critic Kier-La Janisse
Japanese cinema critic Jasper Sharp looks over the career of Shunya Ito New interview with production designer Tadayuki Kuwana Newly filmed appreciation by critic Kat Ellinger Archive interview with director Shunya Ito New visual essay on the career of star and icon Meiko Kaji by critic Tom Mes Newly filmed appreciation by filmmaker Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts) Archive interview with director Yasuharu Hasebe Japanese cinema critic Jasper Sharp looks over the career of Yasuharu Hasebe Visual essay on the Scorpion series by critic Tom Mes
Arrow Video presents Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection. Directed by: Shunya Ito & Yasuharu Hasebe. Starring: Meiko Kaji, Masakazu Tamura & Fumio Watanabe. Boxset Contents: 4 movies on 4 Blu-ray discs & 4 DVDs. Rated: Unrate. Released: August 9, 2016.
Joe Corey is the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.