Leave it to the Japanese to perfect the Women-in-Prison subgenre. First time director Shunya Itō took all of the sleazy elements of the genre - rampant nudity, rape, gratuitous violence, and lesbianism - and turned it into real cinema. Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion and its sequel Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 aren’t just good examples of the genre but honest-to-god great movies. The subsequent sequels (Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable and Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song don’t fare quite as well but there are still some really nice moments in each. Arrow Video has recently combined the four films into a rather attractive box set that’s loaded with extras and comes in a wonderful-looking box. Unfortunately, the video quality is lacking quite a bit which may shy some fans away.
But first the films. Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion stars Meiko Kaji as Nami “Scorpion” Matsushima the notorious prisoner 701. In a series of flashbacks, we see how she was set up by her crooked cop of a boyfriend (IIsao Natsuyagi), who uses her to win favors with the Yakuza, but ultimately leaves her to be beaten and raped by them once he’s gotten what he needs from her. Later, she shows up on his doorstep for a little revenge and this lands her in the slammer. She spends the rest of the film trying to escape to fully enact her revenge and she won’t let anyone - prison guards, wardens, or fellow inmates stand in her way.
That’s all pretty standard women-in-prison fare, but director Shunya Itō so artfully crafts the story that it stand out in a genre that was already pretty overpacked by 1971. There is a theatricality to his staging. In one scene, Matsushima lies on the floor beaten half to death while the boyfriend talks to his Yakuza buddies. Then the stage he is standing on turns 180 degrees, revealing another set where the boyfriend speaks to the police, all the while she remains at the forefront of the screen still lying in agony. Other times, the film becomes impressionistic, almost surreal, with its lighting and camera movement. It's more art house cinema than grind house.
With Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, these tendencies become even more pronounced. With even less of a plot to go on, this sequel relies on its heavily stylized visuals to tell its story. The film begins one year later after Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion ended with Matsushima back in prison and now having spent the last 12 months in solitary confinement at the bottom of a nasty hole. For reasons that will only make sense to genre fans, she is brought out of her hole and presented to a high-ranking politician who is inspecting the prison. As one might expect, things don’t go well for him, and Matushima eventually escapes along with several other inmates. The rest of the film finds them trying to remain free while the prison guards hunt them like dogs.
It's hard to express just how unlike any other women in prison flick this film is. Had it found another genre to stick its cinematic vestments on, then it might be well regarded as one of the great films of the '70s and surely one of the greatest sequels of all time. But as it lies in a subset of the much maligned exploitation barrel it's unfortunately not known outside of genre fans. A true shame that is.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beat Stable slips even further away from standard storytelling but can never quite live up to the two previous films artistry. It's also the most outlandish of the four films presented here. The film begins with Matsushima riding a subway car with whatever life she’s been able to scrape together after the previous film's adventures. In a sudden burst of excitement, she finds herself surrounded by police officers. A nice bit of action sees her cutting off the arm of the cop who cuffed her to him and running down the streets of the city with the severed limb still dangling alongside her.
In a cemetery where she’s trying to cut off the handcuffs, she meets a prostitute named Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), who takes her home. There, Matsushi is attacked by Yuki’s brain-damaged brother who Yuki then yells at with a “don’t I give you enough sex” lecture. One incestuous pregnancy later and you know you are in for a wild ride. Then Yuki’s madam, Katsu (Reisen Lee), enters the picture and as these things turn out, Katsu and Matsushima have a not-too-pleasant past from their prison lives. Mayhem ensues. There’s plenty of what has now become standard Female Prisoner Scorpion-style going on in this one, but the story gets a little cartoonish and so it never quite regains the cinematic flair of the first two.
Lastly, there is Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song. For this fourth installment of the series, director Shunya Itō bowed out with Yasuharu Hasebe filling his shoes. This is immediately apparent as the film has none of Shunya’s artistic style and settles in for a rather pedestrian plot. In this one, Matsushimi has once again escaped police custody only to be hunted down and (yet again) be put back into prison. This time the government has finally had its fill of her constant escaping and deadly violence and aims to hang her. I’ll not give the details away but I will say all of this is handled rather poorly considering the real surreal artistry of the first three films. It's not terrible and it likely holds up fairly well with other genre fare of this ilk, but as the previous films in this series stand so far above their own genre, Grudge Song feels completely unnecessary. Frankly, by the time I got to this one, I was pretty well burned out on what they could do with the character.
Special appreciation goes to Meiko Kaji who brings mesmerizing life to what could be a pretty stale character in lesser hands. Throughout all four films, she hardly has any lines yet we always know what she feeling inside. With a subtlety of body language and extraordinary expressive eyes, she gives one incredible performance after another.
Arrow has put together a really terrific package for this series. It comes in a nicely stylized box with new artwork for each cover and each sleeve is reversible revealing the original artwork on the opposite side. Each film comes with a nice array of extras, including appreciations and visual essays for every film and the series as a whole, plus interviews with the filmmakers, retrospectives, trailers, and more.
Unfortunately, the video quality on all four films is not very good. The liner notes reveal that they were given a set of low-contrast 35mm prints and it shows. Every film has large amounts of image instability and film degradation, and for some reason, they are all tinted blue, which skews the color palette pretty much everywhere. Word around the Internet is that the Japanese company that owns the rights to the films gives American companies poor copies to work with. It has also been noted that previous releases of these films have fared better in terms of actual video quality.
That’s too bad because every other aspect of this set is wonderful. It really comes down to how much video quality matters to you. Personally, though I sometimes found it a bit distracting, once I settled in, I hardly noticed the degradation and quickly got used to the odd coloring. But if that sort of thing bugs you, I’d recommend looking on eBay for previous sets of these films or maybe waiting for a new Japanese release. But if you can overlook some less-than-stellar visuals, this set is quite good and is going to make a nice centerpiece to my Blu-ray collection.