Despite all the blood, boobs, torture, cruelty, crazy lighting schemes, and wild camera angles, the most indelible image in these four women's prison movies is Meiko Kaji's face. In particular, her big-eyed, vengeful glare. Her hair is jet black, and in some memorable shots her pale, beautiful face is the only thing lit in frame. In an almost silent role as Nami Matsushima (a.k.a Scorpion), her large, staring eyes and why she's glaring so intently frame the central theme of the movies: the victimization of women by men, and by extension, themselves.
Of course, to deliver this theme, these movies have to be filled with lots and lots of victimizing, and they are. This is pure '70s exploitation, and at times it is extra-exploity exploitation. There's showers scenes, rape scenes, strip shows, knife fights, people being hung in nets and burned alive, and a particularly memorable scene where Scorpion's allure is so powerful that a female cop who went undercover in the prison begs to go back, just to get more of that Scorpion loving.
The first film opens with an intercut scene of the prison warden and his men being praised by some government official for their exemplary work at running a woman's prison with Nami and another girl escaping. They are caught, beaten and tortured by the guards, and left in the hole to be further humiliated by orderlies. It's a very grim world Scorpion sets up, with maybe one or two sympathetic female characters and no likable men.
Nami is in prison because she tried to attack her cop boyfriend Sugimi in public with a knife. This is revealed in a flashback, that's told in a fashion that elevates Female Prisoner Scorpion well above its salacious material. The flashback opens with Nami nude in a sheet that Sugimi unravels. They go to bed in a completely featureless room, which transforms apparently in camera into an office where Nami infiltrates into a criminal organization for Sugimi. She is attacked and raped by four men, a scene shot primarily through a glass floor, so Nami is pressed against it while the men attack her. Sugimi is in the room, and watches the whole thing. While Nami is in the foreground, a wall swivels around, like a set change in a stage play, and the scene completely changed: Sugimi is getting congratulated by his boss. Scorpion was set up to get attacked. It plays it in a completely unrealistic, stage-like fashion, and it is hardly the only scene in the film that forgoes any sense of reality for effect. There are a number of shots where half the frame is Meiko Kaji's face and the other half some sort of wild, Caligari-like composition, shot either with a split diopter or done in post since both images are in perfect focus at once.
The first three films here, Prisoner 701, Jailhouse 41, and Beast Stable, were all directed by Shunya Ito, with Prisoner 701 being his directorial debut. It's an astonishingly assured (maybe even arrogant) statement from a first-time director. But it also fits pretty firmly in the world of cinematic exploitation. Meiko Kaji left Nikkatsu studio (where she made, among other films, the Stray Cat Rock series, Retaliation, and Blind Woman's Curse) because they were going exclusively into softcore pornography, and might have been somewhat chagrined at her first assignment at Toei. Incidentally, the first Scorpion movie is the only one where Meiko Kaji appears with any nudity: while being raped in her origin story, and while attacking her boyfriend which she does with one breast uncovered and a knife in her hand, like some sort of strange avenging ghost.
The rest of the female cast is much more generous, so to speak. But even when reveling in the exploitative aspects of the film, there's usually some kind of extra spin director Ito puts on the material. In the requisite shower seen, where about 20 nude extras are splashing around, Nami gets into a fight with an orderly who gets her face bashed through a glass window, picks up one of the shattered pieces of glass and then dances around with it with her face all done up in blood like a weird kabuki mask. That shard of glass ends up in the Warden's eye, who then strangles the orderly to death.
It is not a film of subtle passions or action. What is remarkable, beyond the occasional staging or scene completely out of left field, is how varied these movies are, particularly the first three. Exploitation series have the tendency to be more of the same, again and again. The Scorpion plots are by and large simple, but they are not stale rehashes of one another. The first film is about the Warden conspiring to break Yumi with cruel punishments. The second, Jailhouse 41, concerns seven inmates (including Yumi) and their journey after they escape from a work detail. The third, Beast Stable, doesn't go to prison until the last 25 minutes of the show - until then it's about Yumi on the run, where she befriends a prostitute whose incestuous relationship with her brain-damaged brother has made her suicidal. That movie opens, by the way, with Yumi being caught on a subway train by the police officer Detective Gondo. He handcuffs himself to her, but she makes it out the door, and when his arm is stuck, she proceeds to hack it off with her knife. Then runs through the streets of Tokyo, the severed arm still handcuffed to her, just bouncing around.
The fourth film was directed by Yasuharu Hasebe (who directed three Stray Cat Rock movies, and Retaliation, all with Meiko Kaji) and it trades in the manic energy and wild visuals of Ito for something with more of a tough action movie feel. Like the previous film, it starts out in the real world and ends up in prison, but it has a different tone. Scorpion has felt like a force of female nature in Ito's films. Here she seems more conventional (and thus slim Meiko Kaji's defeating a dozen cops at once feels less plausible) and while it would be difficult to accuse 701's Grudge Song of realism, it has more of a practicality that doesn't work in the story's favor. Scorpion's violence is more self-interested (and copious).
Meiko Kaji's performance never falters, though she endures beatings, hard labor, at least two gang rapes, being caged with wild crows, chased by dogs, and sprayed by fire hoses (which, according to a print interview with Kaji included in the box set, were real, on full bore, and could not be heated even though they were shooting in winter.) It's not a nuanced performance (nor is it a nuanced character) but her single-minded focus on revenging the cruelty all shines in those magic eyes. These are brutal, rough, violent and bloody movies. They are also frequently visually brilliant, inventive, and constantly surprising.
In Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection, Arrow Video has lavished the sort of attention on these four cheap exploitation movies that a lot of mainstream series would envy. The box set contains eight discs - one Blu-ray and one DVD for each movie. Each Blu-ray contains roughly an hour of extras, mostly in the form of interviews with either critics giving some context for the film or people who worked on them, including a pair of interviews with Shunji Ito, the director of the first three films, and about an hour of video essays by Japanese film expert Tom Mes. Altogether there's more than four hours of extra material here, and essays and interviews in the accompanying, 56-page hardback booklet.