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Female Convict Scorpion Series (1972)
11th Nov 07
The real Lady Vengeance.
The term exploitation film usually brings to mind a certain decrepit aesthetic; cheapjack themes, shambollic production values, variable performances. A kind of cinema that forgoes the expense and taste of supposed ‘quality’ productions in favour of attracting viewers through lurid prurience of subject matter. Indeed, when judging most exploitation classics, quality should be considered very much a pejorative term. Films that wallow in the forbidden or the sensational, while hugely enjoyable, are not often matched by technical acumen. In Japan though, as we know, they do things somewhat differently.
In the late 60s and early 70s the kind of disreputable material you would find in drive-thru American quickies was all over Japanese cinema. Throughout these two decades the Japanese film industry, under threat from – and losing viewers to – television, churned out films of incredible invention with a mastery of film technique, a thrilling stylistic sensibility and a jaw-dropping disregard for social convention. Films of an extreme or exploitative nature that were produced with speed, efficiency and technical élan by a range of respected film houses including the long established T_ei Company.
Crucial viewing from this phenomenal creative period is the Female Scorpion series (seven films from 1972 to 1991, with a serious drop off in quality after the fourth) based on a much-loved manga series. The first three are still held in massively high regard by fans and creators of worldwide exploitation cinema, and all are now available on DVD for the first time ever in the UK, from Eureka!.
The plot of the first reads like the starting point for Chan Wook Park’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and sets the tone for the remainder of the series. The beautiful Matsu (Meiko Kaji) is set up by her detective lover Sugimi (Natsuyagi Isao), the man she has given both her heart and virginity to. Hot for revenge, she ends up doing time in a sadistic women’s prison after a failed attack on Sugumi's life. With mob connections and links to the Japanese mafia, Nami knows she's a wanted woman in jail (in more ways that one) and an inmate is duly dispatched to take care of her. But Nami is made of much stronger stuff and plots her escape, while cementing a reputation as ‘Scorpion’ inside the walls of the prison.
Essentially a Women in Prison picture, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion rises above the gamut of this genre by virtue of surreal theatrical visuals, crazy camerawork, the kabuki-like intensity of its narrative and – most importantly – the stunning central performance of Meiko Kaji.
For as strong as these films are, Kaji is the real reason to see them. There have been some magnificent vengeful women in the history of exploitation cinema but Kaji is in a league of her own, seriously. As the unbreakable Scorpion she is both beauty and beast – enduring extreme torture and sexual humiliation, while leading a prison revolt in her quest for vengeance. Both actress and accomplished singer, Kaji is a veritable powerhouse performer of Japanese exploitation cinema, having essayed sterling work in the Stray Cat Rock series of psychedelic juvenile gang flicks, and starring in some of Kinji Fukasaku’s magnificent full-blooded yakuza pictures, including the classic Yakuza Graveyard. Her most famous role outside of this series – as Yuki in Lady Snowblood – served as inspiration for Kill Bill, and Tarantino used Kaji's beautiful theme song from Snowblood, "Flower of Carnage" to great effect in part one.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion contains everything you will find in the remainder of the series, so if you don’t like what you see, venture no further. We are talking soft-core couplings, lesbianism, slapstick prison wardens administering gleeful punishment and lots and lots of blood, usually shooting out jet-stream style from freshly severed limbs. But, seriously, what’s not to like about that?
The first three entries are all directed by Shunya Ito, but individually they are quite distinct films. Part three, Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable has just been released by Eureka! and is more of a classical Japanese melodrama – with Matsu on the lam again from the same cops from the preceding films, and stumbling into a gang situation with (naturally) perverse undercurrents. Although it’s less obviously exploitative than the previous two entries, Beast Stable does have a killer opening on a train which ends with our heroine legging it through the streets of Japan handcuffed to a severed arm, and takes in a seriously dubious subplot that involves both incest and mental illness. The film is lensed with the same precision as the first, but lacks the kinetic narrative drive and surprise element that makes the first movie so compelling.
It is the second film in the series that is the definitive entry. Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 has Matsu recaptured and placed in solitary confinement, before escaping the bowels of the prison with six other inmates in tow. What follows is a crazed, seething avant-garde classic that plays out as the (il)logical conduit between the first and third films. Jailhouse 41 amps up proceedings, with even more nudity, gratuitous sadism, acid-tinged fantasy sequences, musical numbers and extreme martial artistry. This potent mix results in a film which is simply a five-star masterpiece of 70s Japanese cinema, hilarious and gruesome, yet beautiful and, dare I say it, feminist. Kaji truly cements the role in this one, emerging as a subversive Japanese (wo)man with no name.
This is one vengeful lady that deserves your sympathy and immediate attention.