Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection Blu-ray Review (Originally Published 2016)
The Women in Prison exploitation subgenre, known colloquially as “WIP,” has existed in one way or another since at least the 1930s. As the practice matured, it tended to be encapsulated within the more acceptable confines of pulpy noir (John Cromwell’s Caged, 1950) and B-grade melodrama (Lewis Seiler’s Women's Prison, 1955). Strict censorship rules kept the salaciousness of lesbianism and sadomasochistic violence to a minimum, but the girl fights and subtextual perversions were certainly established. WIP really broke out during the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when decency restrictions were lifted and a number of other exploitation subgenres were free to flood the grindhouse and drive-in markets. This new standard was set by the likes of Jess Franco’s 99 Women (1969), Lee Frost’s Love Camp 7 (the first in a long line of WIP Nazisploitation movies, 1969), and Chih-Hung Kuei’s House of Bamboo Dolls (Chinese: Nu ji zhong ying, 1973). The subgenre exploded in the ‘70s, thanks in large part to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, which produced writer/director Jack Hill’s Filipino-set jungle WIP movies, The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). Eventually, the concept entered the popular culture zeitgeist in the form of spoofs (SCTV and Saturday Night Live both ran satirical sketches on the subject) and made-for-TV movies (specifically Donald Wrye’s hyper-controversial Born Innocent, 1974).
WIP traditions entered Japanese pop culture with author/artist Tōru Shinohara’s Sasori (English: Scorpion) manga series, named for its antiheroine – a convict that revolts against a corrupt, patriarchal prison system. The comic was popular enough to garner interest from Toei film studio, who developed a franchise known as the Female Prisoner Scorpion series. Rising star Meiko Kaji was hired to play the title role (the character’s real name is actually Nami Matsushima), following a semi-falling out with rival studio Nikkatsu, where she made movies like Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) and the Stray Cat Rock series (1970-71). The four Female Prisoner Scorpion film’s she appeared in – Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (Japanese: Joshū Nana-maru-ichi Gō / Sasori, 1972), Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Japanese: Joshū Sasori – Dai 41 Zakkyobō, 1972), Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable (Japanese: Joshū Sasori - Kemono Beya, 1973), and Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701's Grudge Song (Japanese: Joshū Sasori - 701 Gō Urami Bushi, 1973) – helped propel her to superstar status as an actress and title song singer, leading up to another signature role as Yuki Kashima in Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (Japanese: Shurayuki-hime, 1973) and Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (Japanese: Shurayukihime - Urami renka, 1974).
Following Kaji’s exit, the series was put on a brief hold, before continuing with Yutaka Kohira’s New Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1976) and New Female Prisoner Scorpion: Special Cellblock X (1977), in which Yôko Natsuki played Nami; Toshiharu Ikeda’s Scorpion Woman Prisoner: Death Threat (1991), in which Naoko Amihama played Nami; and, most recently, Joe Ma’s Scorpion (2008), in which Miki Mizuno played Nami. None of these Kaji-free films are included in this collection.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion
A young woman named Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) is betrayed by a corrupt police detective named Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi), who has her unjustly imprisoned to curry favour with the local Yakuza. Now, Nami must negotiate the sadistic prison, plan an escape, and exact bloody revenge.
First-time feature director Shunya Itô, who worked as an assistant for mad genius Teruo Ishii (of Horrors of Malformed Men, 1969 and Blind Woman’s Curse fame), kicks the Female Prisoner Scorpion series off on a pretty standard note. Co-writers Fumio Konami & Hirō Matsuda load their script with WIP, prison escape, and revenge movie clichés that establish the basic ideas of Shinohara’s comics. Initially, Itô appears happy to embrace an archetypal genre piece. The first indications that Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion isn’t going to stay on a conventional path occur during Nami’s flashbacks. Flashbacks are a quintessential piece of Japanese revenge cinema, but, here, Itô steps out of the film’s established style to suggest a stream-of-conscious recollection with stark, rotating stage sets, impossible, wall & floor-breaking camera angles, and expressionistic lighting. When the film returns from the flashback, reality appears skewed, even as the story retreats back into typical WIP (and, later, revenge movie) adages. For example, during a catfight in the showers – the essential WIP cliché – Nami’s enemy arises from injury wearing a fright wig and noh-esque makeup that disappears when she accidentally stabs a guard. The cruelty is intense and some of the abusive imagery is pretty shocking, but Itô’s style-soaked approach depicts torture as a psychological concept and violence as almost cartoonish. This makes it at once more disturbing and less sadistic than its Italian and Hong Kong counterparts (most of the US/Filipino WIP movies were more concerned with T&A than violence). It’s still pretty misogynistic, though.
The original four Scorpion movies have seen DVD release in a number of territories, including anamorphic discs from Media Blasters in the US (except Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, which was released by Image and Eastern Star), Rapid Eye in Germany, and Eureka in the UK. This Blu-ray collection actually represents the first Blu-ray version of any Female Prisoner Scorpion movie. According to the booklet, Arrow acquired their four 2.35:1, 1080p transfers from 2K scans of “a set of low-contrast 35mm prints struck from the original 35mm film elements supplied by Toei Company, Ltd.” Picture grading, digital clean-up, and image stability were then all done in-house by Arrow. Using prints instead negatives appears to have thickened up the grain size a bit and created minor issues with blotchy details during wide-angle shots, but these films were also shot on-the-cheap using cheaper materials, so judging the accuracy of grain and clarity is difficult.
Perhaps the most important part of the booklet description is the warning that all four movies “favor a noticeably cyan/blue look throughout.” This is due to inherent flaws in the materials supplied and “relates to how these lab materials were created, as well as how the original elements have faded over time.” Cyan/blue tinting is a pretty common issue for deteriorated film and, without an incredibly expensive frame-by-frame scrubbing (like the one done for the Star Wars special edition), there’s not a lot a smaller studio can do. It is disappointing that Toei hasn’t taken as much care of their vault material as Nikkatsu, who seems to consistently supply US and European companies with cleaner HD scans, but Arrow has done a pretty admirable job fixing the issue without ruining the appealing, film-like appearance of these transfers. They probably could have leaned on the DNR enhancement button to clear up some of the thicker grain and made extreme changes to the color grading, but they’ve opted for a more natural appearance. Besides, the cyan tint rarely fades skin tones and is never a problem for the reds and greens (it might be worth noting that the footage used for the trailers that appear on this disc’s special features are noticeably warmer).
The original mono Japanese soundtracks of each film are preserved in 1.0 LPCM. This first film sets the pattern with a slightly shrill, but generally clean mix. In keeping with many movies of the era, much of the sound has clearly been added in post and effects are softer than dialogue. Shunsuke Kikuchi’s brassy, creepy score is the track’s highlight and features very little distortion, aside from a slight buzz during the loudest moments. The series theme, “Urami Bushi,” which is introduced here, was sung by Kaji with lyrics by Itô himself. It re-entered the pop culture landscape when Quentin Tarantino used it for Kill Bill: Volume One (along with the Lady Snowblood theme “Shura no Hana").
An appreciation by Gareth Evans (24:34, HD) – The director of The Raid and The Raid 2 discusses his introduction to Japanese cinema and the things that make Female Prisoner Scorpion so special. He also runs down some of the scenes that inspired his movies (sometimes subconsciously), including comparison footage, praises Kaji’s performance, and gives his interpretation of the Japanese flag imagery peppered throughout the film.
Shunya Itô: Birth of an Outlaw (15:47, HD) – This archive interview with the director is taken from Rapid Eye’s German DVD and re-edited to incorporate footage from Arrow’s remastered HD transfers. Itô talks about the social upheaval of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s and the way it affected the Japanese exploitation films of the era, Toei studio politics, working as an assistant to Ishii and Kenji Fukasaku, developing the [i]Scorpion[/i] series (despite thinking it was rehash of another, male-driven prison series), rejecting the cinematic realism that had been popular up until that time, and paying homage to surrealist European filmmakers.
Yutaka Kohira: Scorpion Old and New (14:46, HD) – The assistant director fondly recalls working on the first and fourth films in the series and shares his thoughts on Itô’s and Hasebe’s aesthetic choices, the films’ possible political meanings, and technical challenges. He only briefly mentions his work as lead director on the two [i]New Female Prisoner Scorpion[/i] movies.
Trailers for the four films in the collection
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41
Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) is recaptured and thrown into a solitary confinement. After suffering torment and humiliation, she recruits six other female convicts to escape the prison once again.
For the second film in the series, Itô cuts loose from expectations with weird-horror/fantasy themes. The director is credited as co-writer this time, alongside returning writers Konami & Matsuda, and he was clearly ready to take the series in a different direction. His raw and reactionary direction is also more refined and fearless. The film opens with Nami carving a spoon into a shiv with her mouth while chained in a strikingly gothic confinement cell – like the torture dungeon from one of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies. Her torments turn more abstract and allegorical this time, as exemplified during a sequence where she is raped by four men donning ratty cloaks and masks made of pantyhose while crucified to a tree. But this is only the beginning, because then Nami and some of the other inmates escape into a bombed-out, apocalyptic-looking village that is home to a morally ambiguous witch, who performs a sort of black magic kabuki opera that reveals the surviving escapees’ back-stories. She then hands off her ceremonial knife to Nami and dies. This outlandish event appears to signify that Nami has been possessed by a vengeful spirit, while other events – including the crucifix rape and her ability to ‘see’ the sins of her co-conspirators – imply that she’s a martyr/savior figure for the imprisoned women. The film takes a slightly more traditional turn from here, as the women continue to escaping into the countryside, but their adventures are still wrought with nightmare logic, references to fairy tales and mythology, and esoteric editing and camera techniques. Itô’s abstract imagery implies that the women have entered some kind of Nobuo Nakagawa-like hell and the barbarous actions of every single man they meet appears to verify the theory. It turns out that unifying element isn’t genre trappings, but the shared misery of women.
Jailhouse 41 is arguably the most graphically experimental film in the series and this leads to the collection’s most lively and vivid 1080p transfer. As mentioned, Itô and cinematographer Masao Shimizu (who has no other photography credits to his name) pull inspiration from a large slate of mostly horror influences, from dark, monochromatic scenes to sun-baked vistas and surrealistic dreamscapes. Grain levels, print damage, and other artifacts are similar to the first disc, though the really dark moments are rarely as ‘snowy.’ The bigger issue this time is the super high contrast, some of which is clearly intended, but can lead to some pretty severe white blow-outs and crushed blacks. Cyan tinting is a slightly bigger problem this time, as well, and it turns some of the skin tones and other natural hues greenish. The LPCM mono soundtrack is slightly less buzz than the previous film and a major uptick in abstract and exaggerated effects. The sound designers also utilize utter silence at shocking intervals, so the lack of hiss is quite welcome. Shunsuke Kikuchi returned as composer and supplies even bolder, rock-infused compositions this time around. There’s quite a bit more music, too, including both score and songs sung by Kaji (three, if I counted correctly).
Appreciation by critic Kier-La Janisse (28:03, HD) – The author of House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films and editor/contributor of Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s talks about Jailhouse 41’s arthouse-meets-grindhouse aesthetic, breaks down the ‘female revenge’ film subgenre, compares Nami to the other characters, remarks on some of the series’ distinctly Japanese qualities, and reconciles the sexual violence from a feminine perspective.
Jasper Sharp on the career of Shunya Itô (10:29, HD) – The author of Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema and The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (among others) looks back on the director’s complete career, including a number of influential and celebrated movies he made after he left the Female Prisoner Scorpion series.
Tadayuki Kuwana: Designing Scorpion (16:35, HD) – The production designer of the first two films discusses the kabuki flashback aesthetic, the inspiration behind the striped prison costumes (they’re based on the outfits worn by Auschwitz prisoners), and some of the technical ticks employed during set construction.
Teaser and theatrical trailers
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable
Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) is branded public enemy #1 and on the lam when she finds refuge with a sympathetic prostitute and her mentally disabled brother. Soon, she runs afoul of a local gang that is led by an ex-prison mate.
Itô’s last Female Prisoner Scorpion film completely removes the title character from the prison environment and sticks her at the center of a macabre yakuza plot. Matsuda is the only credited screenwriter this time, but it’s easy to assume Itô had a hand in the storytelling, since his furious direction propels the narrative. Beast Stable isn’t as satisfyingly avant-garde as its predecessors, in part because Nami has escaped the prison’s hellish influence at this point in the story. The hand-held camera work and urban environments again set a traditional stage upon which Itô’s experimental spirit can shine in unexpected ways. There’s more supremely gothic touches and horrifically gory sequences (Nami is found handcuffed to the severed arm of a police detective in a neon-lit graveyard straight out of a Mario Bava movie), as well as a series of distressingly delusory sequences that sometimes suggest that the curse has followed her into the ‘real world.’ The increasingly perverse gender politics are tweaked to a new and different extreme with the introduction of incestuous siblings – a cognitively disabled man-child and a guilt-ridden prostitute that is pregnant with her brother’s child. Female characters are still the victims of vile sexual assault, but tend to be placed in positions where they’re able to control the violence. Women commit and condone the most brutal and calculating violence here, including a shocking sexual assault with a golf club and a forced, sedative-free abortion, while mentally weak, sexually-driven men act as tools for torture. As her legendary status accumulates, Nami’s role changes from observer to judge, jury, and executioner/savior.
As mentioned, Beast Stable is a slightly more ‘naturalistic’ film (though the term has little meaning when it comes to movies this stylish) and the transfer follows suit. The higher contrast, thick grain, and cyan tint is more or less the same as it is on the other films, but does appear a bit more problematic, given the environmental demands. The black crush flattens some of the finer details and the tint greens-up neutral tones. The good news is that the warmer and brighter environments appear more vivid, punchy, and detailed, and the orange and red highlights pop beautifully against the otherwise blue nighttime backdrops. The LPCM mono soundtrack has considerable vocal fuzz, but little distortion in terms of effects and music, even at their loudest (the effects are super-impressionistic this time). Once again, Kikuchi supplies the soundtrack and leans a bit more theatrical by using fewer dissonant sounds and more brassy melodies. It’s a generally traditional yakuza thriller type score, but still has a slightly spooky edge. Kaji only sings the opening title track (which is reused for the final title).
An appreciation by critic Kat Ellinger (25:48, HD) – The Diabolique Magazine, Scream Magazine, and Fangoria contributor discusses her introduction to the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Kaji’s stoic dignity in this and similar movies, gender themes throughout the series, what the other actresses bring to Beast Stable, violent themes and genre-melding in Japanese cinema, and Itô’s directing style.
Shunya Itô: Directing Meiko Kaji (17:32, HD) – In this second hold-over from the German DVD, the director talks specifically about working with the lead actress throughout the series.
Unchained Melody: A Visual Essay by Tom Mes (21:30, HD) – Midnight Eye editor/contributor and author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto and Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike Tom Mes runs down a complete history of Meiko Kaji’s fabulous career. This includes a definition of Pinky Violence as a subgenre, the connected themes of her films, her refusal to participate in particularly sexually exploitative movies (which led to her leaving Nikkatsu), her professional name change (she was born Masako Ohta and acted under the name for years), her musical career, and her disinterest in being the major star she could’ve become.
Teaser and theatrical trailer
Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701 Grudge Song
Nami (Meiko Kaji) is still on the run from police detective Hirose (Hiroshi Tskukata) when she finds herself in cahoots with an ex-radical named Kudo (Masakuza Tamura), who is suffering from physical and psychological trauma caused by police torture.
Directing duties on the final film (or at least the final film before the franchise was put on temporary hold) were handed over to Yasuharu Hasebe, the filmmaker behind Massacre Gun (Japanese: Minagoroshi no kenjū, 1967), Retaliation (Japanese: Shima wa moratta, 1968), and a pioneer of the pinku exploitation thrillers at Nikkatsu. While Hasebe’s directorial control ensures that Grudge Song is the slickest and most action-packed of the four movies, his ostentatious choices aren’t as unexpected or artistically off-kilter as Itô’s, meaning that Grudge Song feels more like a series impression than a true entry. The more down-to-earth tone, plainly-stated political allegories, and relatively straight-forward plot makes for a decent crime thriller and entertaining, though predictable WIP movie (minus a tacked-on and pointlessly cruel rape sequence), but it’s the weakest Female Prisoner Scorpion movie. The gender politics are still pretty interesting, though, perhaps only because of the way they recall the first three movies. Nami is finally able to trust and befriend a man, but only because that man, Kudo is a victim of systemic authoritative abuse who can relate to her own trauma. He has been more or less castrated as well, meaning that he’s unable to act on the same impulses that define men throughout the series (the two do end up sleeping together and the experience appears to be pleasurable to Nami, who flashes back to the bloody sheet motif from the first film). Kudo’s story is interesting enough, but he also steals the spotlight from Nami, who sits around with her hands tied, playing second-fiddle to an emotionally compromised man that inevitably betrays her. Even Kaji seems to be phoning this one in a bit, following her almost supernatural portrayal in Beast Stable.
Grudge Song looks a lot like the other films in the set, but might actually be the best in terms of clarity and detail. Problems pertain mostly to the cyan tint, which greens-up the flesh tones again (perhaps even more than any other movie in the set), and the harsh gamma/contrast, which crushes and/or washes out the more complex details. Grain texture is finer, even if it isn’t any less persistent. The brighter shots have more tonal range than their counterparts and edges are pretty tight. The LPCM mono soundtrack is also probably the best in the collection. Dialogue still suffers from a twinge of hiss, but sound effects are neatly mixed and consistent in terms of volume and clarity. When Itô left the series, so did composer Kikuchi. Replacement composer Hajime Kaburagi sticks to a standard [i]Yakuza[/i] boogie jazz aesthetic and the sound works quite well with the film’s rough ‘n tumble approach. The score sounds crisp, especially the hammered dulcimer notes.
An appreciation by filmmaker Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (11:13, HD) – The director of Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts (one of the first films I ever reviewed for DVDActive, 1997) and Green Mind, Metal Bats (2006) talks about Grudge Song’s impact on his career, Hasebe’s filmmaking talent, Kaji’s raw talent, the series’ impressionistic qualities, and his film education.
Yasuharu Hasebe: Finishing the Series (19:49, HD) – In this third archive extra from the German DVD, the director discusses his approach to the series, his love of movies, his filmmaking career, and his assumption that he was brought on to direct the film at Kaji’s request.
Jasper Sharp on Director Yasuharu Hasebe (16:54, HD) – The author/critic returns for another retrospective, this time focusing on director Hasebe and his larger career.
They Call Her Scorpion: A Visual Essay by Tom Mes (40:00, HD) – Mes also returns for one final breakdown of the entire [i]Female Prisoner Scorpion[/i] series. This substantial retrospective covers a lot of ground and is probably the collection’s most impressive special feature. There is some overlap with the other extras, but most of it is necessary.
In addition to the films, the extras, the nice box, reversible sleeve art, and a two-sided poster, this Limited Edition comes fitted with a hardbound 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 Female Prisoner Scorpion manga. This is arguably the most complete and attractive set Arrow has ever released.
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