I’ve mentioned before how I work as a video store clerk, and any movie store worth it’s salt is sure to have a decently sized Criterion section. We’re lucky enough to have a sister section in our Criterion shelf dedicated to Arrow Video, a company that behaves like Criterion except they specialize in horror, sci-fi, exploitation, and cult films rather than pieces of high art. For example, films like Microwave Massacre, Society, and the entirety of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ catalogue of the macabre are available. Naturally, these films have flashy, explicit covers to grab your attention in any way possible, but out of all of them, I was drawn to a box set with a rather restrained and elegant cover. This turned out to be the Female Prisoner Scorpion Collection, a series of movies I knew nothing about at the time but after some quick Google-Fu, they shot right to the top of my to-watch list.
The Female Prisoner Scorpion films follow Nami Matsushima a.k.a Matsu the Scorpion (Meiko Kaji, later famous for Lady Snowblood), a convict in a Japanese all-women’s prison who was incarcerated for assaulting a police officer. Matsu fell in love with a narcotics officer named Sugimi who convinced her to work with him on a sting operation. Sugimi let the Yakuza catch Matsu, and let them have their way with her before using her rape as a distraction to help make his drug bust. Left bloodied, broken, and bruised, Matsu became hellbent on getting her revenge on Sugimi, and after a failed murder attempt against her former lover, she was locked away behind bars. Her hatred burns so deep however, that she’ll take any opportunity she can to escape prison, find Sugimi, and pay him back for the torture and pain she went through when he betrayed her.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (Scorpion for brevity’s sake) is an odd movie to get through. It’s equal parts sleazy exploitation and beautiful arthouse and for anyone unaware of what kinds of things crop up in ’70s exploitation movies, it can be an instant turn off. Torture, rape, and murder all make their way into Scorpion like streetlamps in a Michael Bay movie. This film wastes no time showing that the prison Matsu is locked away in is Hellish. She attempts an escape at the beginning of the film, and after being caught she is thrown in to solitary confinement. This prison is a brutal and despicable place where the guards are sadistic and even Matsu’s fellow inmates are constantly looking to do her in.
I’ve read arguments that the ’70s exploitation and rape-revenge films like I Spit on Your Grave or Last House on the Left are really just feminist and woman-empowering, but honestly, I think that’s just a load of bullshit. Sure, I understand the basic narrative tool of putting a character through a traumatic experience, and then letting them have their revenge. The audience gets some satisfaction that even though the main character will live with scars for the rest of their life, they at least get vengeance against those who hurt them. I get the concept. But when your movie contains no fewer than three rape scenes on top of already excessive nudity and torture, it simply feels misogynistic and detracts from anything else your movie. I do have to say that the graphic scenes in Scorpion are nowhere near the level shocking and disturbing as those in Last House on the Left or Irreversible (not that that makes including a scene like that inherently okay). Having a rape scene in your movie is a legitimate way to solidify how dark and disturbing some characters or the world can be, and can be used to help propel certain characters’ motivations forward. Look at Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s disturbing and hard to watch, but it helps define the stakes in the film and help us understand Lisbeth’s behaviors and motivations. A scene like that needs to move the story or characters forward in a major way, and if it doesn’t, I guarantee that you can cut that scene out with no detriment to your movie as a whole.
If all the sexual violence was toned down in Scorpion, this would easily be one of the best films I’ve seen in a while. It would still be a weird, Japanese cult hit, but it would be on the level of “hand a director with a vision a camera and a bunch of money” film making as The Warriors or Easy Rider. It’s got a surrealist flair to it with a touch of influence in the lighting department from old German Expressionist films, and director Shun’ya Itô has a great handle on using varying camera movements and interesting angles to build or dissipate tension. When we’re shown Matsu’s backstory, we’re treated to an almost theater play like sequence depicting the events. The long takes and moving sets really translate well into the stream-of-consciousness style narrative that memories typically have. Itô can leave the camera still, letting the audience soak in the details of each frame, or whip it around violently to throw the audience headfirst into the chaos he’s creating on screen. The slow, methodical build up to the prison riot scene is handled so well. The cinematography slowly gets more and more intense in tandem with the characters on screen until the prisoners reach their tipping point and brutally murder a guard with a shovel, starting all out war between the guards and their captives. Blood flies like paint getting thrown out of a can, and bodies hit the floor like a Drowning Pool concert. I was basically suffocating the arm rest of my couch through this whole sequence, just waiting for the proverbial Jenga tower to fall.
All this is amplified by Meiko Kaji’s performance of Matsu. She brings an almost off-puttingly intense and focused presence to a film with filled with over the top characters and scenery-chewing actors. She looks like she can (and eventually does) silence a room with a single glare, and her almost unbroken silence throughout the movie is a way better narrative mechanism to tell us about her than any exposition could be. Whenever Matsu is subject to abuse in Scorpion, her scowl is a reminder to us that she’s tough as fucking nails. She has a goal that she will pursue at any cost: escape prison and kill Sugimi. She knows that anything that isn’t guiding her laser-like focus towards completing her mission is a setback, and she won’t give anyone the satisfaction of a reaction, even when she’s being tortured by another inmate or laying hog-tied on concrete in solitary confinement for weeks on end. It’s energy wasted on what she feels is a lower priority than her vengeance. She oozes cool, like a Japanese female version of Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name; just the most badass person who can get through anything thrown at her with sheer will, determination, and skill.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is unlike any movie I’ve seen before. Apparently women-in-prison is a sub-subgenre of exploitation movies, so there are more movies out there that are kind of similar to this, but I doubt they have the visual artistry or degree of competent writing and acting that Scorpion has. Meiko Kaji is a force to be reckoned with despite her lack of dialogue, and her performance in this movie has definitely inspired me to check out the Lady Snowblood movies, in which she also stars. The Lady Snowblood films were made around the same time, but have since been inducted into the Criterion Collection, and have served as a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. If you can look past some unsavory scenes in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, I would completely recommend it to anyone who has an interest in older Asian cinema, revenge thrillers, or cult hits. It has enough going for it to warrant a watch, but I can also completely see how this could not be someone’s cup of tea. This is a weird movie for people who like weird movies, and if something like Snowpiercer or Under the Skin seem like too much for you to handle, I 100% do not blame you for skipping this one.