Friday, 16 May 2014

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)

The Japanese studio Toei Company are the innovators of pinky violence a term used to label a more specific range of pink exploitation films they produced throughout the 1970s. These were action thrillers with strong female protagonists, brutal graphic violence and generous amounts of female nudity and sexual titillation. Completely done away with, the stereotype of servile sexually repressed Japanese women is replaced with portrayals of tough sexualized badass girls fighting to free themselves from the shackles of Japan’s male dominated society. The depictions of violence usually entail catfights, knife fights, swordfights, torment, torture etc. The nudity, sex and sexual violence serve as the character’s degradation through their plights or using sex for empowerment over their male or even female adversaries… that and the sights of gorgeous naked young Asian women and their sexual activities are used to arouse the male viewers.

The foundations of pinky violence can be found with another of Japan’s major movie studios Nikkatsu with their output of sukeban (literal English translation: girl boss, meaning female juvenile delinquents) including their highly acclaimed action series Alleycat Rock that was made to compete with Toei’s own Delinquent Girl Boss sukeban series. However, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s cinema attendance was at an all-time low due to the competition of home television with the studios facing an economic crisis. In order to get the cinemagoers back Nikkatsu moved away from action into roman porno (romance porn) that were better made more commercially accessible soft-core sex films targeted towards a demographic of young couples rather than the dirty mac crowd.

Contracted to Nikkatsu the star of their Alleycat Rock series the strikingly beautiful actress and singer Meiko Kaji played a pivotal role in the birth of pinky violence. She did not want to star in pornography making the move to Toei who although were carrying on making sukeban action movies wanted to inject more violence and sex into their productions paving the way for what would become known as pinky violence. It might seem contradictive that Kaji would leave Nikkatsu due to her disinterest in their new soft-core pornographic direction only to end up stripping off for the first time on screen in a film in which the nudity and sex had been upped. I think though her decision was more to do with not wanting to be relegated to playing submissive weaker characters such as the servile type of women that the sukeban Alleycat Rock series dispelled. Although, this first movie she did for Toei would not only be the first time she went topless but it would also be her last. Meiko Kaji would get to play an empowered woman here that would become one of her most iconic roles in Japanese exploitation cinema.

Kaji went on to star in the studio’s 1972 women in prison film ‘Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion’ based on the popular Manga comic book series ‘Sasori’ (English: Scorpion) written and drawn by Tōru Shinohara. She plays the titular anti-hero the silent and deadly murderous and vengeful Nami Matsushima a.k.a. Matsu the Scorpion. She also recorded the rather wonderful theme song Urami Bushi (English: Her Song of Vengeance) co-written by the movie’s director Shunya Ito with Shun-suke Kikuchi. It went gold in Japan and Quentin Tarantino would later use it for the soundtrack to both volumes of ‘Kill Bill’ (2003 & 2004). With production completed in 90 days in a time when productions of the ilk would last just a few weeks, Ito making his debut feature here had the luxury of letting his creative juices flow more freely. The director mixes a cocktail of exploitation and surrealistic artistry with a shot of the substance of feminist empowerment in its social commentary.

Set up by her corrupt police detective boyfriend Sugimi (Isao Natuyagi) in order to get in with the Japanese mafia the Yakuza that results in her rape by a gang of drug dealers Matsu (Meiko Kaji) in a rage tries to stab Sugimi in public outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Headquarters. After her failed attempt at revenge on the man she loved so much and lost her virginity to only for him to wrong her so despicably the scorned Matsu is sent to do hard time for attempted murder in a women’s prison run by lecherous male guards with a sadistic streak and is given the inmate number of #701. She soon builds a reputation for herself as a difficult prisoner and a woman not to be messed with earning her the nickname “Matsu the Scorpion” due to her deadly sting.

After a failed escape attempt with her friend Yukiko (Yayoi Watanabe) they are both punished by being placed into solitary confinement and bound by ropes. Matsu is tormented and tortured by the guards and prisoner trustees. Prison warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) decides to make an example of her by punishing the whole prison population to turn them against her. When out of solitary she is attacked by one of the trustees in the shower. Matsu successfully defends herself but purposely causes Warden Goda to lose his right eye when she ducks out of the way of the inmate trying to stab her with a shade of glass.

Meanwhile on the outside, due to their concerns that she might be a risk that could jeopardize their business arrangement Sugimi and the head of the Yakuza plot to have Matsu killed. To do the dirty deed Sugimi enlists the services of her fellow prison inmate, trustee Katagiri (the gorgeous Rie Yokoyama) who worked as a drug mule for the Yakuza and who Sugimi was responsible for arresting offering her the opportunity to get out, and she agrees. After Matsu is punished for causing the loss of Goda’s eye by being forced to dig holes for 2 days and nights, a riot breaks out when she kills another inmate that results in Yukiko being shot by one of the guards when she jumps in the way to save Matsu. Will Matsu escape her incarceration during the riot to exact her revenge on Sugimi, the Yakuza boss and the drug dealers who gang raped her or will Katagiri get to her first?

There is T & A galore and a raunchy lesbian sex scene between Kaji and the also lovely Yumiko Katayama playing a rookie prison guard undercover as an inmate in solitary with Matsu to find out if she deliberately caused the loss of Warden Goda’s eye. There is also graphic violence aplenty so that is the exploitation aspect taken care of. The director though executes these exploitative proceedings with an avant-garde approach that the most ardent cinephile can appreciate with an array of stylistic experimentation making for a visual treat and a complex art collage rather than just straight exploitation with a linear narrative.

This is supreme visual power highlighted by the most standout innovation to be seen here serving as a perfect example of this point as Shunya Ito employs dream logic to tell Matsu’s backstory of how she came to be imprisoned while she narrates in solitary. There is off the wall camera angles, extraordinary lighting techniques with a haze of green and orange and even theatrical moving-sets to change the scenarios of the sequence supplemented by the otherworldly like score all making for a dream-fuelled flashback. This amongst other grand scenes or artistic surrealist imagery is encapsulated in a brooding atmosphere thanks in no small part to the grimy setting of the squalid surroundings of the prison that only emphasizes the harsh realities of life inside along with the depictions of the cruel acts of violence.

The film’s social commentary is not so much underlying sub-text but more in your face angry finger pointing that is about as subtle as the touch of a rapist, which is somewhat appropriate considering the subject matter. The genre’s theme of “tough sexualized badass girls fighting to free themselves from the shackles of Japan’s male dominated society” is never more apparent here with Meiko Kaji’s Nami Matsushima representing this due to the grave injustice she is dealt out by her man and is subsequently gang raped. She is fucked over even further by the male-dominated system by being thrown into a prison run by misogynistic sadistic guards who poke her with their truncheons as if they were extensions of their penises. In one scene they use these phallic symbols to stick in her mouth and between her legs while she is bound slapping her in the face shouting out “bitch!” as they beat her for a confession to purposely injuring one of the trustees. It is in prison though against such extreme odds in an oppressive male environment that Nami finds her resolve grows strong and develops a cunning and methodical mind doing away with the once naïve and vulnerable young girl she once was transforming into Matsu the Scorpion.

Kaji’s portrayal of her protagonist is compellingly brilliant an embodiment of feminist rage an anti-hero who although has no qualms of murdering will only do so those who do her wrong. She is a strong silent type hardly speaking a word with the most dialogue coming from her inner monologue narrating her backstory. Although, the character was not originally written this way by Shinohara nor by the screenwriters of this adaptation as in the Manga source material and the writers' intended interpretation of it she was a foul-mouthed street fighter. Meiko Kaji though was not comfortable speaking such profanity so the director made a compromise with his star and the character was re-imagined as someone who hardly spoke at all except for key dialogue. Such as her narration of that emotionally rewarding backstory which is essential in drawing our sympathies for our heroine and her tragic plight and such important lines as “To be deceived is a woman’s crime” that says women are made to suffer for men’s betrayal and for their crimes. Kaji says so little yet says so much with her facial expressions that Ito fully utilizes with close-up shots - you really know this woman, is Goddamned pissed off! This silent persona also perfectly matches the look the character is given when finally taking her revenge with a completely black outfit consisting of a long-length coat down to her ankles and a wide-brimmed hat - a dark silent angel of vengeance and the ultimate in cool.

Stunning visual artistry, a poignant tale of revenge, a super tough heroine, an authentic social commentary on Japan’s social ills damning its male dominated society that holds down its females, brutal violence and sexy naked Oriental women two of which including the star get it on. What more could you ask for? Well there is the rest of the Female Prisoner series. ‘Jailhouse 41’ released in the same year of ’72 is possibly the best of the bunch in which Shunya Ito’s artistic experimentation in surrealism is greatly heightened and is more of a road movie gradually moving away from the prison setting. This would be almost wholly removed in 1973’s also great ‘Beat Stable’ which is more urban film noir and is easily the most disturbing, sexually depraved and is arguably the most emotional of the series. The last entry ‘Grudge Song’ in which Ito was replaced in the director’s chair by Yasuharu Hasebe while the lesser of the four due to its budget cutbacks providing a scaled down scope is still a solid effort that brings the series full circle and is a satisfying finale and would make a partial return to a prison setting. I will elaborate on all three of these movies in later reviews.

‘Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion’ is an essential example of both pinky violence and the women in prison film and is just one of the greatest pieces of exploitation cinema ever made that also borders on the art house. Beautiful and strange filmmaking there is never a dull moment here both visually and narratively. This is a must see for cult cinema enthusiasts.

****1/2 out of *****

Dave J. Wilson 

©2014 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. Great write-up, excellent series. I haven't watched these in a few years, and they're definitely overdue for a rewatch. In the period in which these were made, there seemed to be something in the air--similar pictures were turning up in lots of different places. This was the time of THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE and Roger Corman's women-in-jungle-prisons movies, among others. This one, though, is easily one of the best.

    1. Thank you, Cinema. Yeah agreed there were many similar films popping up like this at the time and ‘Thriller: A Cruel Picture’ is another fine example and a favourite of mine. ‘Female Prisoner’ has a rape and revenge element as well and both movies are exploitation mixed with art house filmmaking.

      My review of T: ACP...

  2. Really great write-up Dave, I've had this series ready to watch for a few weeks now and just haven't gotten around to it. I've not yet really dove into pinky violence films, but it's about time to fix that, and I'll be starting with this series.

    1. Thanks, Jonny. The Female Prisoner series are some of my favourite exploitation films.