Distributor: Arrow Video
BBFC Classification: 18
Directors: Shunya Ito, Yasuharu Hasebe
Starring: Meiko Kaji, Rie Yokoyama, Yoyoi Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi, Fumio Watanabe, Yayoi Watanabe, Masakazu Tamura, Hiroshi Tsukata
Continuing a run of fantastic limited edition box sets, Arrow Video have finally put together the first four movies in the Japanese women-in-prison/revenge Female Prisoner Scorpion series in a lavish package loaded with extras. Based on a comic, the films – particularly the original – have become notable amongst cult cinema connoisseurs for their depictions of graphic violence, sex and strong female characters, many elements that were copied by hundreds of other exploitation movies throughout the 1970s but never quite captured with the same sense of artistic flair.
The first film in the series is 1972’s Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, which introduces Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji – Lady Snowblood/Blind Woman’s Curse) as she and her friend are trying to escape from prison. She is captured and thrown into solitary confinement where she is tortured by the guards and fellow inmates, eventually being let back out into the general population where, due to her several escape attempts and general rebellious behavior she is targeted by an assassin named Katagiri (Rie Yokoyama) and her gang of goons. It turns out Nami – now nicknamed Scorpion – was set up by her crooked cop lover to take the fall whilst trying to bust the local Yakuza gang and she is now biding her time and waiting for her chance to take revenge on those who have wronged her, which she does in spectacular style.
Whilst a fairly standard woman-in-prison movie, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion stands out as something of a masterpiece by first-time director Shunya Ito, with a unique visual style and sense of the theatrical that goes against the film’s more exploitative trappings. The film also goes through several tonal shifts that culminate in a third act that has the darker feel of a horror movie as Nami finally seizes her chance and goes on the rampage, with even the cackling female prisoners adding a haunting atmosphere to accompany the violence.
As an origin story for an intriguing character Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is nearly perfect, with only a slight lag in the middle stopping it from becoming a complete adrenaline rush of grindhouse action. Meiko Kaji hardly says a word throughout but she doesn’t have to as her movements and facial expressions say everything that her character needs to express, and as a template for the direction of women-in-prison movies this is probably the defining article.
But as with any successful – either critically or commerically – movie the inevitable sequel will follow and 1972 also saw the release of Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, which catches up with Nami one year on. She is being kept in the dank, dark basement of the prison as punishment for her rebellious behaviour but the prison is being visited by a dignitary so Nami is let back into the general population so the guards can keep face. Of course, Nami doesn’t quite behave herself and attacks the warden once again but this time her punishment takes on a more sinister tone which gives her and six other prisoners the chance to escape, forcing the vengeful warden and his guards into hot pursuit, although this time the warden wants Nami dead instead of captured.
Doing what most sequels do by taking elements of the first film and blowing them up to even more ridiculous extremes, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 is a far less satisfying journey into director Shunya Ito’s book of filmmaking tricks, perhaps because it feels a lot more forced than it did in the first film. The plot for this one is more straightforward and actually quite a lot darker thematically but the film tries too hard to recapture the surreal spirit of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and ends up being a lot less interesting visually and plods along for a lot of its running time.
Considering the nature of the plot and what happens to Nami there is a considerable lack of nudity in this film and the violence, whilst still there and still gloriously bloody, doesn’t quite hit with the same ferocity. There are a couple of standout setpieces that start to get the pulse racing and Meiko Kaji is once again excellent as Nami but overall the arthouse sensibilities smother the edgier exploitation traits, making Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 a little less exciting to sit through than the first film.
Which is probably why 1973’s Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable takes a slightly grittier, more realistic approach. In this one, Nami is still on the run from the authorities and, after chopping off the arm of one of her pursuers after a chase on a subway train, finds shelter with prostitute Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), who happens to be involved in an incestuous relationship with her mentally handicapped brother, and gets a job working in a factory in an attempt to blend in. But after Yuki is abused by the madam of the prostitute ring she works for, who is also a former fellow prisoner of Nami’s, Nami comes out of hiding to seek revenge and discovers that the cops have not forgotten about her.
As previously stated, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable is a bit grittier and more down-to-earth than the previous film, although Shunya Ito still has one or two neat visual tricks at play to help heighten the reality every now and then. Unfortunately, the pacing in this film is way off and for most of the running time it flits between dull sex scenes involving Yuki and her brother, and Nami wondering around not doing very much. It does pick up the pace a bit towards the end and there is a definite J-horror vibe to the final 10 minutes but the attempts at exploitation and brutality directed at Yuki and Nami never hit the heights of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion or even the semi-comedic chase during the opening scenes which leads to the arm amputation that becomes a running gag throughout the movie. It’s a more streamlined and less hectic approach than Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 and the tone and material is certainly a lot darker but unfortunately this third film in the series is quite boring and feels a lot longer than the 87-minute running time.
With ever-decreasing budgets meaning that Shunya Ito’s vision was being limited, Yasuharu Hasebe (Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter) was brought on board to direct 1973’s Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song and the changes show as this fourth movie in the series is a lot smaller in scale than any of the previous outings. In this one, Nami is being hunted down by the cops who are determined to see her executed for her crimes but she manages to give them the slip once more and finds refuge with Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), a former radical who bears the scars of police brutality. As the pair discover they have a lot in common the cops close in, and Nami must decide if she can trust a man again to help keep her out of the clutches of the crooked Detective Hirose (Hiroshi Tsukata).
Continuing the grittier style of storytelling that Beast Stable relied on, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song is perhaps the oddball of the four films as Nami is given a bit of development and allowed to do more than just stare intensely and kill people. Of course, this is all part of the plot and four films in a bit of development was needed, and the film does keep it relatively grounded, giving Nami just enough of a tweak to make her actions understandable and believable, to a point. However, much like the previous film there are long sections where it just drags, making you wish the cops would close in a bit quicker and the action – which is still handled excellently and in keeping with what has gone before – was a bit more plentiful. The change in director is very noticeable as the film keeps things fairly straight and lacking any real visual flair, and although it isn’t bad by any standards it just doesn’t stand out in the same way that the first film does or have any memorable setpieces.
But this isn’t just four films packaged in a box – this is as gorgeous a box set as Arrow Video have put out so far, with each dual-format film getting a 2K restoration and some truly magnificent new artwork courtesy of Ian MacEwan. There are also a ton of featurettes to wade through, most notably an appreciation of the original Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion by director Gareth Evans (The Raid/V/H/S/2) plus a visual essay on the whole series by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes. The Female Prisoner Scorpion series has enough of a reputation amongst fans of cult cinema to warrant such a wonderful edition, and although the films do differ in quality from the brilliant first film to the less-dazzling fourth one they are never less than genuine examples of Japanese exploitation that should be celebrated just for existing as they do. Go and pick this set up, if there are any left.
Special Features: Limited edition box set includes double-sided fold-out poster of two original artworks, reversible sleeves for all films featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan, booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Chuck Stephens, a brand new interview with Toru Shinohara, creator of the original Scorpion manga and an archive interview with Meiko Kaji by Chris D. illustrated with original stills, plus various cast and critic interviews, featurettes and trailers for each film.
UK Release Date: 8th August 2016