Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion

Shunya Itō, 1972

As the last decade has progressed, comic book adaptations have been coming at moviegoers thick and fast. These have been rather inconsistent in quality with various graphic novels such as Ghost World and the fact based Persepolis proving to be the successes of the medium, with most films, including the large majority of the 21 films Marvel has contributed (with the notable exception of those directed by Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer) being wholly average in quality. However it may seem though, comic book adaptations and the numerous spin-offs and sequels they produce are not a recent development and it’s worth casting a look at one of the lesser known earlier franchises, Japan’s Female Prisoner #701 series.

Based on the Sasori manga comics of ru Shinohara the first of these is titled Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and tells the story of Nami ‘Matsu’ Matsushima (played by Meiko Kaji, who would later take the title role in the similarly revenge themed Lady Snowblood series) who is sent to jail after attempting to stab the police officer who first seduced her, before using her to implement a sting that resulted in her being raped. The film follows Matsu as she attempts to escape from prison in order to enact her revenge on those who betrayed her whilst at the same time surviving altercations with fellow prisoners and guards alike.

This series was funded by the Toei Company, notorious for their own particular brand of ‘Pinky Films’ known as ‘Pinky Violence Films’. These contained all the nudity and soft-core sex synonymous with the Pinky films but as the title would suggest, with lashings of violence complementing the nudity. Just at the films of the New Hollywood were a response to the advent of television, attempting to get viewers back to the movie houses via increasingly experimental and exploitative films so too were these and Female Prisoner can be seen as one of the best example of this genre.

First time director Shunya Ito (who would later earn himself an Oscar nomination for his 1985 film Gray Sunset) brings a great deal of stylistic flair to his debut, there are sets where the walls revolve as in theatre to reveal new surroundings, certain scenes are shot through a glass floor so we can see Matsu’s face as she lies face down on the ground following her abuse, and all the while there is the expressive use of lighting with bright greens and reds dictating the tone of the scene. In one sequence another inmate attempts to stab Matsu whilst in the showers. As the fight progresses and the assailant becomes more enraged suddenly her hair begins to stand on end, the lighting turns blue and her makeup turns to one of the face masks seen in traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre. Jump cuts are also evident throughout, a technique the Nouvelle Vague had only unveiled in the previous decade, and directors such as Scorsese were beginning to make their trademark at the same time. With all this experimentation the film works well as an art house alternative to the women in prison films people such as Roger Corman were producing in America, with Kaji proving herself to be every bit the equal of Pam Grier.

Indeed it is Kaji’s performance that carries the film. Despite her literary counterpart being extremely vocal and foul mouthed, Kanji convinced Ito to break away from this and allow her to give a primarily silent performance at Matsu, with the her cold stare conveying more hatred for her enemies than the shouting of obscenities ever could. The most play Kaji’s vocals get for the films duration is in the film’s title song ‘Urami Bushi’ also known as ‘My Grudge Blues’ a haunting number sang by Kaji herself. Ever desperate to shoehorn in as many references and allusions as possible, Tarantino would later feature the song on the soundtrack to Kill Bill(during the Lady Snowblood styled fight scene no less).

Ito and Kaji would work together on a further two films in this series, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) and Female Prisoner 701: Beast Stable (1973) both of which maintain the original’s acute sense of style whilst remarkably managing to increase the amount of violence and nudity, every bit the equal to the original they never feel forced as many sequels do and are a worthy continuation of Matsu’s search for vengeance. As evidenced in many of the other great films of the decade such as Taxi Driver and Suspiria- when art house aesthetics are combined with exploitation narratives, the result is something extraordinary in its own right. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is one such film, far greater than the slew of comic adaptations around today and definitely worthy of greater attention that it receives.
words by pete bond.