First published by EyeforFilm
The women-in-prison (or WIP) film has a long and sordid history as one of exploitation cinema’s more unsavoury subgenres. So at first glance, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, with its badass inmates, its sadistic guards, and its girl-on-girl action (in every sense), ought to be dismissible as pure trash.
Certainly director Shunya Ito is aware of his film’s generic associations, even setting one climactic scene on a giant rubbish heap – and yet there is something in the combination of the leads’ intense performances, Ito’s own quirky vision, and the presence of tragic/epic themes, that elevates the film way, way, way above the typical WIP fare of, say, Jess Franco. For Jailhouse 41 represents the same sort of merger between grindhouse and arthouse that has recently been preoccupying none other than Quentin Tarentino, who paid personal homage to Ito’s film both by appropriating its theme song (Urami-Bushi) in Kill Bill, and also using its lead as the basis for Lucy Liu’s character O-Ren Ishii.
For more than a year, the prisoner Matsu, aka Scorpion (Meiko Kaji), has been kept in chains in an underground chamber away from all human contact or sunlight, partly because she is “a killer and habitual escapee” – but mostly because her warden Goda (Fumiko Watanabe) harbours a vicious personal grudge against her.
Briefly brought outside for an official prison inspection, Matsu causes a riot, and is brutally punished – but then manages a violent breakout with six of her fellow inmates, including the hardened infanticide Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi). On the run, the seven face dangers both external and internal, and after one of their number is raped and murdered by tourists on a bus trip, the women take everyone on the bus hostage in a last desperate attempt not only to escape but also to confront their personal demons. It does not end well, but nothing will keep Matsu from making a stab at freedom.
Originally the heroine of an adult manga by Tooru Shinoharo, Matsu was immortalised by the actress Meiko (Lady Snowblood) Kaji in three Female Convict films directed by Shunya Ito (Female Convict #701: Scorpion, Jailhouse 41, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable), and a fourth by Kasuharu Hasebe (Female Convict Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song), all filmed in rapid succession for Toei Studios between 1972 and 1973. There have been subsequent attempts in the late Seventies and in the Nineties to revive Matsu for new audiences, but without Kaji in the lead role to provide her expressive line in silent, rage-filled glowering, the character has long since lost her special spark.
From the moment we first glimpse Matsu in Jailhouse 41, bound hand and foot in chains and yet still methodically trying to dig a hole through solid stone using only a spoon clutched between her teeth, she is irrepressible resistance made flesh. Meanwhile her arch-nemesis Goda, with his crisp uniforms, casual cruelty, and enthusiastic use of rape as a measure of control, is the very embodiment of male fascism.
As these two implacable figures circle each other, it becomes clear that Goda cannot maintain his full authority unless Matsu is hidden out of sight, while Matsu can never truly escape unless Goda is put out of the picture once and for all – and so their violent confrontation reflects the tensions between Japan’s patriarchal traditions and the emerging women’s movement of the late Sixties and Seventies.
Matsu may be a wrongly convicted prisoner, but she is also a feminist icon, refusing to countenance any sort of constraint from her male oppressors, and enraged beyond measure when betrayed by her own sex. “You sold me”, she says to Oba, in the first of only two utterances that she delivers in the entire film – and the words have every bit as much socio-political resonance as Wyatt’s “We blew it” in Easy Rider. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and even her beloved sisterhood had best avoid feeling the sting of this particular Scorpion’s tail.
As if to underscore the film’s feminist concerns, all Matsu’s fellow inmates are treated as tragic heroines, sympathetic precisely for the criminality that sets them apart. Their wrongdoings are revealed one by one in a stylised song reminiscent of a lyrical chorus (“Women commit crimes because of men/Driven by love, hatred and jealousy/Listen to my story of these seven sinful girls…”), and Oba in particular seems to be modelled directly on Euripides’ Medea: both murdered their own children to punish their husbands’ infidelity, and both are haunted by what they have done. Not that tragedy is the only influence on the film, for Jailhouse 41 also plays itself out like a spaghetti western, complete with its band of seven magnificent poncho-wearing renegades, and Shunsuke Kikuchi’s awesome score (boasting enough guitars, flutes and Jew’s harps to do Ennio Morricone proud).
The truth is that when it comes to genre, Ito, like his protagonist, just will not be confined or restrained, making Jailhouse 41 as aesthetically striking and deliriously weird a WIP pic as is ever likely to be made. Highly recommended.
© Anton Bitel