First published by Film Inernational
If ever proof were needed that genre is what you make of it, then one only need look to Japan’s ‘pink’ cinema of the 1970s, where the lowest of exploitation subgenres was being approached with the highest of artistic sensibilities, disinterring unexpectedly exquisite treasures from the trash. In School of the Holy Beast (Seiju gakuen, 1974), Norifumi Suzuki retained – even outdid – all the most shockingly sleazy elements associated with ‘nunsploitation’, while investing them with aesthetic and political values that had previously been alien to the subgenre. And a couple of years earlier, Shunya Ito was doing something similar to the whole women-in-prison (or WIP) genre with his Female Prisoner Scorpion trilogy. The stock WIP elements were all there – an unjustly imprisoned protagonist, sadistic warden, badass inmates, rampant lesbianism, vicious fighting, raping, rioting, and the ever-obligatory shower scenes – and yet when it came to the confines of genre, Ito, much like his irrepressible protagonist Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji), would be constantly resisting the forces imposed by circumstance and trying to escape to territories new.
Nami Matsushima, also known variously as Matsu, Sasori (i.e. ‘Scorpion’) or Prisoner #701, began life in a manga series begun by Toru Shinohara in 1970 – but it was new filmmaker Shunya Ito who would transform her into a cinematic avatar of female vengeance as iconic as Lady Snowblood (also played by Meiko Kaji) or Inoshika Ocho (played by Reiko Ike). Ito had originally intended to make ten Scorpion films, but in the end stopped at three. The first, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (Joshuu 701-go: Sasori, 1972), was a relatively conventional, if highly stylised, WIP picture, but Ito’s broader strategy could be discerned in the film’s uses and abuses of Japan’s national flag – seen at the beginning saluted by vicious male guards, in the middle figured as virginal blood on a white sheet after Matsushima has been deflowered and wickedly betrayed by her vice cop boyfriend, and at the end flapping in silhouette over the cop’s bloody body. Here the WIP subgenre was being used to frame no less than the conflict between patriarchal traditions and women’s liberation in contemporary Japan.
These ideas were taken much further by Ito’s second film, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Joshuu sasori: Dai-41 zakkyo-bo, 1972), where Matsushima and six fellow escapees make a stab at freedom, with their own treacherous lack of solidarity as much an impediment to success as the murderous lawmen and rape-minded tourists (the latter expressly veterans of Japan’s Second World War outrages in China) closing in on all sides. The film begins as standard WIP fare, but once the seven sisters have broken out, they morph first into the heroines of classical tragedy (complete with a lyrical chorus outlining the plight of each), and then into the poncho-wearing outlaws of the spaghetti western (with Shunsuke Kikuchi’s awesome score boasting enough guitars, flutes and jaw harps to do Ennio Morricone proud). In this gleefully psychedelic assault on the senses (with a climactic scene set in a junkyard in celebration of the film’s trashy roots), genre proves as difficult to contain as Matsushima herself.
Compared with the exuberance of its immediate predecessor, Ito’s third film Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (Joshuu sasori: Kemono-beya, 1973) is a relatively restrained affair – or at least as restrained as a film can be which begins with its heroine slicing off the lower arm of Detective Gondo (Mikio Narita) and then running through the city streets with the limb still swinging wildly from handcuffs attached to her wrist. While Matsushima is making her escape, new character Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) provides passionless sex to a paying male clientèle to support herself and her brain-damaged brother, while engaging in equally passionless sex with the latter to keep his animal instincts in check. It is sisterly piety of the most perverse and transgressive kind, and it is Yuki’s burden that she knows this, and also knows that her only alternative is even more horrifying: to let her brother die. Yuki, like Matsushima, is trapped.
At an isolated cemetery where Matsushima is trying to remove Gondo’s severed arm, and where Yuki has just finished servicing one of her johns, these two women will meet – and as a muted friendship of sorts develops between them, the film will continue to parallel their predicaments: both are women repeatedly constrained by situations beyond their control, both are prevented from having anything like normal professional or personal lives, and both get in trouble with the criminal fraternity and the law alike. Eventually Matsushima will respond according to past form, wreaking an implacable revenge on all her persecutors – but Yuki, who inhabits an altogether more grounded version of reality, is left to continue being ‘fucked’ by seemingly every male she encounters. Her climactic release of passion, in the arms of her own brother, affords her character a ‘happy ending’ of the most bittersweet variety imaginable – and if Matsushima’s parallel tale provides a much more satisfying pay-off, we are left to suspect that this belongs to the realm of mere fantasy.
Only the film’s final, extended coda is set in an actual prison, and it is debatable whether Matsushima herself is there in person, or merely as a ghost or the projected embodiment of another character’s guilty conscience – but still Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable remains within the WIP genre, or at least within its outer limits. For even beyond the dank corridors of Jailhouse 41, prison imagery abounds, be it the room into which Yuki’s brother is locked for his own safety, or Matsushima’s tiny apartment (proving as open to unwelcome male entry as any cell), or the ravens’ cage into which she is locked by her one-time fellow inmate turned procuress Katsu (Reisen Lee), or the searchlights which she must evade during a rooftop getaway, or the system of sewer tunnels in which she becomes incarcerated near the end (leaving her able to communicate with Yuki only through metal grilles). Even Matsushima’s ‘civilian’ occupation as a seamstress is matched by the similar activity forced upon the real convicts in the closing scenes. Matsushima may spend most, even all, of her time on the outside, but here the whole world has been converted into a penitentiary, and any escape is either short-lived or illusory.
Ito’s last contribution to the Female Prisoner Scorpion series is also his bleakest, shot with all the dark shadows, endless rain and moral ambivalence of a film noir. Katsu, who dresses in feathery black like the pet ravens she keeps and even speaks with a rasping squawk, may be as cartoonish an adversary as Matsushima has ever faced, but Detective Gondo, by contrast, is a grave-faced, largely sympathetic pursuer, less overtly corrupt or sadistic than the series’ previous representatives of the law – at least until his final, desperate efforts to blackmail Yuki and to stop Matsushima once and for all. In the lead role, Meiko Kaji continues her reign as the apotheosis of glowering defiance, but even she softens with pity when faced with Yuki’s brother (despite his earlier botched attempt to assault her) – and in a first for the series, she is also at one point reduced to uncharacteristic tears by the harrowing fate of naïve streetwalker Shinobu (Tomoko Mayama), forced to have a late abortion and then left to bleed to death by Katsu’s clan. The grotesque operation, performed on a screaming Shinobu, is intercut with the legal abortion of the incestuous fetus inside Yuki, in a montage that collapses the notion of choice for either woman in such extreme circumstances. Children, and the hope for the future that they might bring, have no place in the determinedly grim universe of Beast Stable.
If Matsushima is humanised here, she will soon turn into a murderous machine again, taking out Katsu and the gang with ruthless efficiency and claiming to have been “possessed by the soul of the dead girl” as she conducts her merciless vendetta. Now that she is avenging wrongs done not just to herself but to other women, it is difficult to envisage any real end to her killing spree apart from her own death – and that too is figured here, whether in the image near the beginning of a ghoulish Matsushima haunting a cemetery, or in her rising robotically from the flames (and from near certain death) as a long-haired apparition in the film’s climax.
Whether Matsushima is still living, or, after years spent buried away in unimaginable hellholes, she has finally crossed over forever only to return as an unrestful ghost, there is really nowhere new left for her to go – and so it makes perfect sense that Ito decided to stop his involvement with the Scorpion franchise here, at the point where his heroine’s grudge-fuelled adventures have become both infinitely extendable, and drained of further genuine satisfaction. Meiko Kaji would make one more appearance as Matsushima in Yasuharu Hasebe’s middling Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (Joshuu sasori: 701-go urami-bushi, 1973), before herself bowing out of the project – and though there have been several subsequent attempts in the late seventies and in the nineties to revive Matsu for new audiences, none has shown the special spark that Ito and Kaji together brought to the character.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable is a sombre, haunting and at times achingly beautiful film – witness the flickering matches that Yuki showers down into the dark, damp sewer where Matsushima has taken refuge. Slower and more brooding than Ito’s previous two Scorpion films, and much less outrageous, Beast Stable opens with Matsushima emerging from a train tunnel into the city above, and ends with her (maybe) emerging from a storm-water tunnel. That is how this heroine of the seventies deserves to be remembered: a fugitive figure from the underground, raising women’s long-repressed plaints (encapsulated by the ‘Grudge Song’ which Meiko Kaji herself sings at the beginning of each film, and which would later be appropriated by Quentin Tarantino in 2003’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1) up to the surface of a world run chiefly at and for the pleasure of men.
The final image in Beast Stable is of the wanted posters that bear its heroine’s face and identity burning to ashes, as a text states: “The Scorpion served out her term, and was released – nobody ever knew what became of her.” One way or another, Matsushima has finally escaped herself and the whole WIP genre, receding into the elevated realm of legend. It is a fitting close to a trilogy that never failed to surprise.
© Anton Bitel