Japanese cinema was seriously struggling in the early 1970’s, as citizens chose to stay home and watch TV instead. As such, even the culturally rich Land of the Rising Sun had no choice but to take the exploitative low road of blood, boobs, sex and violence. Toei Productions, capitalising on this, licensed Toru Shinohara’s prison-based manga “Sasori” with the intent of rush-releasing a gory, grimy flick to make some fast Yen. No-one, however, foresaw the runaway success of the resulting movie, nor its impact on popular culture years later. The Female Prisoner Scorpion series would end up spawning three sequels (as well as multiple spin-offs, rip-offs and remakes) over the following three decades. Today, some 45 years later, its impact can still be felt in this set from Arrow Video, consisting of the four “official” films in the series.
Meiko Kaji stars as Prisoner #701: Nami Matsushima, known in hushed tones by her fellow inmates as “Sasori” (Scorpion) Sasori is a young woman imprisoned in a hell-hole maximum security penitentiary. Scarred by the wicked betrayal of her lover, Sasori has become an introvert and extremely dangerous convict, and is subjected to regular beatings, painful bondage and verbal humiliation by the disgusting orderlies who torment her in efforts to break her iron will. The films tell the story of Sasori’s survival in (and frequently out of) incarceration, the corrupt officials who try to ruin her, the alliances made and lost with other prisoners, and the horrifying violence visited upon her and, ultimately, upon the same perpetrators by her own vengeful hand.
Whilst the Women-In-Prison genre was a staple of Western exploitation cinema, very few of those films reached the heights of artistry and the depths of depravity as the Scorpion series achieved. The films are vile, hateful and unashamedly cruel. But at the hands of talented, radical director Shunya Ito, they are also darkly poetic, artistically clever and visually gorgeous. Kaji’s Sasori has a natural magnetism akin to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name; the silent, defiant protagonist whose eyes and actions speak far louder than words ever could. Shunya knows this, and paints the films in such a way to showcase Kaji’s stunning beauty and incredible screen presence, using all manner of colours, lighting, visual effects and even classic stage trickery to present Sasori and her world as aesthetically alluring, even if the events that take place within are morally reprehensible.
With Sasori as the focal point, shot in dreamlike fashion, she transitions as the films progress to an almost spiritual figure of a defiant woman in a man’s world. The women in these films are exploited for the camera and treated abhorrently by the male characters. However, whilst one would be a Grade A moron to consider these “feminist films”, the character of Sasori is an incredibly strong and powerful female force, one who is repeatedly attacked by the men in her life purely through their abject fear of her strength, will, courage and determination. Many men will try desperately to destroy Sasori, utilising unspeakable methods, but failure always awaits them..
..They will not break her.
The Scorpion films are vicious, repugnant and brutally nihilistic films. But they are also visually gorgeous, hair-raisingly exciting and extremely radical in their underlying narratives. They can be seen as thinly veiled fetishism by some but there are an abundance of socio-political statements being made. To write off the Scorpion series as simple exploitation is to watch with one eye closed. The films are populated with interesting characters, foreboding sets, haunting music and fascinating photography, all directed toward one unstoppable woman, who is often down, but never out.
Finally seeing its first Blu-Ray release, Arrow Video have put together an impressive package for such a vintage, niche series of films. Alongside trailers for the series are a selection of features and visual essays looking at Kaji, her directors, her career and the thematic intent of the Scorpion films. Each disc is cased with reversible artwork and there’s a double-sided poster included. Completing the set is a hardback booklet, compiling various interviews, essays, stills and artwork. The only tragedy is the omission of commentary tracks, which could have arguably secured this as Arrow’s best release yet. However, the overall care and attention on display here is a cause for celebration.
It has taken a long time for these films to receive such lavish treatment, but Arrow Video have succeeded in giving the Kaji run of Scorpion movies a set worth waiting for, easily one of the best Blu-Ray releases of the year. Though the film’s narrative content will be deplorable to some, they are essential viewing for anyone interested in Japanese cinema, cult classics or those who like their films on the right side of batshit insane. Nearly fifty years on, the Female Prisoner Scorpion series has not lost a step in its power to horrify and mesmerise in equal measure and, whenever Sasori steps into frame, clad in black as the angel of death, I dare you to find a more breathtaking, arresting lead.
Films: 4/5 Release: 4/5
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse #41 (1972)
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973)
Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (1973)
Dir: Shunya Ito / Yasuharu Hasebe
Starring: Meiko Kaji, Masakazu Tamura, Rie Yokohama, Fumio Watanabe
Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi / Hajime Kaburagi
DOP: Hanjiro Nakazawa
Runtime: 90 minutes each (approx.)
Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection is available as a Limited Edition BluRay/DVD boxset from Arrow Video.