In this weeks instalment of Eastern Premise Jason Julier takes a look at Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. 

This week’s Eastern Premise is an iconic and remarkable film, one that punches above its humble origins from the isolation of the Women in Prison (WIP) genre and transcends those limitations. Having as a teenager experienced most of what European horror, exploitation and low budget cinema had to offer, Eastern Premise had written off the predictable cheap thrills realm of WIP. Such preconceptions were shattered after seeing Female Prisoner #701: Prisoner for the first time.

This piece of exploitation cinema is not only the pinnacle of the WIP genre but simply one of the best examples of Japanese exploitation, Pink, B-movie or whatever label you wish to apply to the sleazy artwork. Such was its impact that it sparked a series of films that maintained a level of quality surpassing any of its rivals and breaking new ground. Tenacious, beautiful and driven by revenge; the iconic debut of Nami ‘Matsu the Scorpion’ Matsushima is unforgettable. As a character she would be imprinted on future generations, an example being Sion Sono’s Love Exposure where Miss Scorpion is a modern day recreation of Nami.

Released in 1972, Joshuu 701-go: Sasori, was the debut directorial feature from Shunya Ito who served his apprenticeship as an assistant director with exploitation master Teruo Ishii. Now, we’ve already featured Ishii’s imaginative Inferno of Torture in EP#31, very much a B-movie director he mastered all of its extravagances; from monsters to women prisoners to crazed yakuza. For Ito there was probably no better teacher, as Ishii remained faithful to such themes throughout his vast filmography and career.

The original inspiration for the film comes from the classic manga Sasori series, which received an unsuccessful reboot in 2008. Already an extremely visual and provocative concept, by all accounts the onscreen depiction was heavily indebted to Meiko Kaji who realised the role of Nami offered more than its source material suggested. As an actress Kaji was the perfect choice for the lead role having already cemented her popularity in the Stray Cat Rock films. For the uninitiated these films were the flipside of the prison genre, allowing a gang of girls to roam freely far from prison and take on any men who dared cross their path. With entries in the series such as Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo, Machine Animal and Sex Hunter, these were extremely popular with the Japanese youth and established Kaji as rising star. Apart from her stunning looks, Kaji possessed that star presence onscreen, could handle the physical demands of action roles, she is perhaps best known for Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood.      

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion opens with a botched escape from a remote female prison. During these opening moments we are presented with the drive, determination, ruthlessness, kindness and intelligence of a fleeing convict. This is Matsu the Scorpion, the most feared of all residents and the only one brave enough to attempt an escape. What becomes clear is that she is not trying to escape from the law or seek freedom. Her sole purpose in life is to seek revenge. Before incarceration, Matsu was a young woman was deeply in love with a charismatic detective. Having given herself to him, Sugimi abused this trust and Matsu lashed out in spectacular fashion. Her assassination attempt may have failed but Matsu views this very much as a work in progress.

The prison she finds trapped in is quite barbaric. The guards, governor and trusted female prisoners all have a cosy arrangement and one common enemy; no prizes for guessing who. Matsu also has to contend with the criminal activities of her former lover and his yakuza colleagues who see her as a viable threat. Yes, the whole scheme is farfetched, the acting at times is over the top and all the better for it. In the middle of this madness is the calm exterior of Matsu. It is her simmering, brooding, panther-like persona that dominates the opening half of the film. For all the punishment thrown at her and the digging of holes, then the filling in of holes, she remains calm to the outside world not giving her tormentors any satisfaction. Within she is a raging inferno of vengeance. Everything around her is of little concern; she only lives for one purpose in life.

When suggesting Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion to the uninitiated, there is always a word of caution to be applied to any recommendation. It is true in many ways to its WIP roots; sadistic guards, nudity, violence, the obligatory searches, lesbianism and the shower scene. This could all hark back to the Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS or any Sergio Garrone or Jess Franco genre effort.  However Japanese censorship restrictions limit the gratuitous inclinations of the genre and Kikuchi takes advantage of Hanjiro Nakazawa’s skilled cinematography to create a winning formula. Key to this is the inventiveness displayed throughout the film, even when faced with the most generic of scenes such as the shower sequence. Instead this most rudimentary of settings is transformed into a psychedelic horror sequence bringing back memories of Kaneto Shindō’s classic Onibaba. Again, even when faced with a violent struggle, Kikuchi dares to turn the camera on its side or shows us the lowest possible placement when in solitary confinement. All this from the first film in a trilogy that is just laying the groundwork for what truly comes next.

For once Eastern Premise is pleased to say that Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion has received a UK DVD release from the Eureka label, as part of the Female Prisoner Scorpion Trilogy. It’s attractively priced and is perhaps the most thrilling and extravagant trilogy you’ll see this year.