The Plot: Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion begins with Nami Matsushima, aka: Matsu the Scorpion (played by Meiko Kaji), trying to escape from federal prison. During the attempt however, her friend’s menstruation gives away their location to the dogs that are chasing her. When she is returned, the warden decides to make an example out of Matsu and punishes the rest of the inmates in an attempt to turn the population against her. Matsu herself is locked away in solitary confinement, with her hands and feet tied behind her back, as the rest of the prisoners are routinely tortured. During this time we learn of Matsu’s past and the reason for her imprisonment. Matsu once loved a man named Sugimi who was a narcotics officer on the Marijuana squad. Using Matsu for her good looks, he decided to place her undercover in a sting operation at a nightclub. The sting didn’t go well and Matsu was raped for her troubles, but Sugimi simply shrugged it off and made it known to Matsu that she was entirely disposable in his eyes. Feeling scorned, Matsu attempted to murder the evil Sugimi but was taken down by the law in the process. In contemporary time, Sugimi still worries that Matsu will actually get out and finish the job she once started. So a plan to kill off Matsu within the prison is established, but unfrotunate for them Matsu is as tough as nails and thwarts every plan that they put into action. Will Matsu the Scorpion have her sweet revenge or will this hardened prison reduce her to rubble?

The Review
When one talks about the Pinky Violence genre inevitably someone has to bring up Female Prisoner Scorpion #701. It was never an atypical example of the pinky violence genre, but its place in history is sealed as one of the more intelligent personifications of the self made, and empowered, female in this genre of Japanese cinema. This first film by director Shunya Ito would show all of the bravery and creativity that would define all subgenres of the pinku film. Similar to my beloved Yasuharu Hasebe’s introductory film Black Tight Killers, from five years previous, Ito took the film as a challenge to put all of his imagination to work. Having Nikkatsu’s biggest female star in the lead certainly didn’t seem to detract from his gumption as a filmmaker, as he deftly maneuvers through pretension and wades competently into the world of artistry.

Having recently read through much of the history involving production companies Toei and Nikkatsu, I find Female Prisoner Scorpion #701 to hold a very interesting place in Japanese cinema history. At the time, facing inevitable bankruptcy, Nikkatsu had decided to move away from action and charge directly into their roman porno line. Roman porno, or romantic porno, were softcore sex films targeted towards couples. These films took their inspiration from the very popular, but independent, pinku films of the day. This move by Nikkatsu left many of their top stars and directors feeling rather left out due to a lack of interest in the material. Meiko Kaji had grown into one of Nikkatsu’s biggest stars, but the inevitable charge into roman porno ultimately pushed her into the waiting arms of Toei who were more than adequately equipped to continue Kaji’s image of a tough and independent woman. Meiko Kaji had never shown any skin in any of her productions for Nikkatsu, but it is interesting to note that in this, one of her first features for Toei and a film that was directed by a new artist, she shed her clothing. One can only deduce that Kaji’s exodus from Nikkatsu was based more on principal, fearing that her roles would be reduced to rape victims and pressured women, than the inevitable sexual undertakings that these films would entail.

The history proves to almost be as interesting as the film itself, but the start of the Scorpion (or sasori) series proves to be a blend that is almost impossible to top. A chaotic mix of style and substance, director Shunya Ito throws everything and the kitchen sink at his audience. During a time when productions generally lasted three or four weeks on average, Female Prisoner #701 took a whopping 90 days to complete and the incredible attention to detail shows in every frame. Not simply another addition to the women-in-prison genre, Scorpion completely demolishes the sad pastiche and completely rebuilds it using an endless series of visual techniques that recall the horror movie patterns of Teruo Ishii (who Shunya Ito worked under before his debut film). With wild camera angles and a bleak and dark atmosphere, Scorpion creates an imposing gloom upon the audience. The prison that the majority of our film’s time is spent in may top the list for most disgusting and grimy cinematic prisons ever shown. The walls are caked in a mildew-esque green, mixed with black soot, and brown dirt. The movie never lacks in believability as we see just how sorrowful and evil this incarceration really is.

During a time of great social change in all countries, not just the US or in Japan, this Scorpion character could be seen as a parable for the injustice of all women. She is a woman done wrong by the male-dominated system, and during her time spent in prison she learns her own inner power. Some might point out that this wasn’t the first, nor the last, women-in-prison title that would follow many of these same stereotypes. Ito however makes it very clear that his movie is speaking directly to (or more vividly, wagging an angry finger at) his audience. The use of the Japanese flag during the introduction and the close of the film is not the most subtle way of pointing out the blame that his nation would have in such actions, but it grabs the audience by the collar and shows the anger of a challenging filmmaker. The phallic comparison of the prison guards with their billyclubs is very physically present throughout, as well. During a scene where the guards beat Matsu to get information, they indeed hold their clubs in the position of literal penises and try to stick them in her mouth and in between her legs. These are very obvious examples, but Ito manages to craft a complex story that doesn’t necessarily berate the audience with loud neon signs that proclaim “subtext”.

What will immediately command the attention of the audience however is the visual style and complexity of the film. It is experimentation with style throughout, with Ito running a triathlon of visual devices at all times. Not interested in telling a flat or dry narrative, the movie continually amazes with its visual power. Ito mixes dream logic, strange otherworldly lighting, and non-reality into one wildly entertaining mixture. The most talked about and innovative sequence would have to be Matsu’s retelling of the origins of her imprisonment. A series of visual concepts that blur into a strange mix of styles, we see the horror movie earmarkings of Mario Bava as Meiko Kaji’s face is lit brightly in orange and green while Ito defies all logic. The scene takes a theatrical cue by involving moving-sets that switch around in mid-shot in order to begin a new scenario. Female Prisoner Scorpion #701 is at no point boring from a visual standpoint or a narrative one.

  • The first and last time Meiko Kaji would go topless in any film.

  • When shooting the film, Meiko Kaji had issues with the rude language that was called on for her character as it was stated in her contract that this would be changed. She and director Shunya Ito ultimately resolved the situation by removing much of Matsu’s dialogue.

The Conclusion
Although it is generally agreed that Jailhouse 41 may be the best film in the Female Convict Scorpion series, I can’t help but confess a true love for Prisoner #701. Mind you I have not seen Jailhouse 41 in years but I absolutely adore this first entry in this poignant and important series. If you like action and tough heroines, then this is the film for you. If you like strange and beautiful filmmaking, then this is the film for you. I give it my highest rating, a five out of five. If you’ve never experienced this series, track them down but start with this first!