True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell (1975)
Director: Kôyû Ohara
Writers: Kôyû Ohara and Akira Momoi
Starring: Hitomi Kozue, Meika Seri and Maya Hiromi

The Plot: True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell is as provocative as the title might imply. A women in prison story, the plot focuses on a group of women fresh in the juvenile hall system. Mayumi is our gateway into this world, and unlike many others who are new to prison life, she isn’t afraid to fight back. Although the guards are quite oppressive, trading food for sex at times, the most harrowing experiences awaiting Mayumi come from her fellow inmates. Despite this, Mayumi doesn’t intend to spend her entire life in this hell hole. She eventually partners up with another inmate and the two hatch a scheme to escape the prison. However, many of the other prisoners will stand in her way, and the authorities who wish for her to bow down to their will may also prove to be a threat. Sex, violence, and bloody tampons are all what await you when starting True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell.

The Review
Made in the mid seventies, True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell is another entry into the long run of Japanese women in prison titles out there. However, this isn’t a delinquent girl boss movie where the girls inevitably bond together and form an alliance that lifts them out of the prison landscape. This is a Nikkatsu-produced piece of sleaze that has sex on its mind from start to finish. Directed by veteran Nikkatsu pinku director Koyu Ohara, this was one of a long line of films from him that ventured into some fairly graphic waters. As the director behind titles as alluring as Zoom Up: Rape Site (potentially a lost film, it appears), Wet & Rope, and Tokyo Caligula Fujn, he was a director that was not entirely unfamiliar with the world of sexual exploitation. So, before you even start Sex Hell, you can rest assured that you are in confident hands. The movie itself seems to play out like a “greatest hits” of the exploitation genre, but due to the Nikkatsu flavor that is added to the story, it retains an air of originality. Afterall, the majority of women in prison titles are essentially repetitions of everything that had come before them. As with any exploitation film that is worth its weight in salt, the subtle differences are what makes the movie everything that it needs to be.

No doubt about it, this sort of thing had been done before. The movie does seem terribly close to what Toei was doing with their pinky violence films at the time, and that seems obvious right from the start. Most notably, the filmmakers had to take some inspiration from the Female Convict Scorpion series, as well as the Delinquent Girl Boss films. There are of course other notable examples, but those two stand out in my mind as prime examples of the Japanese women in prison genre. The main difference between a Toei pinky violence prison movie and our movie today, Sex Hell, has to be the explicit sexuality that Nikkatsu produced. The pinky violence genre may have been sexually charged, but it was a movement that also focused a great deal on fashion, action, socially conscious subplots, and even rebellious female empowerment. It was the teenage version of the pinku movie. Lots of movement, plenty of action, and a rebellious voice that spoke directly to young people. Nikkatsu, however, were certainly more interested in gathering a more mature audience. Often, this was accomplished by showcasing some fairly shocking sexual activities. They were not afraid to simulate oral sex, nor were they afraid to show bodily fluids, two very taboo subjects that were fairly new to mainstream cinema. There was much more emphasis on sexual explicitness with nikkatsu in many ways, and although this was a part of the roman porno line, one wonders how creepy it would be to sit in a theater with your firlfriend while surrounded by an audience full of trenchcoat-wearing strangers. Films that are as explicit as Sex Hell hardly seem like the perfect elixir to evoke romanticism between couples, certainly whilst in public. However, it seems that seventies-era Japan was a very different culture than the norm!

That explicit attitude found in Sex Hell is certainly one of the building blocks that sets this movie apart as its own entity. Although lesbian sex and nudity are expected within this genre, there are a few instances of extreme cruelty that take the movie into some very interesting territories. In the world of Sex Hell, women are not only cruel to one another in the big house, forcing lesbian sex on the weaker inmates, but they are also social deviants of the highest order. In a very early sequence, we get to see the new girl held down by her peers and sexually humiliated. As they poke and prod her, one of the other inmates squats down and gives a very visible golden shower to the young woman. As if that weren’t enough, she also has her pubic hair pulled out by hand. The vulgarity that Sex Hell looks to expose doesn’t serve a dramatic purpose or provide insight into any sort of social crisis of this time or era, but is of the purely exploitative caliber. Audiences who expect high social commentary within a movie titled True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell are probably out of their mind to start with, but if you have come into this movie expecting pure sexploitation madness – then you made the right choice.

Aside from the sexual taboos being broken, Sex Hell is generally a fairly by-the-book example of the genre. The story isn’t the most original within the genre’s film history. We have a woman who has been done wrong by her man (isn’t that always the case?) and she desperately wants to get out so that she can track him down and have her revenge. This is expected tropes for the genre, and they carry us from one piece of deviance to the next. Along the way, however, the filmmakers do manage to throw some style into the mix. The movie generally looks nice, and it directly reflects the same sort of prison landscape that was popular within Japanese cinema during the seventies. That means we get tons of grey stone architecture, and oddly navigated hallways with open areas. These films, despite having low budgets, managed to look very high in quality. Even when their sole purpose was to sexually provoke their audience, they still looked fantastic. The back and forth battles between characters, as they change alliances and motivations, seems more akin to the American or European women-in-prison market than I have seen in the Japanese film world, but Mayumi is hardly a character that audiences will cheer for throughout the entirety of this picture. She is a very grey character who rarely seems negative or fully positive. Trying to echo the dark attitude of Sasori from the Female Convict Scorpion series, this character of Mayumi doesn’t have the evocative look of Meiko Kaji. However, she does a serviceable job in this role and she runs with the very dark story, which is not an easy thing considering the sleazy subject matter.

The Conclusion
It isn’t a great piece of cinema, nor a sterling example of the genre, but True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell is an intriguing look at this particular time and era within Japanese cinema. With studios battling it out trying to make a name for themselves in the world of sex cinema, Sex Hell provides a fairly unique answer from Nikkatsu. Ultimately, I give the movie a three out of five. A solid score. It is better than average, and features enough interesting qualities to make it stand out for genre film fans. You can pick it up on DVD from Impulse Pictures who have recently unveiled their new Nikkatsu Roman Porno line!

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