• Denholm Hewlett

[Film Series] Female Prisoner Scorpion #701 (1972)

One of the most outrageously stylish, controversial, and influential femme fatale revenge crime sagas in Japanese cinematic history. The Female Prisoner Scorpion Trilogy manifests the beauty and horror of Vengeance.

The iconic 'Female Prisoner Scorpion' Japanese film series was the pinnacle of early 70's exploitation cinema and showcased the genre at it's most sophisticated and imaginative, remarkably stylised through it's formal dystopian beauty and lurid animalistic savagery that examines society's mistreatment of women. One of the archetypal classics of the women-in-prison crime genre, based on the original Female Convict manga by Tōru Shinohara, an artist renown for his portrayals of undaunted fierce women.

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)

"I cannot die before I fulfil my fate. So I move on, driven only by my hate. Women, women, a woman's life is her song. Her song of vengeance."

The original instalment of this controversial yet critically successful female revenge trilogy was the first film from director Shun'ya Itô, and was undoubtably one of the most audacious debuts in cinematic history for a rookie director. Japanese cinema at the time in the early 1970's really had no creative boundaries and possessed this almost palpable danger and innovative recklessness, with directors like Itô making serious creative waves.

The magnum opus of this saga is the director's striking visual style paired with the incredible central performance from the incomparable actress and singer Meiko Kaji, who perfectly embodied the almost-silent role of Scorpion - The ice cold heroine with the divine killer beauty and razor sharp death stares who is mercilessly dragged through hell and back by mankind in her ultimate quest for escape and revenge. A highly notorious, demonised, abused, and seemingly indestructible woman who cannot be stopped by mortal men.

Scorpion, a young and beautiful Japanese woman, is led astray and betrayed by her first lover, a corrupt narcotics police officer by the name of Tsugio, who sets up Scorpion to be gang-raped by Yakuza drug dealers as pretext to obtain his own bribe. The ferocious Scorpion becomes enveloped with hatred and attempts to kill Tsugio for the hell he caused her. She fails to murder him and is sentenced to do hard time in an all female prison, run by a platoon of vicious, sadistic, and lecherous male prison guards. Scorpion's endurance is put to the test as she experiences humiliation, abuse, hard labour and solitary confinement. She navigates her harsh prison existence in silence and orchestrates her own plan of escape to exact bloody vengeance.

The film's expressionist visual storytelling is immensely stylised and utterly immersive, deploying a range of uniquely subversive camera angles and multi-camera handheld documentary style cinematography, combined with avant garde editing techniques and it's strikingly over-saturated colour schemes. This film and it's sequels all contain stylised scenes of brutality and sexual violence, yet all of the directing strategies implemented by Itô in his trilogy possess an unmistakably feminist sensibility and elicit genuine sympathy for all the female prisoners while highlighting their cruel mistreatment at the hand of the sociopathic male dominated prison system.

This classic exploitation film is a sinister pulp-fiction "women-in-prison" drama with a daring social commentary that highlights the disturbing ways men abuse their systemic positions of power and authority to exploit women. The scenes of psychedelic technicolour violence and unflinching depravity are expertly balanced with the film's enchanting and fantastical sequences full of mesmerising surrealism, violent poetry and hallucinogenic dreamscapes.

Almost all the relationships presented between the men and women in this series are antagonistic to say the least, and even the women in the prison treat each other with malice and contempt when they aren't rioting together, so it's a dog eat dog world. All of the odious men who commit heinous sexual acts of violence towards the divine feminine ultimately face a satisfying death at the hands of Scorpion. This first film of the saga is by far the strongest, although the sequel still holds strong.

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972)

The second instalment picks up the story after Scorpion and a bus load of female prisoners overthrow their guards while on route to the prison after a day of intense labour. This gang of seven terrible sisters go on the lamb while the prison headhunters stay hot on their tales, most of whom end up being killed and castrated by the sisters in grizzly fashion.

The majority of this sequel follows the convicts fleeing from their oppressors, on their journey they encounter sinister spirits, odious men and a cursed old woman who forces them to confront the harsh realities of their own heinous crimes and experience some form of supernatural awakening. The film features several otherworldly and breathtakingly dream-like sequences which include very sparse and traditional Japanese imagery and instrumentation that are spellbindingly unique. The storyline of this film sits end-to-end with it's predecessor, and it's worth viewing them together, back to back.

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973)

The third instalment of the series and perhaps the most visually conventional of the saga, but not without its signature exploitative violence, neon drenched colour schemes and hazy atmosphere. This addition to the series feels more like a gritty and perverse crime drama than its prison-based predecessors, with all the action of the story set against the pulsating inner city night life, underground sewers and red light districts of Tokyo. The plot of Beast Stable follows Scorpion as she avoids the police as escaped fugitive wanted for murder, who is given shelter and forms a bizarre alliance with an incestuous female prostitute, Yuki, who lives with her mentally challenged brother. The broken sex worker assists the fugitive in helping to take down an old nemesis from Scorpion's past life in prison and helps to silence an unrelenting police officer with a serious grudge against the femme fatale. This is perhaps the most cold hearted, melancholic and harrowing film out of the trilogy.

Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701's Grudge Song (1973)

The fourth and final instalment in the Female Prisoner series with Meiko Kaji returning as the central role for the last time. This was the first entry in the series without Shun'ya Itô as director, he was replaced by Tasuharu Hasebe. This admittedly low-budget affair begs the question of whether Scorpion can escape the hangman's noose and find some peace after all hell breaks loose.

All four of these iconic films have just received new 2K restorations and are available to stream and purchase via ARROW FILMS and AMAZON PRIME.

~ Psychic Garden