“One of the all-time classics of the women-in-prison genre.”
This archetypal “women in prison” film is lifted above its colleagues in the genre, most of which are little more than crude exploitation, by being pretty damn sophisticated exploitation. The two main factors are Ito’s great sense of visual style, and Kaji’s almost-silent performance as Nami Matsushima. She ends up in jail after being betrayed by her cop boyfriend Sugimi (Isao), who turns out to be in league with the Yakuza he was investigating. Nami vows to escape, and the film starts with her doing so, but she is quickly recaptured, thrown back into jail, and her fellow inmates are punished for her actions, causing them to turn against her. While not her fault, she’s involved in an incident which costs the warden (Watanabe) his eye, and he vows to break her at any cost. That’s an awful lot easier said then done, and what happens as a result might be what Nami wanted all along. Meanwhile, Sugimi, seeking to tie up the loose end she represents, promises another inmate, Katagiri (Yokoyama) parole, if she takes care of Nami.
I’m not quite sure how the DVD sleeve on the right reaches the conclusion that this “inspired” Kill Bill: maybe nodded to it in an elevator once, because “female revenge” is really about all they have in common. However, it stands perfectly well on its own merits, powered by Kaji, who has one goal in mind – escaping and taking revenge – and anything else just washes off her back. If you can imagine her as a female, darker version of Cool Hand Luke (without the hard-boiled eggs!), refusing to bow to the sadistic guards, when it would be far easier to do so, you’ll be in the right ballpark. She has no “superpowers,” just an extraordinary persistent resilience and inner strength that makes her a remarkable heroine. Particularly considering this was his feature debut, Ito’s use of colour and Dutch angles to enhance the action are quite remarkable in its lack of restraint. The screen glows green as Nami takes her revenge, for example, and there’s another shot which looks like a Hieronymus Bosch vision of hell, for its lurid shades, while the camera will till 90 or even 180 degrees to make its point.
There’s no shortage of the exploitative aspects, however, with copious amounts of toplessness and arterial spurting, as well as an amusing chunk of lesbian lust, where five minutes with Nami proves sufficient to turn a stool-pigeon into a devoted admirer. So this is not exactly family viewing, let’s be clear on that front. However, it’s quality is difficult to deny, and as sex ‘n’ violence goes, this is definitely from the top-shelf of the liquor cabinet.
Dir: Shunya Ito
Star: Meiko Kaji, Rie Yokoyama, Natsuyagi Isao, Fumio Watanabe