In the first half of the 1970’s, Meiko Kaji was to the slightly-disreputable end of Japanese cinema, much what Pam Grier was to the same end of Hollywood movies. Both made a career out of playing strong female characters, often operating on or beyond the boundaries of the law, and with no compunction about using violence to achieve their ends – which often involved taking revenge on those (almost alwayx men) who had wronged them. The Sasori [Japanese for “scorpion”] was not Kaji’s first foray into the genre, having cut her teeth on the Noraneko Rokku [Straycat or Alleycat Rock] films, a couple of years previously.
And it’s probably not even her most well-known work in the West: that would be Lady Snowblood, which deposited her in an earlier era, as a female swordswoman, and whose theme was “borrowed” by Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill, Volume 1. But in terms of enduring appeal, the character Sasori has them both beat, with sequels, remakes and spin-offs continuing for more than 35 years after the original, through the 2008 Hong Kong remake. Even now, it’s an iconic character that has rarely been matched for sheer bad-assery.
The credit for this is not entirely Kaji’s, though obviously her portrayal is indispensable. Often forgotten is that the character of Sasori did not originate on the silver screen, but in a manga, by Toru Shinohara (shown, left). He has something of a track record in the genre, having also created the comic on which the Zero Woman series was based, and written the story for Metropolitan Police Branch 82. Perhaps even more important to the saga’s lasting suggest was director Shunya Ito, who took the potentially-tawdry premise, and elevated it above and beyond the level you’d expect, with a visual style that goes far past any other mere “women in prison” flick. It’s such a fully-formed approach, right from the get-go, that it feels like the work of a far more experienced director.
Truly, it was one of those moments in movie history where things come together in such a way as to produce results which manage to be more than the sum of their parts. While the quality of the six films which came out during a five-year span from 1972-77 is undeniably variable. they all have their merits and remain worth your attention, even four decades later. Let’s take a look at each entry from the seventies incarnation in turn.
The series theme, Urami-Bushi, written by director Shunya Ito and sung by Meiko Kaji.
“You’re a beautiful fiower”, his words flatter you today.
But once you’re in full bloom, he’ll just toss you away.
Foolish, foolish, foolish woman’s song…
Her song of vengeance
“Sorrow is my fate”, so you’ve given up on men.
Show him your tears and he’ll bring you grief again.
Tearful, tearful, tearful woman’s song…
Her song of vengeance.
“You cling to your dreams,” they scorn your world of lies.
So you try to wake up, but you can’t open your eyes.
A woman, a woman, a woman’s heart is her song…
Her song of vengeance.
- Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion
“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
- Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41
“Out of the frying-pan and into the fire goes our heroine.”
Right from the start, Nami (Kaji) established her utterly hardcore credentials, as she’s trying to dig her way out of the dungeon where she has been for the past year. With a spoon. Held in her teeth. She’s let out for the day because a bigwig is visiting, but takes the opportunity to attack warden Goda (Watanabe), almost depriving him of the sight of his other eye. As punishment for the resulting riot, Goda sends four guards to gang-rape Nami, and all the inmates are sent to a hard-labour camp. On the way back, they beat Nami as punishment, leaving her near-dead but it turns out that was just her ruse to get the guards to open the back of the van and escape. She leads the women across a blasted landscape, revenge once more on her mind, with Goda’s men in hot pursuit.
It doesn’t work quite as well as the original, in part because Nami’s motivation isn’t as clear and powerful: it’s only at the end that I realized who she was out to get (and, for the second time, we get a climax on a roof that, remarkably, actually ends, without someone toppling off it). It’s just not as strong a motive, considering everything she has been through by that point, and her terseness reaches almost epic proportions, so isn’t much of a help. Second time round, Ito has reined in the sexual aspects considerably, but has upped the surrealness, as if to make amends, and the results are a couple of truly brilliant sequences. One has a body turn into leaves and blow away, while the other sees a literal river of blood announce the death of a character. However, once they break out of jail, Nami seems largely passive, observing proceedings rather than driving them, and that deflates her value as a heroine.
It’d certainly be wrong to describe this as a failure, because it is undeniably successful at generating the atmosphere and tone desired by Ito, and Kaji is as charismatic as ever, with a powerful screen presence few actresses of any era can match. However, those elements exist in something of a vacuum here, and the results, while worthwhile, are less effective than I seemed to remember them.
Dir: Shunya Ito
Star: Meiko Kaji, Kayoko Shiraishi, Fumio Watanabe, Yukie Kagawa
- Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable
“Because a baby is for life – even if the Yakuza think otherwise. “
When this begins, Nami (Kaji) is on the run, and slices the arm off Detective Kondo (Narita) after he handcuffs himself to her. She befriends street hooker Yuki (Watanabe), who runs foul of the locak Yakuza gang by turning tricks on their turn, while trying to care for her brain-damaged brother, whom she also services sexually, to stop him from raping women(!). After Nami is involved in the death of a gang member who was blackmailing her, the gang’s madam Katsu (Lee), who knew the Scorpion from her own prison days, captures her, locking our heroine up in a literal big bird-cage. But after the true horror of the Yakuza’s treatment of their women is revealed (it starts with a golf-club going where no golf-club should ever go), Nami escapes and carves a bloody path of revenge on those responsible. When Katsu realizes what’s going on, she turns herself in to the police, figuring jail will be safe from Sasori’s wrath. Take a wild stab in the dark… Which, by coincidence is exactly what Katsu deserves.
There are some angles to this I liked. For instance, the way that Nami is taking revenge here, less for herself – really, she gets off pretty lightly, in comparison to the previous two installments – than for others. I also enjoyed the way she… Well, I’m reluctant to spoil it, but let’s just say, she takes care of Katsu and Kondo without getting her hands dirty. However, the positives are largely balanced out by Yuki, who is one of the more irritating and pointless creatures in cinematic history. Her life appears to be a litany of bad choices, and the film seems to realize how tiresome she is: in the second half, she’s largely relegated to flicking lit matches into the sewer where Nami is hiding out (in a fetching blue dress, it has to be said).
This would be Ito’s last entry in the series: he’d later go on to direct Gray Sunset, which beat out Kurosawa’s Ran to become Japan’s official Academy Award entry for the Foreign Film category in 1985. He seems to have reined in some of his more stylish visual excesses here, which is a bit of a shame, as that’s one of theings which helped elevate this series above the level of generic exploitation. This certainly delivers on the sleaze front [yet could be seen as pro-life, an interesting combo!], but at least in the first half, doesn’t have a great deal more to offer.
Dir: Shunya Ito
Star: Meiko Kaji, Mikio Narita, Yayoi Watanabe, Reisen Lee
- Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song
“Can Sasori escape the hangman’s noose and live happily ever after?”
Nami (Kaji) is about to get married, but her wedding day is rudely interrupted by the arrival of the cops, who arrest her. On the way to prison (and, unsurprisingly, death row, given the body count left behind in the previous three movies), she takes out the driver, causing a crash. The injured Scorpion staggers away, and is rescued by Kudo (Tamura), a former political radical who was brutalized by the police for his actions, and so has a massive load of resentment against them. After being informed of Kudo’s harbouring of Nami by a worked at the sex-club where he works, the cops take him in: and use both physical and psychological torture to try and make him give up her location. Eventually arrested, Nami is sentenced to death, but the cops intend to make sure the time leading up to her execution is as unpleasant and possible, and the detective in charge, Hirose (Tsukata), is intent on making even Nami’s death as lonely an experience as possible.
“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” Michael Corleone’s quote from Godfather III seems appropriate here, as it appears Nami was preparing to settle down to a normal life, difficult though it is to see her as a happy housewife. Of course, the cops won’t let it lie, and so begins another cycle of revenge. As in the previous entry, it’s less Nami’s vengeance than her associate’s, at least initially, as we discover Kudo has as much, if not more, reason to hate the police as she does. The final section, however, returns to its roots, with Nami back in prison and having to handle hostility, not only from the police but the guards, though by this time, she has at least attained near-legendary status among the other prisoners, as you’d expect. Doesn’t stop her screwing with another prisoner, who appears to be calmly awaiting her fate: the point of that seemed kinda lost, and unnecessarily cruel.
The last of the series in which Kaji starred, it was also the only one of her four movies not directed by Ito. His replacement, Hasebe, is competent enough, but only rarely brings the same sense of style to proceedings. Kaji is as worth watching as ever, but for too long, she seems like a supporting character in her own movie, with the focus more on Kudo. Chalk up another win for misleading advertising though, as Nami certainly does not use the long rifle with which she is pictured on the DVD sleeve (right).
- New Female Prisoner Scorpion 701
Just goes to show that the “cinematic reboot” is not a 21st-century invention, e.g. Batman or James Bond. For a mere three years after Meiko Kaji showed her sting as Nami, the studio reset the series, giving it a new director, new (and much more talkative) lead actress, and returning Nami Matsushima to a happy, criminal record-free young women, with a loving boyfriend. Except, of course, he turns out not to love her quite as much. Things start to collapse after her sister uncovers evidence of major government corruption, and passes it to Nami, shortly before being kidnapped. After Nami uncovers the truth – her sister is killed and she is framed for the murder, with the help of her boyfriend, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Initially an easy mark for the tough girls in her cell, Nami soon develops her mean streak. And she’s going to need it, because the politician behind it all is looking to tidy up the loose end she represents, by killing her and making the death look like a suicide. Name turns the tables, in incendiary fashion, and it’s clear that she’s one loose end that won’t be quietly disposed of.
Y’know how On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a really great Bond film, with a crappy Bond, Lazenby being the merest shadow of Connery? That’s the situation we have here. The film would be perfectly serviceable, but with every (largely superfluous) word, gesture and action, the viewer can’t help but be reminded of Kaji, who simply fits the character being depicted here, far better. Not that Takigawa is a bad actress. It is just that Kaji made such a strong impression in the role, anyone else playing the character is almost bound to seem like a pale imitation in comparison. Without Kaji or the surrealist touches brought to the previous entries by Shunya Ito, there really isn’t much to distinguish this from the rougher end of the pinku genre, with Kohira appearing to take particular interest in the rape.
The sections after Nami breaks out are the best, in terms of style, and it’s hard to put your finger on any problems: “competent” is likely a good word for this. But probably the most damning indictment, is that I watched the film, wrote most of the review, and then realized almost nothing about the second half had stuck in my mind at all. I ended up having to pull the movie up, just to convince myself I hadn’t been called away to dinner half-way through or something. I hadn’t: it had just failed to make any significant impression on me.
Dir: Yutaka Kohira
Star: Yumi Takigawa, Ryoko Ema, Nobuo Kaneko, Ichiro Nakaya
- New Female Prisoner Scorpion: Special Cellblock X
“And we bid a fond farewell to Nami, and a third different actress.”
The comparisons of Takigawa to Lazenby above proved appropriate in another way, both being canned after one entry playing the iconic title character, which is probably just as symptomatic of something. The replacement here as Nami Matsushima is Natsuki, who seems to go back toward a more taciturn heroine, closer to the original. But it’s, effectively, another reboot, with not even a nod to the previous entry. In this case, the heroine is a nurse, framed for her involvement in the hospital murder of a politician who was threatening to expose corrupt practices. The film starts with her being sent back to jail after a failed escape attempt: that resulted in the rest of the inmates being punished, and they’re none too pleased to see her brought back. There’s also a pragmatic guard who is happy to keep the inmates supplied with cigs and chocolate in exchange for peace, but his position is threated by the arrival of a new head of “security”, with a much tougher stance. After trying to expose the abuse to a visiting dignitary, he ends up in hot water, and teams up with Nami, the pair going on the lam through the mountains, chained to each other – it’s a bit like Black Mama, White Mama, with characters forced to work together for their mutual benefit.
In some ways, this feels like a combination of the first two movies: it has the “woman wronged by the man she loves” theme of the original, and then the “escape through a blasted landscape” plotline from its immediate sequel. There’s also the usual helpings of abuse, though the sexual content here is significantly toned-down, with Natsuki barely showing a nipple. On the other hand, the S&M seems more intense, most notably a scene where multiple prisoners are bound and hung up, to be brutally beaten. By this point, I’ll confess that my interest in that aspect, never exactly great, was all but non-existent. Things did perk up post-escape, with some excellent cinematography, as the pair struggle through the deserted landscape [it’s easy to forget how concentrated the Japanese population is, leaving some areas almost desolate]. Of course, it ends with another vengeful confrontation for Nami – not for the first time, on a roof.
The paucity of original ideas to be found here likely indicates why the series went into dormancy thereafter. As a way to wrap up, however, it works fairly well, particularly if you consider it as a “greatest hits compilation” from the preceding entries. While Natsuki still falls short of the intensity brought to the role by Kaji, she is an improvement on Takigawa, and this moves at a brisk enough pace to sustain interest, even in a viewer looking for less prurient aspects.
Dir: Yutaka Kohira
Star: Yoko Natsuki, Masashi Ishibashi, Hiroshi Tachi, Takeo Chii
- Lady Snowblood 1 + 2
- Scorpion Double Venom
- Scorpion’s Revenge
- The Zero Woman series