One fine day in 2016 I decided to watch this little Japanese film series called Female Prisoner Scorpion. Not long after, having watched all of the original four movies (and some of the reboots), they had become some of my favorite films of all time and Meiko Kaji one of my favorite actresses. Much of that derives from the realization that came as I was watching them of just how much they influenced some of the filmmakers that cemented my love for movies, like Quentin Tarantino. Ever since then, I’ve been owing the Scorpion franchise a proper series of reviews, and since there’s no time like the present, why don’t we get this started with the original film?
A lot can be traced back to Shunya Itō’s Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, even beyond the influence on Tarantino. Generally speaking, the original 1978 I Spit On Your Grave – also known as Day of the Woman – is referred to as the founding movie of the rape-revenge subgenre, but although that film might’ve been the first horror entry of the kind, Scorpion told a rape-revenge story some good 6 years before in 1972 – even one year prior to the Christina Lindberg-starred Thriller: A Cruel Picture, another of Tarantino’s main influences. Based on Tōru Shinohara’s manga Sasori, the film tells the tale of Nami Matsushima, a woman betrayed and incarcerated by the cop she fell in love with, following her quest for payback in a part rape-revenge, part sexploitation picture with the creative sensibilities of arthouse cinema, and an incredibly powerful leading performance in Meiko Kaji.
Kaji is an absolute force of nature, and there’s a reason why Nami Matsushima – or Sasori – is one of her most iconic roles. She pours it all into this character, and you feel an overflow of powerful aura emanating from her every second she’s onscreen. She barely ever speaks – a creative choice made by Kaji herself, who upon reading the script made it her condition that Sasori’d be a monosyllabic character -, and yet few dialogue-filled performances I’ve ever seen communicate half as much as this one. No line of dialogue has ever said more than Meiko Kaji’s eyes. Her screen presence is dominating and instead of handing written information to you, she and Itō exploit the visual medium to allow you to read the story from her performance. With the exception of one narrated segment, Sasori’s arc is mostly entirely developed through Kaji’s subtly penetrating facial expressions, hypnotizing eyes and body language, and that alone is enough for us to track exactly where the character is going emotionally and narratively. That is no small feat. When you pair that with Shunya Itō’s direction? That’s when you get something special.
Perhaps what made Scorpion so unique back when it came out is the fact that Itō didn’t care about the reductive perception of sexploitation as only “B pinku movies”; he directs them as art films. Which is what they are, make no mistake. On top of Kaji’s performance being non-reliant on dialogue, Itō’s direction forcefully emphasizes the visuals, using impressive cinematography and surrealist techniques to tell a story mainly through visual language. A precise zoom-in is usually all he needs to tell you exactly what happened in a time window he elected to skip. High-contrasted colors communicate the characters’ feelings – like turquoise often represents fear, and a brightly vibrant red illustrates rage. In this key moment for Sasori’s character, we see the mixture of both:
The film also cleverly utilizes theatre language to tell its story; in one of its most iconic moments, a character transforms herself and takes on a complexion akin to that of a Kabuki theater character, as if she’d got possessed by some kind of malignant spirit before attacking Sasori. The make-up design is terrifying and straight out of a J-Horror film, and Itō directs the whole scene like one, making fantastic use of the Hitchcock effect and strong blue lighting to create genuinely disturbing shots, and a taiko drums-driven soundtrack to accompany it. In another moment, Itō literally uses a stage transition in-movie to move through a flashback. It’s absolutely brilliant visual storytelling, especially when you stop and consider that this film was Shunya Itō’s directorial debut.
A lot of the movie’s visual marvel should be credited to Arrow Video’s spectacular Blu-Ray restoration. Scanning in 2k directly from the original 35mm film rolls supplied by Toei, the good folks at Arrow were able to revive Scorpion‘s eye-popping colors and a permeating blue/cyan look that had faded in previous DVD restorations of the series. Some fans that grew accustomed to those older releases took issue with the amount of blue found in this one, but this presentation shows the movies as they were originally intended to look, and to me it is quite a dazzling view. Arrow also did a phenomenal job preserving the 35mm film quality, maintaining the heavy film grains peppered throughout the cinematography. Rather than an ordinary Blu-Ray remaster, the Scorpion films look like actual film projections in all their glory.
Nearly every film is inherently political to some extent, but for a sexploitation one, Scorpion has a surprisingly layered amount of in-depth political themes and symbolism. In this first entry of the franchise, the Japanese flag is a recurrent image that pops up three times along the film: right at the opening, in the middle, and then at the end. The picture opens with a shot of the Japanese flag as the prison staff celebrates a commendation for their work on the “re-education and rehabilitation of the nation’s convicts” – the ceremony is promptly interrupted by Nami’s first escape attempt. The sequence is a clever subversion of ideals: it starts as a nationalist commemoration of Japan’s “effective” incarceration system, only for that notion to be broken by an immediate escape attempt that pulls every guard back to their duties. That rings especially ahead of its time by decades, giving that in recent years female prisons in Japan have become increasingly overpopulated and have been displaying difficulty to handle their convicts.
Next, the Japanese flag is alluded to on a flashback sequence that shows Nami’s first sex scene with Sugimi, the cop that would come to betray her – after the act, Itō cuts to a shot of a round red blood stain forming on a bright white sheet, tracing a parallel between Nami’s devirgination and the image of the Japanese flag. Now we are making an association to the treatment of women in Japanese society – which even though it has improved vastly with time and has generated a large number of working women in Japan today, it still remains a considerably conservative society. The stroke of genius in the film’s social commentary is that Sugimi doesn’t actually set Nami up to be arrested; he gruesomely uses her to close a case he’s investigating and leaves her humiliated, but free. His actions echo the conservative notion that women are but tools for a man’s professional success. When Nami first attempts at a much warranted payback, that’s when she gets arrested. The third time the Japanese flag appears is at the very end, as a knife is thrown to the sky and cuts in front of the flag, rejecting conservatism and vindicating Nami – now Sasori – and her retribution.
The icing on Scorpion‘s cake is its powerful soundtrack. Shunsuke Kikuchi’s original score takes in a lot of influence from Italian western movies – which is fitting, since the manga’s author Shinohara had those films as his main blueprint for creating his stories -, but he also gives it his own spin, and makes it into something that sounds so unique to this movie in particular. Mainstream moviegoers will recognize its theme song, Urami Bushi, as Tarantino used it in the closing credits of Kill Bill: Vol. 2, but its Scorpion version has a much different, darker feel to it. Sung by Meiko Kaji herself – who performed the theme songs of many of her films -, the execution of this vengeance anthem set to the backdrop of Sasori delivering her righteous payback in the most iconic sequence of the movie is one of the most cathartic and rewarding moments in any revenge film ever made, and few have ever come close to what Shunya Itō and Meiko Kaji achieved here.
This is but the beginning of an incredible journey. Next up I will be talking about Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, the second entry in the franchise. If you’re a fan of Tarantino’s work in particular, I highly recommend checking out the movies that inspired him, particularly the Scorpion series. For me, watching Kill Bill, which is my favorite of his works, after becoming familiar with Scorpion and the also Meiko Kaji-starred Lady Snowblood – which we might also talk about one day, who knows? – felt even more satisfying. I’m looking forward to bringing more of these films to your radar, and I can’t wait to tackle the next ones in the series.
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