If you ask me, Jailhouse 41 is the wrong title for the second entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series. It leads you to believe that the story revolves around a specific and possibly new prison, but in fact the prison setting is only present during part of the first act, and the rest of the film is set on the road. Jailhouse 41 is really about a group of segregated women coming together to escape the bondage that is the world of men – from now on, the movies are all largely set on the outside world, and follow the idea that even out of jail, these women are still not free, and that their incarceration is systemic, spreading far beyond the confinements of prison and out to society itself. That’s a thematic arc that will be further developed in Beast Stable – the third and final film to be helmed by Shunya Itō -, but it begins here in Jailhouse 41.
Despite having come out in the same year as the original, this sequel picks up one year after the events of its predecessor. Meiko Kaji’s Nami Matsushima has been kept in solitary for the entirety of that time, and no prisoner has seen her ever since – because of that, stories about the woman who did all those things in part 1 have been told, turning Nami into a mythical figure which they call “Sasori”; the Scorpion. She’s become their symbol of empowerment, of strength and even hope. That’s a burden Nami never asked to carry – she never asked to be Sasori; everything she did she did only for herself. However, this film, which to me is not only the best in the series but one of the greatest feminist masterpieces of all time, is where we see Nami Matsushima truly become the Scorpion, and Shunya Itō tells this canonical story of ascension through magistral avant-garde surrealism and Meiko Kaji’s spellbinding eyes.
Itō starts out by slightly subverting our expectation of the Sasori myth’s depiction and Nami’s role as some sort of leader. Warden Goda – an antagonist character from the original film who now becomes the main villain – immediately sets out to destroy the empowering image of Sasori; by humiliating Nami in front of all the other girls who hold her as their beacon of strength, Goda kills the nurtured notion that Nami is special, and if they see her as weak, they see themselves as weak. This creates a rupture between these women as the one thing they had in common to look up to is now tainted. Their sense of sorority is compromised as they turn on each other – and largely on Nami – because their power has been taken from them. But in these troubled circumstances, they end up finding themselves stuck together, as a unique chance to escape the prison presents itself.
In a different scenario, we would expect Nami to lead these women on their escape, but between the respect for Sasori being now lost and her own indifference when it comes to the others, that’s not what happens. She doesn’t take on a leadership role, instead, she just tags along for mutual benefit – and that is the first step towards rebuilding their sense of unity, these women’s realization that they will be stronger if they stick together. That among themselves they can find the means to survive, they can find safety and even sexual affection. Nami’s arc in this film is about realizing that she has a role, a responsibility within this group, that ultimately extends to every woman she meets – and even if she initially has no interest in taking on that burden, Shunya Itō constantly shoots Kaji from angles that evoke power and frames her as a leader, with Nami inadvertently putting herself in that position organically, as pictured below:
As the seven grey cloaked women run through the mountains, Meiko Kaji’s voice sings this film’s main theme, “Onna no Jumon” (“A Woman’s Spell”), an anthem of reckoning and union in times where union is being tested. The song is their call to survive and to follow it is their trial. As the story progresses, we learn more about these characters, whose own personal conflicts constantly come in the way of them properly banding together. Even if this film was produced a very short time after the original, you can clearly see that Itō is a lot more comfortable with the aesthetics he experimented with in part 1. To flesh out the backstories of his seven main characters, the filmmaker recurs to a dreamlike surrealistic sequence where an elderly woman found by the escapees takes the role of a tayū – a narrator in Japanese theatrical tradition -, and she tells these women’s stories in the form of a Jōruri song called “Seven Sinful Girls” – which to me should’ve been the title of the film. The role of the elder is completely symbolic, she can be read as a projection of what these characters will grow to become if they don’t stand up against the oppression of the patriarchy: old, alone, and left for dead. The old woman also holds a knife at all times, and that object is presented almost like a divine instrument, infused with the power of the grudge of every woman who has ever held it, and later on it becomes Nami’s main weapon of choice. The encounter with this whimsical character serves as a major plot point for the story, and it’s all done through visionary use of language and acting, rather than dialogue.
The production design in Jailhouse 41 is something to behold. For one, the locations they found to shoot, from mining fields to the abandoned village, are amazing, and they make the outside world feel every bit as oppressive as the prison itself. It adds a lot to the notion that men made a world that’s inherently a prison for women, creating an environment so hostile they are forced to turn on themselves. That same production design also renders with perfection the series of surrealistic, borderline magical sequences that progress the character of Nami, drawing her closer and closer to the realization of her rightful place as Sasori. The utter beauty of the cinematography also cannot be understated, making fantastic use of eye-popping colorful neon on top of the permeating cyan aesthetic of the 35mm-shot film, effectively stunning slow-motion shots and the best use of the split diopter lens I’ve ever seen in any movie.
Like in its predecessor, Nami’s character arc plays largely through Meiko Kaji’s glare. In this one more than ever, because if she was monosyllabic in the original, here Nami is nearly completely silent. She literally has only two lines in the entirety of the picture’s runtime – which is something that’s brilliantly employed because throughout the whole movie she is being provoked by essentially every other character into saying something, so there is this build-up to the moment where Nami is finally going to speak, and up until it happens we are left with nothing but her stare and her actions. Kaji’s eyes are as nuanced as ever, but this time it’s a lot harder to track her character’s thoughts and intentions upon the first watch because she’s keeping it all to herself. The moment when she finally speaks is fateful and nothing short of genius – like I said, she delivers two lines: one is the setup, where she bears her intentions and feelings for the first time; and the other, which comes almost immediately after, is a deal-breaker. The scene sets the story on an entirely new path, and it’s done with no more than two lines.
From that moment on, Nami reveals herself to the audience. You know what path she is on now, but the journey is not yet completed. In Jailhouse 41 Nami is given something of a rival in the form of Kayoko Shiraishi’s character Ōba, an older woman who has no respect for the myth of the Scorpion. In many ways, Ōba is the antithesis to Nami: she’s the one who willingly takes on the role of leader during the escape when Nami keeps to herself; she was jailed for a truly horrific crime while Nami was merely betrayed; she bears all of her intentions as opposed to Nami’s secrecy; and whereas Meiko Kaji’s performance is subtle and silent, Shiraishi’s is loud, foul-mouthed and very theatrical. The polarization is further cemented by Itō, who adamantly positions the characters on the extremes of the group, visually communicating that they are two opposite ends of one spectrum:
The rocky relationship between Nami and Ōba is the epitome of the film’s depiction of female segregation. Their rivalry echoes Sergio Leone – with Meiko Kaji taking the role of a Japanese Clint Eastwood for women. The completion of these two character arcs in their final confrontation is what finally allows Nami to see what she needs to be, and accept her responsibility as Sasori – a ruthless vindictive force not only for herself, but for every woman that has ever been wronged. This realization comes, once again, speechless, and instead told through Kaji’s effortless yet powerful performance, and the perfect musical transition from this film’s theme, “Onna no Jumon”, to the iconic Sasori theme, “Urami Bushi”. The song’s return is as earned as ever, and marks now the true birth of the character known as the Scorpion.
When Sasori dons her iconic sepulchral look with the long black coat and the floppy hat covering one of her eyes in this film it manages to be even more powerful than in the original, as this time her revenge is charged with the cries of several other women, and she is but the carrier of their vengeful will. The climax of Jailhouse 41 is extremely cathartic because both Itō and Kaji – who at this point is as much an auteur as the director himself – successfully channel the spirits of all of these characters in Sasori through both direction and performance, and the movie ends on what can only be described as a beautifully surrealist battle cry against oppression that I unironically believe should be among the ranks of the greatest endings of all time.
So this is Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41. I refrained from touching on certain specifics because I wanted to remain as spoiler-free as a film analysis can possibly be for those of you who haven’t seen it. This is one of my favorite films ever, and I’m glad I could finally talk about it in depth. It’s a stunning thought-provoking masterpiece with incredible visuals and a highly sensible, raw approach to deeply relevant themes. It’s emotional and has a strong power of resonance, and for that reason I think it deserves to be viewed by a broader audience. Don’t forget to tune in next week for my review/analysis of Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, the final entry in Shunya Itō’s trilogy, which also has a beauty of its own!
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