Starring: Meiko Kaji, Yayoi Watanabe, Rie Yokoyama, Isao Natsuyagi, Fumio Watanabe, YÃ´ko Mihara, Akemi Negishi, and Hideo Murota
Directed by: Shunya Ito
When I started this site, I assumed that the most interesting movies would be the serious dramas, and the most fun would be the women in prison exploitation pictures. As it turns out the WiP flicks are often the most fun, but they have also proven to be the most interesting in various ways. Most notably, while basically many of these films contain the usual straight-forward exploitation elements — shower scenes, catfights, etc. — there are a handful that clearly aspire to more and that manage to be surprisingly thought-provoking. Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion is one of those. I really wish I understood more about the relationship between feminism and politics in 1970s Japan. I could gleen a fair amount just from watching this movie, but really, I think FP701 could support a much more extended and detailed analysis than I am able to provide.
Anyway, the movie begins in a prison in Japan. The warden, Goda (Fumio Watanabe) is being presented with a proclamation honoring his 27 years of service. The movie was made in 1972. The 27 years mentioned is no accident, of course. In the middle of the ceremony, the alarms ring. The guards scatter to deal with an escape in progress, and the proclamation itself gets trampled under their feet. We cut to a scene outside the prison as two women run through a marsh, chased by armed men. The escaping prisoners are Matsu (Meiko Kaji) and Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe). Matsu is definitely in charge. Yuki lags behind and Matsu goes back to help her. Yuki is doubled over, and we get a shot of blood running down her legs. Matsu tell her not to worry, that it is just her period, which had apparently stopped while locked up. I perked up right there. I mean, yeah, that could be just a throw-away bit, but it strikes as pretty obvious that the movie is laying the groundwork here for a recurring theme about Japanese society, political power, and either misogyny or at least subordination of women.
Anyway, these gals turn out to be pretty tough. The guards loose some German Shepherds on them. One of the dogs latches on to Yuki, but Matsu grabs a big old hunk of wood and knocks the dog away. They continue running, but this time run into a guard. They wrestle with him, and Matsu bashes his head in, but at this point the rest of the guards close in and captures the girls. The wounded guards gives Matsu a thrashing that she endured without a word.
Back in the prison, the warden is unsurprisingly mortified. He orders his guards to prevent further breakouts (I would have thought this was a standing order) and to encourage them he slaps his deputy across the cheek. Said deputy passes along the slap to his assistants, who in turns slap their way down the row of guards. This is, I believe, the one Japanese management technique that hasn’t yet been added to the curriculum of American business schools. The warden further slashes the prisoners’ rations, on the notion I presume that they should have done more to dissuade Matsu from her escape attempt.
Needless to say, this cut in rations does not endear Matsu to the rest of the prison populations. The prisoner trustees are particularly miffed, and they take advantage of the fact that Matsu hogtied in solitary to express their sentiments. One of the trustees tries to force Matsu to apologize and when she refuses, the trustee covers her with a wet blanket in the cold cell (don’t worry perverts, the tortures become more severe later).
While Matsu is shivering, she flashes back to the reason for her incarceration. It turns out she was dating a cop, Sugumi, a member of the narcotics squad. He uses her to set up a sting operation. He sends her to meet with the gangsters and deliver the dope. But the bad guys see right through her and proceed to gang rape her. It is an odd scene — heavily stylized and shot through a transparent floor. Anyway, her lover bursts in and proceeds to arrest the gangsters for possesion of pot and for rape. As it turns out, Sugumi planned the whole thing — presumably because the rape charge was more serious. It also turns out that Sugumi was working for a rival drug lord. His idea of making things right with Matsu is tossing a wad of bills at her as she lays on the floor after the attack.
This is the message of the movie in a nutshell. Sugumi represents the post-war Japanese power structure, which the movie argues is, at its core corrupt and misogynist, build on shady bargains and the oppression of women. I know I often claim to find serious feminist themes in WiP movies, and many readers, I suspect, probably think that is just a justification mechanism, but whatever, there it is. Anyway, what is interesting is that Matsu ends up going to prison because she proceeds to attack Sugumi in another highly-stylized shot, this time featuring slow motion.
Back to the prison. Yuki is similarly tied up and one of the trustees torments her by pouring boiling miso soup over her. Yuki, not surprisingly, screams out in pain. Matsu gets the same treatment, but she refuses to scream out. Indeed, regardless of the indignities heaped upon her, Matsu remains stoic throughout. Actually, her silence is a lulling mechanism, and when the abusive trustee steps too close, Matsu trips her and causes the scalding miso to spill all over her tormentor.
For this ‘assault’ on a trustee, Matsu is brutally beaten by the guards. Male guards/female prisoners. In most movies of this genre that is a setup for exploitation nudity and sex (often rape). But the movie actually manages to make the guards look worse than actual rapists. They seem instead to get their kicks from abusing Matsu — quite literally grunting sexually with satisfaction as they beat her. This is not an isolated motif either. The guards, throughout, are presented as leering, sweaty, and implicitly impotent when dealing with the inmates. I have not seen enough Japanese movies to understand completely the meaning of the all of this. The “grammar” of Japanese film is clearly different from western cinema. But the intentionality of this characterization of the guards is unmistakeable.
Matsu, in the meantime, is always portrayed as a force of nature. At one point, she is placed into a punishment cell with another women — who it turns out is a guard trying to get information from Matsu in order to get inside her head. Instead, Matsu takes charge. She seduces the guard, and turns her so thoroughly that the guard later begs to be returned to Matsu’s presence. So if the male guards are implicitly impotent, Matsu is the essence of smoldering passion.
Alright, plot development time. While there are other Japanese movies that revel in portraying brutality for its own sake (Guinea Pig, etc), this movie actually tries to develop a narrative structure. As it turns out, though Matsu did not rat Sugumi out, he fears that she might ultimately testify against him. So, at the behest of his drug-lord controller, he attempts to have her whacked. Now, I am neither a drug-lord nor a corrupt cop (though I acknowledge that both seem like pretty fun jobs) so I am not a expert in handling potential stoolies. But it seems to me this situation ought to fall under the rubric of letting sleeping dogs lie.
Sugumi approaches another inmate Katagiri and offers her freedom if she’ll kill Matsu, though he does want it to look like an accident. Not quite sure why this would be the case. Matsu is not particularly popular and making it look accidental seems to add a needless complication to the mission. But again, this isn’t my line of work, so I’ll assume Sugumi has his reasons.
Interestingly enough, the movie now takes a slight detour. We cut to a scene of the inmates playing dice. One of the trustees, Masaki, is playing with a loaded set. Actually, you know, I’ve always been curious about how loaded dice work. Presumably, they can’t come up with a specific outcome every time — that would be too obvious to the potential patsies. But in movies they seem behave like that — the thrower can essentially control the outcome. Anyway, if anyone know how loaded dice work, let me know.
Anyway, loaded dice… one of the girls figures it out and throws a couple of punches at Masaki, but the fight is quickly broken up. The trustees, though, don’t like any challenges to their authority, so they plant a big ‘ol hat pin in the girl’s clothes as she goes off to take a shower. Matsu, however, intercedes by spiriting away the hat pin. So, ha ha, when the trustee’s search their target’s clothes in the presence of the guards, they turn up nothing. Matsu, however, taunts Masaki and the two mix it up. Matsu throws Masaki through a glass door. With her face bloodied and completely enraged Masaki stalks after Matsu with a big shard of glass. The lighting and makeup make Masaki appear like a character out of a Kabuki play. I don’t really know anyway about Kabuki, other than my vague recollection that all the roles, even of females, are played by men. I presume there is some sort of message in the stylization here, but I don’t get it.
Anyway, Masaki chases after Matsu, who avoids her by side-stepping deftly. Masaki’s wild stabs, however, do make contact with the warden who have arrived to check out the source of the disturbance. Despite a shard of glass wedged into his eye, he manages to take revenge on Masaki, choking her into unconsciousness. He then punishes the entire complement of inmates, which sets up the final scene.
The warden blames Matsu for the fight and wants to break her will. He has the inmates digging ditches, and then filling ditches, and then digging ditches again. As the inmates begin to crack, they increasingly displace their anger onto Matsu who endures their glares and taunts with her usual equanimity. Finally though, one of the girls snaps. She axes one of the guard’s head with the blade of her shovel. He dies in slow-motion with blood spurting from his wound.
Immediately, the whole prison explodes in a wild riot. Some of the girls grab three of the guards hostage. They slowly retreat back to a warehouse. Katagiri uses the disorder to take her shot at Matsu. She grabs a fallen guard’s rifle and takes aim at Matsu. Yuki sees this and rushes to Matsu’s aid, getting shot in the process. As she’s dying, she manages to scrawl Katagiri’s name on her arm, warning Matsu. With her potential assassin falling back with the other prisoners into the warehouse, Matsu chooses to stay with the guards.
In the warehouse, the women first went their anger and frustrations on the guards by stripping and raping them. Stripped of their weapons, the guards are sniveling cowards. It is an odd scene — the female prisoners raping male guards is a rare addition to the genre. Usually, it is a way to add an exploitation element — the image of wild, horny, out-of-control women. Here it seems more like a power issue.
Anyway, Katagiri still needs to get Matsu, so she encourages the women to demand that she be turned over to them. The guards who have little interest sympathy for Matsu turn her over immediately. The female prisoners egged on by Katagiri string Matsu up and beat her mercilessly. At one point Katagiri taunts Matsu telling her she plans to get the other prisoners so worked up that they torture her to death. But before they can finish off Matsu, the women drop off to sleep exhausted. Katagiri tries to hasten the outcome by pouring gasoline over Matsu and lighting her on fire, but the other prisoners wake up and stop Matsu from setting the whole place on fire.
Just then, the guards arrive to deliver food for the prisoners. But, ah ha, it is actually a Trojan Horse. Inside the soup vats are several armed guards. There is a tense standoff for a few moments, and then one prisoner panics and shoots a guard, which sets off a massacre of prisoners. In the mayhem, Matsu makes her escape.
The culture of corruption raises its ugly head again. The prison officials don’t want to go to the cops to report the escaped prisoner because if they do they’ll have to publicize the riots and the death of dozens of prisoners — not sure how that might be kept secret anyway, but whatever — so they decide to track down Matsu themselves in secret.
Matsu however is on a mission of revenge. Segumi is her ultimate target, but first she take out all her other tormentors — the judge who sentenced her and Segumi’s drug-lord boss. The prison officials track her down to the police HQ, but since they are trying to keep things secret, then have to wait outside as Matsu confronts Segumi. The end up fighting on the roof top, with Matsu striking at him like a black-clad angel of vengeance. She kills him with a dozen small cuts, drawing out the torment. The movie ends with Matsu trimphant over all the forces that had oppressed her. Her enemies, both male and female, are all either dead, broken, or humiliated. It is a powerful outcome for this nearly mute protagonist.
The plot really does not capture the core of this movie though, which is beautifully made and produced as a series of artistically-conceived set-pieces. The core of the movie is the political critique of post-war Japan, and its attempts to hide rather than reform its corrupt political and economic structure. The movie provides an image of a diseased polity, and Matsu is not so much a heroine as she is a force of nature attacking the old order. For folks looking for a traditional babes in bondage movie, this one is too serious. But for people interested in a challenging, compelling use of the women-in-prison motif as a excuse for political commentary, this is a great picture and well worth a close look.