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"To be deceived is...a woman's crime"—Nami Matsushima, Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion
The Female Prisoner Scorpion (Japanese: Joshuu Sasori) series are women in prison films (suprise!) from Japan's Toei Studio. The first was director Shunya Itou's debut in 1972, and he also directed the second and third; the first four star Meiko Kaji in the title role. Several different lead actresses, reboots and plotlines, not necessarily anything to do with each other, followed her departure. They originate from a manga series begun in 1970 by Touru Shinohara.
Unlike the vast majority of women's prison films, though, they don't exist as an excuse for porn; well, not exactly. While they lie squarely in the Pinky Violence genre, meaning there's plenty of sex, violence and exploitation, they are also intermittently surreal, intelligently shot/directed and feminist in message. It's as if Shunya Itō, nowadays known as an arthouse director, was handed the script for something much more conventional and decided to see how far he could subvert it without actually changing the story.
The series centres around Nami 'Matsu' Matsushima, prisoner number 701, also known by the inmates as Scorpion. Seduced, horribly used and casually betrayed by Sugimi, her corrupt detective boyfriend, she is imprisoned for trying and failing to kill him. Her story revolves around her determination to escape in order to get her revenge, and the increasingly large web of bitter feuds and grievances this creates, inside the prison and beyond.
- Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (1972)
- Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972)
- Female Prisoner 701 Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973)
- Female Prisoner 701 Scorpion: Grudge Song (1973)
- New Female Convict 701: Scorpion (1976)
- New Female Prisoner Scorpion: Special Cellblock X (1977)
- Joshuu Sasori: Satsujin Yokoku (1991)
- Sasori in USA (1997)
- Sasori (2008)
The films provide examples of:
- Antiheroine: Matsu - a type IV or V. While it's hard not to sympathise with her, she is undeniably merciless, and some of what she does is pure vindictiveness. Although never explicitly stated, she seems to have a code of conduct: help her and she'll help you, mess with her and watch your back, betray her trust and you're going down.
- Beware the Quiet Ones: A central facet of Matsu's character. She'll silently endure whatever hellish mistreatment gets thrown her way, but if she gets an opportunity to exact revenge, she will take it, and those who mistreated her will have hell to pay.
- The Corrupter: A central part of Grudge Song involves Matsu doing this as part of her scheme to escape.
- Crapsack World: Understandable in a prison context, but the wider Japan we see in these films isn't the place you've seen in all those samurai flicks, all forests and lakes and pretty vistas. It's dirty, dark and run-down, physically and morally; all the guards are mindless sadists, all the cops are corrupt, most of the women are vindictive and unprincipled and most of the men mysogenistic and cowardly. The general public are an uncaring, unresponsive and unsympathetic mass.
- Highlights in the first film include a Yakuza member stabbed and lynched from the roof of his own building, beside a banner extolling the 'beautiful soul and harmony of Japan', and of course the warden's commendation document, blown away and stamped on by guards rushing to recapture Matsu.
- Jailhouse 41 in particular is especially bleak in its use of location shooting, featuring quarries, slag heaps, mountains of garbage, abandoned villages and junkyards. Much of the natural scenery is bleak, too - bare rock formed from lava, featureless plains of scrubland.
- Beast Stable involves features central themes of prostitution, pimping and abortion forced by physical or social means; its crapsackness is largely social, although plenty of things happen around the red light district. Visual symbolism is particularly rife in the sewer section, most obviously the match dropping sequence.
- Grudge Song occurs across a strip club, a junkyard and a prison run by female guards - corrupt and hypocritical, naturally.
- Crowning Music of Awesome: The featured song across the series, Urami Bushi, features unusually visceral lyrics, sung with very emotional (that is, angry and bitter) intonation. The best thing, though, is that they're sung by Meiko Kaji herself, who is to this day a well-regarded Enka singer in addition to her acting career. Nothing like the personal touch.
- Dark Action Girl: Matsu, and Oba in Jailhouse 41.
- Death Glare: Being largely silent, Matsu is rather good at this.
- Death Is Dramatic: Generally, Matsu's last target is the one who takes half a dozen gut-mincing, body-checking thrusts of the knife, interspersed with the victim's pathetic, gasping, staggering attempts to escape. Sugimi's death is particularly Shakespearean.
- The Determinator: Being a fairly slight woman, Matsu largely lacks the brute strength to fight openly. So she waits for her chance; eventually an opening will present itself, and she'll be there. You can lock her up, you can tie her up, you can beat her, but give her a chance and she'll take it. One of her most devious talents is her ability to simply wait patiently and endure until the right opening arises, then strike with speed and precision - hence the name Scorpion.
- Dissonant Serenity: a natural extension of/complement to her stoicism, single-mindedness and propensity to express all her loathing and contempt using only her eyes. Particularly evident in the psychedelic flashbacks in the first film. This is part of what makes the loud, aggressive Oba so grotesque in the second.
- Even the Girls Want Her: Matsu's relationship with Yuki is never quite clear. More clearly, the warden attempts to break her resistance by using a female police officer masquerading as a new inmate to get through her guard. She starts out trying to get Matsu to brag, and ends up failing, covered in lovebites and begging to be let back into the cell 'to try again'.
- Extraordinarily Empowered Girl: Easy though it is to argue that Meiko Kaji isn't going to frighten off any potential muggers, what makes the film as satisfying is that about the only thing that's actually unbelievable about the series is Matsu's resilience, and that's more or less explainable in context. There's also the frequent implications of supernatural involvement, though.
- Eye Scream: This, in a very obvious way regarding the warden, and in a rather less obvious way concerning Matsu. Keen-eyed viewers will notice that much of the shot design, from her character design integrating long hair and floppy hat, to camera angles, serves to obscure one of her eyes a lot of the time. Japanese viewers will probably get this, while westerners might well miss it - it's a reference to youkai, Japanese ghost/demon/evil spirits, which frequently have only one eye. The trope crops up in various works. Additionally, there's multiple moments of close-ups on eyes with a knife held readied in front of them.
- Fan Service: Interestingly, the decision to star in the Joshuu Sasori series was an attempt to avert fanservice by Meiko Kaji, who moved to the Toei studio when her former studio, Nikkatsu, decided to switch their output entirely to adult films in the "Roman Porno" style. However, this was the first role she played that involved nudity. To what extent the films are fanservice or a subversion thereof is fairly open to debate; while the ultimate message is clearly one of female empowerment, it's still a film that opens with female prisoners forced to exercise nude while watched by leering male guards. Then again, the leering is so grotesquely emphasised and the nudity clearly an exercise in humiliation and assertion of power that this scene comes over very ambiguously indeed. Which is, of course, the point.
- Femme Fatale: Averted, in that 1) a central part of the femme fatale is her ultimately immoral character, while Matsu is thoroughly amoral in the service of a strong internal moral framework, and 2) Matsu is neither reformed nor outwitted by a male hero, as there is none. All the men are just bad, basically.
- Beast Stable's Katsu, however, is a particularly nasty version of a Femme Fatale, possibly a parody, possibly turned Up to Eleven and possibly just a victim of the 1970s.
- Girls Behind Bars: Deconstructed. Depite the setting, the films don't catter to the usual "Women's Prison = Lesbian porn all over" fantasy that so many male viewers would expect, but depicts how female inmates often have other fish to fry than scheming about how to have sex with each other.
- Handicapped Badass: detective Kondo from the third film. Losing an arm to Matsu's knife doesn't seem to trouble him that much. Best shown when he visits Katsu and her thugs; we hear a commotion, the camera pans round and he is standing there, surrounded by cowering, bruised Yakuza.
- Knife Nut: When afforded a choice, Matsu tends to wield a common cooking knife, or occasionally a Tanto.
- Lady of War: Matsu is a rare example of a Lady of War who is characterised as such purely by her attitude and behaviour, rather than social standing. Whatever physically happens to Matsu, she is spiritually untouchable - but crucially, this is not because of her upbringing or connections, simply because that's how she has to be to get what she wants. Also of note: as a prisoner, she does not generally get to choose weapons, but does not discriminate when the opportunity presents itself. Knife, gun, stick, homebrew split-bamboo guillotine trap, her own manacles: it's all good. However, given a choice, she seems to favour a knife, combined with remarkably inelegant charging and thrusting with all her might, putting her face-to-face with her victim.
- Made of Iron: the amount of psychological, physical and emotional punishment that Matsu takes across the series is staggering. She generally seems fine after a brief nap, though.
- Magnificent Bitch: Matsu displays all the main characteristics of one of these. She is highly charismatic, although this usually acts negatively, driving others to hate and/or fear her. She is manipulative, using her enemies fears and pettiness against them whenever she can to compensate for her lack of freedom. She's intelligent, observant, daring and quick to use any opportunity to turn a situation to her advantage. And she certainly has a goal.
- More Deadly Than the Male: Averted, in that Matsu not only gets captured several times, she also isn't more bloodthirsty than the male adversaries who she fights; they go out of their way to make her suffer, but she just wants them as swiftly and efficiently dead as possible.
- No Periods, Period: Averted rather hard. Yuki has a rather painful one inside of three minutes into the first film. There's also lyrics in the featured song about "bleeding once a month". Arguably, since men generally don't feel that comfortable around menstruation, this is another element in the whole 'subverting the Women In Prison genre while adhering to its main elements' schtick that Itou has employed.
- Noble Demon: She will do anything to escape and viciously kill those who wrong her, but that doesn't stop Matsu from having principles, like helping Oba as far as possible and taking a very principled stance on forced backstreet abortions.
- The Quiet One: In the second film, Matsu speaks two lines, for a total of eight words, in 92 minutes, most of which time she's onscreen. She's not much more talkative in the others. Also, Yuki seems to be literally mute in the first film.
- Reconstructed: Sort of. There's not really been any attempt to deconstruct a Women In Prison film, presumably because there's no concievable way that it really needs its myths debunking - nobody could possibly take the idea of a prison full of beautiful, sex-starved women seriously. At least, one hopes so. Anyway, Itou is taking the idea of a WIP flick and turning it on its head; while audience tittilation is possible, the heroine is very rarely placed in a sexual situation, and when she is, it's usually framed as coercion, depicted as a thoroughly horrible experience that depicts the attackers as beastlike, pathetic and rather ridiculous, and soon followed by her vicious revenge. Moreover, rather than simply being disposable, the films have serious messages about moral corruption and abuse of power woven deep into them. And then there's the psychedelic, surreal flashback sequences.
- Revenge: The lifeblood of this series. While the link to Lady Snowblood is better known, this is in some ways just as much of an influence on Kill Bill as the former, e.g. the modern setting, the protagonist's character, the fact that the Roaring Rampage of Revenge is something she comes to as an adult (by contrast, the protagonist of Lady Snowblood is fated to it since before her birth). Vengeance comes in a variety of flavours here:
- Rape and Revenge crossed with Woman Scorned is where everything starts. Sugimi engineered Matsu's rape at the hands of Yakuza so he could catch them in the act. Variations on this feature in the introductions to several of the other escapees in Jailhouse 41. Hence...
- Revenge Against Men is very much the way of things here. It's not exclusive to men, but Matsu's focus is on male targets. Perhaps the important point, though, is that women who wrong her generally do so due to the machinations of powerful men manipulating them.
- We have a lovely escalating Cycle of Revenge across the whole series:
- In the original film, Matsu's desire for revenge against Sugimi is her motivation for repeatedly trying to escape. The warden, and the rest of the guards, develop a hatred of her for this reason, and after the shower scene, the warden in particular has another cause for his own grudge. Their treatment of all the other prisoners for her crimes is brutal, so they begin to seek revenge on Matsu too. Naturally, Matsu doesn't forgive.
- Oba in Jailhouse 41 sees Matsu as a threat and tries to plot against her at every turn. The warden's grudge has only worsened in the year since the events of the previous film.
- Katsu, appearing in Beast Stable, has her own grudge against Matsu too. Her treatment of the prostitutes she controls in turn triggers a new vendetta for Matsu. Detective Kondo loses something important due to Matsu's determination to stay free, and his vendetta is perhaps more understandable than most.
- Teruo Kudo, in Grudge Song, feels like this towards the police. A nasty accident ensures that the Detective in charge of hunting Matsu also has cause to hate her and Teruo.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Matsu is not subtle, long-winded or devious once she has escaped: find target, stab target, repeat from start.
- Revenge Before Reason is why this is a series, not a single film.
- Shower Scene: Subverted. What might start out appearing to be a fanservice-type scene of communal showering turns into something much, much nastier - and more surreal. Notably, there's no nudity here on the parts of either Matsu or her unnamed ally.
- The Stoic: Matsu speaks only when she must and seems to find it hard to relate to others or express positive feelings. This is not exactly incomprehensible, though; while she begins the series rather more prone to emotion, after she loses Yuki she withdraws considerably, becoming more of an Emotionless Girl, with about the only exception being rage and hatred at Sugimi. She spends a great deal of Jailhouse 41 showing very little emotion at all, making the ending all the more powerful. This reticence impacts badly on her relationship with Yuki in Beast Stable.
- Tall, Dark and Bishoujo: Not really very tall, but not that short either. Otherwise, this fits Matsu to a tee.
- Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: After the escape in Jailhouse 41 Matsu works with Oba and the other women, even though Oba clearly hates her and most of the rest are simply following Oba's lead.
- The Vamp: averted in a similar way to the Femme Fatale trope - Matsu is not primarily a sexual manipulator so much as a psychological one, and although she will use sex to get her way, it's not something she does naturally or apparently happily. And again, she's not immoral or evil so much as amoral.
- Villain Protagonist: Depending on how you feel about law, justice, retribution and punishment. Few films portray all police as enemies of the main character, after all.
- What Do You Mean It Wasn't Made on Drugs?: The hallmark of the series is its combination of this unexpectedly savage version of the subject matter with repeated recourse to out-of-left-field surrealism.
- The first film's stageplay-like origin story flashback is the first instance of this, with echoes all through the film, created by unexpected coloured spotlighting.
- However, Jailhouse 41 kicks it into overdrive, with a kabuki-like segment and a scene where a bus becomes a courtroom, not to mention the imposition of the surreal onto the real, like the witch, the waterfall or the ending.
- After this, the surrealism quotient drops considerably, but there are still elements of it in Beast Stable's sewer scenes, sound editing and the music-synched stopmotion effect in the bar scene.
- Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Averted - Matsu has no interest in complex schemes to ruin people's lives or make them suffer. She just lays their carotid artery open and moves on, barely even looking back.
- Woman in Black: A wide, floppy sunhat, long belted coat done up to the neck, flares and gloves tends to be Matsu's preferred garb having escaped, during her vengeance streaks.
- The costume is fairly iconic; it's referenced in Love Exposure.