One of the most enduringly popular series' in the annals of Japanese cinema, as well as one of the most iconic female revenge stories ever told (Quentin Tarantino cited them as an influence on his KILL BILL movies), the FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION films are rightfully considered as modern classics - and highpoints of the revered Toei Studios stable.
It was a matter of time until these "pinky violence" milestones made their transition to blu-ray. The big fear, I suppose, was who would acquire the rights to bring them to the HD marketplace. When Arrow Video announced their intentions to release a boxset incorporating the four official series entries (discounting various offshoots, cash-ins and even a remake which followed in subsequent years) in new 2k restorations, expectations were suddenly high.
The boxset was quickly established as being limited to just 3,000 copies, and said to house a total of eight discs: that being dual-format blu-ray and DVD copies of each film. As you'd most likely expect, a plethora of bonus features were soon added to all press releases.
But more on those later. First, the films.
FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION (a.k.a. JOSHU 701-GO: SASORI) started things off in auspicious style, back in 1972.
The film centres around the steely, mostly silent Matsu (Meiko Kaji), who we first see attempting to escape from a brutal women's prison with her friend Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe). Chased down by Alsatians and baton-wielding prison wardens, the girls are dragged back to jail and thrown into solitary.
It's here that Matsu reminisces over why she wound up in prison in the first place. Corrupt cop Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi) tricked her into falling in love with him, and used her as a stooge in his plans - which resulted in her being not only deceived by him, but raped and beaten by several other men. Understandably, Matsu had wanted revenge - and tried to stab Sugimi outside the police station where he worked. Her assassination attempt was unsuccessful, and so she ended up in the Hellhole prison that 90 per cent of this film is set in.
The plot is simple enough. Matsu - known as Scorpion to her cellmates - wants to break free and exact revenge on Sugimi and his cohorts. Everyone else in the prison wants to beat the living shit out of Matsu and break her spirit. And that really is all there is to it.
What makes SCORPION, based upon a Japanese graphic novel, stand out from every other sleazy B-movie prison film is its sheer inventiveness. Sure, it's got the token shower scenes, the expected lesbian fumble, the obligatory set-pieces where guards push a prisoner to the limit, the brutal mob violence (even the misleadingly sedate opening song is sung over scenes of jarring nudity). But, as enjoyable as all these staple ingredients are, the movie would not register so well were it not for the boundless energy of the performers or the sterling, sometimes acrobatic camerawork, or even the glorious conceits of having cheap sets built that enable one scene to transform into the next without any cuts. Simple, but genius.
Lighting is used creatively to bring unexpected atmosphere and depth to some scenes, while editing is flawless and the music (the song that can be heard in the film was cribbed by Tarantino for KILL BILL) adds dimension to the already stunning visuals.
The violence is cruel and unsparing, but it's all underpinned superbly by the artistic leanings of director Shunya Ito and the genuinely charismatic, hauntingly beautiful Kaji. She's capable of effortlessly conveying complex emotions without uttering a single word.
Mere months later the second instalment came, in the form of JAILHOUSE 41 (a.k.a. JOSHU-SASORI: DAI-41 ZAKKYO-BO).
Matsu lies chained to the floor of a dirty cellar. She's spent a year there in solitary confinement as punishment for an attempted prison break.
Her slumber is interrupted by the arrival of chief warden Mr Goda (Fumio Watanabe) and his two henchmen. After telling Matsu how much he despises her (understandable, she gouged his eye out in the preceding film), Goda advises her that he plans to keep her locked underground forever. However, he allows her outside on this day as an important official is visiting the prison and has requested that all inmates be present for inspection in the exercise yard. After giving her a thorough hosing down, naturally. Inevitably, this ends badly for all concerned ... with Goda ultimately ordering Matsu's gangrape by his guards as punishment for insubordination.
The other inmates beat the shit out of Matsu in the back of a prison truck while being transported back to jail, chastising her for failing to fight back while the guards had their wicked way with her. Believing Matsu to be dead, the inmates demand the truck is stopped. But Matsu is very much alive, and still strong enough to throttle the driver to death - instigating a prison break that finds her on the run with six other women, led by her rival - the child-killing Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi).
Their plight for freedom takes the women across vast landscapes and through tiny villages, while Goda's henchmen are never far behind with their traps and roadblocks at the ready.
JAILHOUSE 41 is a frenzied movie. It roars along at a frantic pace, filled with bizarre characters, quirky songs and breathless chase scenes. In-between you'll find gratuitous lesbianism, graphic violence, a mystical old lady given to singing about the female fugitives, a tasteless scene in which a woman's child is roughed up in front of her to encourage her to rat on her friends, dubious rape-related humour and a siege-on-a-bus scene which is so insane that it elevates the movie into a state of pure delirium.
Ito's direction makes all the above, as unlikely as it may sound, utterly beautiful. What could have been mindless (even offensive) schlock is transformed into visually stunning arthouse cinema, thanks to sublime photography, a few truly mesmerising psychedelic dream sequences and well-chosen, bewitching landscape backgrounds.
Costume design and rich colour schemes are big in this film too, working alongside Ito's imaginative editing and at times downright surreal set-pieces to turn even the trashiest scenes into ones of awe-inspiring marvel. Albeit, ones of violent and politically incorrect awe-inspiring marvel...
On a thematic note, the film has more to say than its pulpy plot suggests. There's a strong feminist streak running throughout - such as when the old lady sings to us about the fugitives' backgrounds: all were imprisoned for crimes they committed after being severely provoked into them by men. Performances are loud and over-the-top, in keeping with the film's comic book routes, save for Kaji who again cuts a figure of sorrowful intensity from beginning to end without having to utter a word.
Visually sumptuous, thrillingly exciting, thoroughly engaging and at times surprisingly violent - JAILHOUSE 41 oozes cool. A bona fide cult classic.
Continuing with the brisk production of the series, BEAST STABLE (a.k.a. JOSHU SASORI: KEMONO-BEYA) followed in 1973. In it, Matsu is on the run, a wanted woman since her daring prison escape. She sits inconspicuous on a crowded subway train, but is still noticed by two police detectives who give chase to her. Matsu slashes one across the throat while the other - Kondo (Mikjo Narita) - manages to catch up with her at the train's sliding door. Unfortunately for him, Matsu hacks his arm off and races away through the station, the severed limb flapping lifelessly in her hand.
Later that evening Matsu reunites with fledgling prostitute Yuki in an old graveyard. Despite the fact that Yuki first sees Matsu as she's tucking into Kondo's dismembered arm, she still feels sympathy towards her and takes her back to her place.
There, Matsu meets Yuki's brain-damaged brother who is so obsessed with sex that Yuki sleeps with him to protect other women from him. Matsu struggles to understand this, and once she finds herself a job in a sewing factory she moves out into her own place.
From here onwards, the plot develops through one outrageous twist after another. Yuki drops a bombshell by declaring she's fallen pregnant with her brother's child, and wants the sibling murdered. In the time it takes Matsu to warm to the idea of killing her pal's brother, Yuki is attacked by rival pimps, and Matsu herself is forced to go on the game when a criminal recognises her face from a "wanted" poster. Throw in a ruthless lard-faced madame called Katsu (Reisen Lee, MISHIMA) and a vengeful one-armed Kondo, who turns up searching for his quarry, and the scene is set for one almighty bloody denouement.
Despite how it may sound in text, BEAST STABLE isn't as delirious as its predecessor. But it's a strong movie in its own right, and a worthy addition to the Scorpion series.
It's filled with arresting visuals and gloriously cool widescreen compositions that elevate the movie into arty territory on frequent occasion. Ito maintains a keen sense of colour, his lurid primary schemes recalling Mario Bava's more Gothic works.
The pacing is a little off to begin with - after the initial rush of the opening credits chase scene, the story begins to unravel laconically with very little dialogue. But it all picks up again for a superb exciting third act that ends with a finale so deliciously cruel it's impossible not to crack a wry smile.
Echoing the feminism that was heavily present in JAILHOUSE 41, BEAST STABLE also brings out a more sympathetic quality to Matsu's character. She's still brooding, silent and intense for the main part - but there's a humanity present this time around that was doubtlessly necessary if the series was to grow. BEAST STABLE is, essentially, a love story - Matsu and Yuki develop a bond as two kindred spirits happiest when they are together, and lost when they are forced to be apart. But don't worry, there's still plenty of violent action and cartoonish villains to enjoy along the way - not to mention disturbing themes such as prostitution, incest and abortion.
GRUDGE SONG (a.k.a. JOSHU SASORI: 701-GO URAMI-BUSHI), the fourth entry, also came in 1973. Ito had jumped ship by this point: directorial duties were handled by Yasuharu Hasebe.
This episode finds Matsu unwisely teaming up with Yasuo (Masakazu Tamura) in a bid to foil violent, corrupt cop Kodama (Yumi Kanei). Things don't go to plan - do they ever?! - and, ultimately, Matsu finds herself back in prison, facing the death penalty. Can she escape and exact revenge upon those who've betrayed her ... again?
Kaji remains on fine form and Hasebe retains the visual style that Ito had made his own. The action is still energetic and there are plenty of exploitative elements to sate fans. But there's no denying that, whether it be due to the change in director or the simple law of diminishing returns, GRUDGE SONG adds little to the series and is by far the least essential of the four films on offer.
That's not to say it's flawed - as a standalone prospect it's hugely rewarding - it simply falls short when measured against its admittedly outrageously good predecessors. Still, stay tuned for high-energy performances, gratuitous nudity and a nasty, show-stopping gangrape among other delights.
We were provided with DVD copies of each film for the purpose of this review.
Each film is presented uncut and in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Unsurprisingly, the picture in each case is 16x9 enhanced. Framing is correct in each instance. As for the transfers ... these are a mixed bag.
Obviously without the blu-ray discs to comment upon, I can't get the full grasp on the 2k restorations or how they benefit from the thrust of 1080p resolution. But here, on DVD, there's no truly discernible upgrade against previous digital presentations of the films.
That may sound like a major gripe. To some, it may well be. But newcomers should rest in the knowledge that these transfers are clean, uncut, clear, sharp and detailed: they're not bad presentations at all, especially considering these are low-budgeted cult titles of over forty years in age.
But, yeah, any hopes of major leaps in presentation (in standard definition at least) are dashed. Darker scenes still flicker on occasion, the odd daylight scene suffers from a blown-out quality and the much-discussed-online "blue tint" is evident throughout, during darker scenes. This is how the low-contrast 35mm film elements were presented to Arrow, a public announcement from the company informed us shortly before release date.
The films often look their age as a result. Not due to print damage (there's very little) but a general appearance via the pale flesh tones, vivid blue hues and overly deep blacks on offer. Colours are generally strong, mind, and a keen sense of filmic depth can still be felt throughout.
Japanese 2.0 audio is consistent and clear throughout all four films. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easy to read at all times.
Each disc opens with an animated main menu page. From there, scene selection menus allow access to the films via 12 chapters apiece.
Now, onto the extras...
The maiden film's bonus features commence with a newly filmed appraisal from Gareth Evans, director of THE RAID: REDEMPTION. Over the course of 24 enjoyable minutes, he speaks of his own relationship with the films, how he paid homage to the original in a deleted scene from his own THE RAID 2 and discusses the series' ties with the Japanese classics which preceded them.
An archive16-minute interview with Ito harks back to 2006, and sees the director reminiscing over his no-bullshit approach to working with the occasionally difficult Toei Studio house.
"Scorpion Old and New" affords us 15 minutes in the company of assistant director Yutaka Kohira. He's a laidback chap with keen memories of working with both Kaji and Ito. His has been a long and eclectic career, much of which is discussed in this flab-free featurette.
Trailers for all the SCORPION films follow, along with English translations for the first movie's crew credits (1 minute).
JAILHOUSE 41 benefits from an illuminating, erudite 28-minute optional introduction from author Kier-La Janisse speaks in depth about the film's place within the women-in-prison genre and dissects its unconventional approach to revenge motifs.
Jasper Sharp is on hand for a fast-paced, gratifyingly thorough run through Ito's varied directorial career. This clocks in at 10 minutes in length and is accompanied, as are all of these discs' featurettes, with generous stills and clips.
"Designing Scorpion" spends 16 minutes with gracious production designer Tadayuki Kuwana. He worked on the first three instalments with Ito and fondly discusses how he and the director collaborated on each film's look.
BEAST STABLE'S bonus materials begin with an excellent 26-minute appreciation from critic Kat Ellinger. Sat in front of an impressive-looking DVD collection (and a strategically-placed copy of Stephen Thrower's "Nightmare USA" book!), Kat adopts an engagingly personal approach to her account of how she was introduced to the films in the late '90s and her admiration for the series as a whole, before going on to proffer an insightful look at BEAST STABLE in particular.
"Directing Meiko Kaji" is a 17-minute interview with Ito, in which he elaborates on his working relationship with Kaji. It's interesting to note that he didn't take to her at first, but how his admiration and respect for his strong, intelligent, beautiful lead developed over the course of these films.
"Unchained Melody" finds Tom Mes in fine fettle as he narrates over 21 minutes of various clips and stills, offering a comprehensive account of Kaji's amazing career - from starring in early iconic films such as LADY SNOWBLOOD and BLIND WOMAN'S CURSE, to becoming a domestic TV star and eve making the odd pop record.
Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, director of the awesome KICHIKU DAI ENKAI is on hand to provide an 11-minute "appreciation" of GRUDGE SONG. In truth, he's more concerned with telling viewers about his own filmmaking experiences - but does at least remember to cite these movies as an influence upon occasion.
A 20-minute archive interview with Hasebe follows, and is complemented by a further 17-minute documentary on him by Jasper Sharp. Boasting an interesting directorial career of his own (he also helmed the likes of ASSAULT! JACK THE RIPPER and MASSACRE GUN), this two features are an unexpected treat and a personal highlight for me.
Mes returns for a bulky 40-minute appraisal of the film, its significance when placed among Japanese culture of its time and its subsequent influence. "They Call Her Scorpion" is well served by an even balance of insight and clips, ensuring there's never a dull moment to be found.
The film's original 3-minute theatrical trailer rounds things off nicely.
All Japanese-language features come equipped with optional English subtitles.
Also included in this weighty set, though unavailable for review purposes, are blu-ray copies of each film (with identical extras, albeit in high definition for the most part) and a collectors' booklet. I believe the outer slipcase houses each film in individual keepcases, with reversible cover art. There's even reportedly a double-sided fold-out poster to consider too.
The FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION series stands the test of time as one of the most visually amazing slices of exploitation cinema ever. The films look good here, uncut and correctly framed, even if they haven't been given the polish I'd anticipated (though, again, I must stress I haven't been privy to the 1080p versions). Loaded with extras to boot, this is easily the best release these films have ever (and most likely ever will) enjoyed.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Arrow Video|
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