The women in prison genre has never been so much fun as the Female Prisoner Scorpion series from Japan. Gonzo doesn’t begin to describe this mad mix of outrageous exploitation, flamboyant art movie, and energetic comic-book craziness. Meiko Kaji gives a near silent performance as Nami Matsushima, aka Scorpion, a woman framed for a crime she didn’t commit and tossed into a brutal prison with sadistic guards, a warden determined to break her, and inmates vying for control. Kaji had become a star in the Stray Cat Rock series of girl gang exploitation films for Nikkatsu but this series elevated her even higher, and she graduated from this wild series to her greatest role in Lady Snowblood.
In Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (Japan, 1972) she’s the girlfriend of an undercover narcotics cop who turns out to be a corrupt, conniving opportunist who drafts her in his scheme and then frames her for dealing while he takes a cut of the action. Kaji gives a near silent performance as the smoldering heroine, an innocent who refuses to break under torture (and there is plenty as she is systematically abused and humiliated) and plots to escape to take her revenge on the lover who betrayed her. She defies the sadistic, vengeful warden (watch him lose an eye in this one) and the scheming inmates with silent stares and sudden strikes (thus the nickname “Scorpion”), and she has an almost superhuman ability to endure abuse and patiently wait for her revenge. Shunya Itô directs this with colorful flamboyance and takes on the next two in the series as well.
In Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Japan, 1972), she escapes with a chain gang and leads the cops on a violent chase through the countryside. The doomed “7 Sinful Women” are systematically cut down by the trigger-happy posse, but not before they take a few with them. Itô pushes the exploitation spectacle into outrageous extreme and directs the prison escape thriller like an avant-garde drive-in movie with an existential doom. Striking and at times breathtakingly beautiful, exploitation has never looked so carefully painted or sensitively composed: an autumnal death scene that turns from restful, leaf-blown orange to a desolate gray in a flash, a blue waterfall that suddenly runs red with blood, an escape down a literal mountain of garbage. But as artful as it is, this is still prime exploitation.
She escapes once more in Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (Japan, 1973), where she is branded public enemy number 1 and goes into hiding, only to battle a brutal gang preying upon the women who have hidden her. It’s the third in the series and final one directed by Shunya Itô.
These are grindhouse films with gratuitous nudity, sadistic torture, extreme violence, and a perverse irony to the vengeance. That’s either a selling point or a hazard sign. You decide. The first three of the four films series are the best (the final film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song, is directed by Yasuharu Hasebe) and all four are available to stream on Amazon Prime and are on disc. All have been remastered by Arrow.
Not rated, in Japanese with English subtitles
Also on Blu-ray+DVD from Arrow in a box set and on SVOD from Amazon Video and other services.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection (8-Disc Limited Edition Box Set) [Blu-ray + DVD]
Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD) presents all four films in an eight-disc set featuring DVD and Blu-ray editions of each film, in Japanese with English subtitles, plus new and archival interviews with the filmmakers and film historians and a visual essay on the series.