Meiko Kaji had already become a familiar face in Nikkatsu’s genre output when she took on the role that would come to define her career at only 25 years of age. Toei’s Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (女囚701号/さそり, Joshu Nana-maru-ichi Go / Sasori) would launch a series of similarly themed films and create a national pop culture icon in its central character. Based on a manga by Toru Shinohara, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion is, at heart, a women in prison film and a cornerstone of the pinky violence genre but first time director Shunya Ito has more on his mind than salacious thrills and offers up a noticeably nuanced approach to his material filled with impressive art house flourishes.
701 is the number printed on the back of the prison uniform worn by inmate Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji). She makes a valiant escape attempt with a fellow prisoner, Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), but the pair are caught and put into solitary confinement where they experience torturous treatment both at the hands of the guards and their fellow prisoners. Mostly known as Matsu but also given the nickname of “Scorpion”, Prisoner #701 is not exactly popular with the other ladies in the joint who seem to resent her escape attempts and quiet dignity, annoyed by her above it all demeanour.
Matsu has just one mission in life – vengeance, on the man who wronged her, on the society that allowed her to be wronged, and on the prison system with its sadistic guards and turncoat inmates. Once an ordinary, law abiding woman, Matsu had the misfortune to fall in love with a vice cop who convinced her to go undercover in a yakuza club to get some vital info he needs to bust it. However, Sugima (Isao Natsuyagi) turns out to be the biggest crook of them all and was merely using her to try and take out the local yakuza to get in with a bigger yakuza boss and key into a slice of the drugs trade. Matsu is brutally gang raped after her cover is blown and ends up being sent to prison after making an attempt to ice her former lover with the desire to get out and complete her mission the only thing that’s keeping her going.
Ito begins with an ironic scene in which one of the prison guards is receiving a commendation for his honourable service, Japanese flag flying proudly behind above, until the occasion is interrupted by the escaped prisoner alarm. Later Ito puts the yakuza boss in a building bearing the large banner “Beautiful Soul and Harmony of Japan” and he even adds in an expressive moment as Matsu surrenders her virginity to Sugima, staining her white sheets with a large red circle. Society is corrupt everywhere from Sugima’s bent copper to gang raping yakuza and the prison system itself.
The guards are effectively running their own little empire, cut off from mainstream law enforcement and left to their own “corrective” impulses. Ito gives us salacious shower scenes and women being marched around in the nude but he places us in the place of a voyeur, making it plain that the prison guards are sating their lust for power through humiliating their charges in sexual dominance and violence. Divide and rule is the name of the game as a top tier of prisoners are “employed” in various prison tasks earning them a different colour uniform and a status bump. These ladies are even worse than some of the male guards and are responsible for much of the cruelty inflicted on Matsu and Yuki during their time in solitary.
Inter-prisoner conflict is not the central theme of the film as Matsu continues to plan for her eventual escape and revenge on the man who has ruined her life. A slight spanner is thrown in the works when an inside woman is recruited to take Matsu out, but Matsu is painted as a the ultimate vengeful warrior. Barely speaking (the bulk of her dialogue is actually voice over for her flashback scene), Matsu waits silently, observing and plotting. Biding her time she manages to take an extremely skilful and poetic revenge against her solitary abuser despite her hands and feet being bound, and when a police mole is placed in a cell with her Matsu sees through the ruse straight away. Seducing her new cellmate, Matsu neutralises the threat with ease maintaining her trademark intense elegance all the way through.
Though the synopsis smacks of cheap and nasty exploitation Ito doesn’t see it that way and films with an art house aesthetic rather than a salacious eye. Matsu’s flashback takes a very theatrical form with a rotating set and Matsu remaining present in the corner as she narrates. Her rape scene is grotesque and nightmarish, shot through a see-through floor as her attackers grin and gurn away at her like fairytale monsters. Likewise, when Matsu traps another prisoner in her own scheme, the woman turns into a classic ghost creature, face white and staring, broken glass firmly gripped manically in front. The acting style is broad and absurd. Policeman laugh loudly and for too long, blood is an artificial kind of red, gloopy like paint, and pantomimeish grotesquery is everywhere. Ito’s backgrounds are expressionist rather than realist but always perfectly pitched.
You can tell a lot about a place from the way it treats its prisoners and when its as bad as this, you start to wonder which side of the bars you’re really on. The guards are only a representation of a consistently exploitative society, but they can at least be outsmarted. “To be deceived is a woman’s crime”, says Matsu, but it’s one she fully intends to atone for – in blood, settling not just her own score but those of all her fellow prisoners caught in the patriarchal trap of hollow promises and abused honour.
Original trailer (English subtitles)