Double Suicide at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中, Yasuzo Masumura, 1978)

Love Suicides at Sonezaki posterAfter spending the vast majority of his career at Daiei, Yasuzo Masumura found himself at something of a loose end when the studio went bankrupt in the early ‘70s. Working as a freelance director for hire he made the best of what was available to him, even contributing an instalment in former Daiei star Shinataro Katsu’s series of period exploitation films, Hanzo the Razor: The Snare. There is, however, a particular shift in the famously fearless director’s point of view in these later films as his erotically charged grotesquery begins to soften into something more like an aching sadness in the crushing sense of defeat and impossibility which seems to consume each of his heroes. Maintaining the contemporary groove of Lullaby of the Earth – an uncharacteristically new age inflected tale of a naive orphan from the mountains tricked into the sex trade through a desire to see the sea, Double Suicide at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中, Sonezaki Shinju, AKA Love Suicides at Sonezaki / Double Suicides of Sonezaki, Double Suicide in Sonezaki) is a melancholy exploration of the limitations of love as a path to freedom in which the demands of a conformist, hierarchical society erode the will of those who refuse to compromise their personal integrity on its behalf until they finally accept that there is no way in which they can possibility continue to live inside it.

Ohatsu (Meiko Kaji), the geisha, has fallen in love with a client – Tokubei (Ryudo Uzaki), who is a humble man taken in by an uncle with the intention that he take over his soy-sauce shop. No longer the relationship between a prostitute and a customer, Ohatsu refuses to take Tokubei’s money which begins to cause friction with her “master” at the brothel to whom she still owes a significant debt. Tokubei does not possess the resources to redeem her, nor is he ever likely to. Matters are forced to a crisis point when each of them is offered what would usually be thought the best possible option for their respected social paths. Tokubei is offered the hand in marriage of his aunt’s niece and the chance to set up his own shop in Edo but it isn’t what he wants because he wants Ohatsu. Similarly, Ohatsu is sought by a wealthy client who wants to buy her and take her home as a mistress – she tries to refuse but has to play along given her relative lack of agency, longing to be with Tokubei or no one at all. Tokubei is thrown out by his uncle for refusing the marriage and finds himself the difficult position of having to reclaim dowry money from his greedy step-mother only to be conned out of it by an unscrupulous “friend”, Kuheiji (Isao Hashimoto), who later frames him to make it look like Tokubei cheated him. Beaten and ostracised, Tokubei sees no escape from his shame other than through an “honourable” death and Ohatsu sees no life for herself without her love.

Inspired by Chikamatsu’s world of double suicides, Masumura adopts a deliberately theatrical method of expression in which the cast perform in a heightened and rhythmic style intended to evoke the classical stage of Japan. Yet he also makes a point of scoring the film with contemporary folk and jazz as if this wasn’t such an old story after all. Times may be more permissive, but perhaps there’s no more freedom in love than there ever was and the pure dream of happiness in romantic fulfilment no more possible.

The forces that keep Tokubei and Ohatsu apart are only partly those unique to the feudal world – debt bondages and filial obligations being much weakened if not altogether absent in the post-war society, but are almost entirely due to their lack of individual agency and impossibility of freeing themselves from the various systems which oppress them. Tokubei is a poor boy from the country whose father has died. He has been taken in by an uncle and trained up as an heir – something he is grateful for and has worked hard to repay, but will not sacrifice his individual desire in order to accept the path laid down for him.

Ohatsu, in a more difficult position, is oppressed not only by her poverty but by her gender. Sold to a brothel she is subject to debt bondage and viewed only as a commodity, never as a person. When she intervenes to stop Tokubei being beaten by Kuheiji’s thugs, her patron panics but only because he will lose his money if she is “damaged”. Similarly, the brothel owner complains for the same reason after some ruckus at the inn. Neither of them are very much bothered about Ohatsu in herself but solely in her functionality as tool for making money or making merry respectively.

“Money is better, money means everything” claims Tokubei’s angry step-mother and she certainly seems to have a point as both of our lovers struggle through their lack of it. In the end it’s not so much money but “shame” which condemns them to a sad and lonely death as they realise they can no longer live with themselves in this cruel and unforgiving world which refuses them all hope or possibility for the future. An honourable man, Tokubei cannot live with such slander – men die for honour, and women for love, as Ohatsu puts it. Ironically enough there was a chance for them but it came too late as Kuheiji’s machinations begin to blow back on him and Tokubei’s uncle begins to regret his overhasty disowning of his nephew, but the world is still too impure for such pure souls and so they cannot stay.

Unlike some of Masumura’s earlier work, there’s a sadness and an innocence implicit in Double Suicide at Sonezaki that leaves defiance to one side only to pick it up again as the lovers decry their love too pure to survive in an impure world. The world does not deserve their love, and so they decide to leave it, freeing themselves from the “shame” of living through the purifying ritual of death. Softer and sadder, the message is not so far from the director’s earlier assertions save for being bleaker, leaving no space for love in an oppressive and conformist society which demands a negation of the soul as the price for acceptance into its world of cold austerity. 


Opening (no subtitles)

Unchained Melody: The Films Of Meiko Kaji (Tom Mes)

unchained melody cover
Cover art by Nathanael Marsh

For a figure now so iconic and enduring, it’s strange that a comprehensive study of the cinematic career of Meiko Kaji (in English, at least) has been so long coming. Tom Mes’ wonderfully titled Unchained Melody seeks to rectify this unfortunate situation with a wide ranging examination not only of Kaji’s screen persona(s) but also of the changing nature of the industry which at times supported and frustrated her, as well as the various directors through whom she was able grow and change as an actress. The picture which emerges most strongly through Mes’ book is of a woman who was often as defiant as the characters who came to define her in the public eye, but necessarily so for, unlike some of her contemporaries, her goal was always a betterment of her craft and she would, therefore, be ruthless in pursuing it.

After beginning with the personal in a prologue detailing a meeting with the woman herself in 2006, Mes wisely moves on from biographical detail to focus on Kaji’s film career as it progressed from miscasting as Nikkatsu’s particular brand of cutesy girl-next-door, to her reign as queen of outlaw cool in the youth crazy 1970s and the inevitable cooling down as time moved on. It is, however, in least in Mes’ view and in the way Kaji herself seems to describe it to him not a story of decline and fall but of personal choice.

The Japanese studio system, like that of Hollywood, could be rigid and unforgiving. In many ways it’s an odd comparison, but the dilemma Kaji finds herself in is much the same as that experienced by Hollywood’s own defiant woman, Bette Davis, who successfully managed to push her otherwise overbearing managers into giving her the kind of work which she felt she deserved but was being denied. Nikkatsu’s output was star based rather than director led, meaning they had a steady stream of cardboard cut out headliners they could slot into the project the marketing department was busy dreaming up. This is naturally disadvantageous to an aspiring actress whose interest is craft rather than stardom.

Mes, as kindly as he can, contrasts Kaji’s fortunes with an early co-star, Sayuri Yoshinaga who continues to be a tentpole star – perhaps the only female actress of her age to be so. Yoshinaga, well known both as an actress and singer, has played things quite differently, capitalising on an image which is the very opposite of Kaji’s – that essential small town wholesomeness that Kaji had so much trouble with at Nikkatsu. Still playing roles well below her physical age – most notably as a frequent mother figure in the films of veteran commercial director Yoji Yamada, Yoshinaga has certainly had a long and very successful career, but, as Mes implies, not the kind of career Kaji would have wanted.

Rather than capitalising on her new found stardom after the twin hits of Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion, Kaji opts for challenging roles rather leading ones. Mes uses this as a jumping off point to profile some of the directors who helped to shape her career from her big break in Nikkatsu’s groovy youth series Stray Cat Rock which gave her a lasting relationship with Yasuharu Hasebe (who returned to direct the last in the Scorpion series), and Toshiya Fujita who further helped to create her image with Lady Snowblood, as well as the lesser known director of the Scorpion films Shunya Ito, the better known Kinji Fukasaku, and the provocative Yasuzo Masumura for whom Kaji produced one of her most surprising cameos as a kindly village woman in Lullaby of the Earth. In addition to giving an impression of how these various directors fit into Kaji’s ongoing development as an actress, these brief digressions also help to situate it within the fracturing world of ‘70s Japanese cinema in which the death of the studio system had created a gaping void into which slipped the commercial filmmaker’s baser instincts.

Where other books on cinema might hold back, Mes is also keen to highlight Kaji’s long career in television in which she often found the kinds of challenging roles unavailable in the cinema. A brief resurgence in international interest following Tarantino’s Kill Bill which cited her as a clear influence and used two of Kaji’s iconic theme tunes might have led to a cinematic comeback but it was sadly not to be, and, truth be told those challenging roles for older actresses are still few and far between. Still, Kaji’s counter cultural cool endures and if there’s one thing that Mes’ book makes plain, it’s that this essentially defiant quality extends past her screen image to the woman herself who was not prepared to be bound by the way that others chose to see her but continued to fight for the right to define herself, not as a star in someone else’s image, but as an actress.


Unchained Melody: The Films Of Meiko Kaji is published by Arrow Books 11th September, 2017.

Lullaby of the Earth (大地の子守歌, Yasuzo Masumura, 1976)

lullaby-of-the-earthYasuzo Masumura is best remembered for his deliberately transgressive, often shockingly grotesque critiques of Japanese society and its conformist overtones. Lullaby of the Earth (大地の子守歌, Daichi no Komoriuta) is one of his few completely independent features, filmed after the bankruptcy of Daiei where Masumura had spent the bulk of his early years. As such, it is quite an exception in terms of his wider career both in terms of its production and in its earthy, spiritual themes. Adapted from the 1974 novel by Kukiko Moto, Lullaby of the Earth is the story of an abandoned and betrayed woman but one who also draws her strength from the Earth itself.

13 year old Rin (Mieko Harada) has been living with her adopted grandmother in a remote mountain community. Returning home one day triumphantly carrying a rabbit for dinner, Rin discovers that her grandmother has passed away. Being just a child and now alone and frightened, Rin does not know what to do and later receives harsh treatment from the villagers from whom she temporarily conceals her grandmother’s death. With no one to look after her, Rin is approached by a kind seeming man in Western dress who offers her a good job on a nearby island which, he says, pays well and offers a much better quality of life than Rin’s current survivalist setup in the mountains. Rin has heard tales of men like him before and is not taken in by his arguments, even when he suggests she could use the money to buy a proper grave for her grandmother. She is, however, caught when he mentions taking her to see the sea – something she has been longing for for most of her life.

However, Rin’s pure joy at the waves and endless horizons of the shoreline is short lived when reality hits home and she realises she has been sold to a brothel. The brothel owners are not a bad sort, considering, and intend on using her as a servant until she comes of age but Rin is not having any of it. Refusing to eat, work, or wear her new clothes, Rin is proving to be a very bad investment but changes her tune when she strikes up a friendship with a girl who works at a local store who convinces her that her rebellion is misplaced. Work hard and pay off your debt, she says, and they’ll let you go home. Rin decides to do just that, and with her characteristic energy, but her journey home is not to be such a straight forward experience.

Lullaby of the Earth maybe unusual in Masumura’s filmography due its period setting and gentler, more spiritually orientated progression but Rin is, in many ways, a typical Masumura heroine. A true child of nature, Rin is athletic, at home in the forests and woods trapping rabbits and building fires. Her downfall is brought about precisely because of her desire for total freedom. Longing to see the sea with all of the freedom and possibilities that it suggests, Rin allows herself to be taken in by the false promises of a procurer (presumably alerted by a less than helpful villager), little knowing that she’s damned herself for a period of at least three years.

Made to suffer numerous degradations from the humiliation of her servitude, to a beating that leaves her half dead and her final forced prostitution, Rin maintains her resistance in whichever way she can. Striving for control, Rin takes on a masculine quality defined by strength and agility rather than elegance and beauty. Once again longing for the sea, Rin begs to be allowed to row the boat that takes the girls out to find business from passing ships. “If you take my oar you’ll be in trouble” she later exclaims, clinging to her source of male power even whilst being forced into the gaudy brothel kimono. Displaying her own ability for active choice even within her controlled environment, Rin takes the scissors to her own hair, cutting it short like a man’s.

Given the chance to escape the brothel for a comfortable life as the mistress of a wealthy man, Rin refuses. A decision which seems bizarre to many of the other girls, but Rin will have her freedom back in its entirety – she will not swap one cage for another as the prized possession of a some other authority. Meeting a man who claims he may be able to help her, Rin starts working overtime to save the money to escape with the consequence that her health suffers, leading to almost total blindness followed by listless depression. Only at this point does her inner fire start to waver, but it is never extinguished allowing her to finally make a break for it even if she literally cannot see where she is headed.

Rin’s guiding voices come from the Earth itself as mediated by the kindly internal presence of her grandmother. The soil is sacred, as her grandmother told her. Rub soil into your wounds and you’ll soon be healed. In times of trouble, lie against the Earth’s surface and you will know what to do. Rin wants to find the way back to her mountain, but it may no longer exist for her. Nevertheless, the Earth itself is singing and will tell her where to go, so long as she can find the strength to listen.

Masumura begins the film with Rin at prayer, dressed in the white clothes of a pilgrim and dutifully following the temple paths around the island of Shikoku. Suffering a final PTSD flashback of all she’s suffered since her grandmother’s passing, Rin is once again comforted by the sounds of the Earth, beginning with her grandmother’s voice to which more are slowly added, cheering her on with chorus of support as she walks towards the end of her journey. A wonderful, early leading performance for Mieko Harada, Lullaby of the Earth is a far more new age exercise than Masumura’s generally cynical approach to human spirituality would usually allow but neatly tallies with his primary concerns in its heroine’s eternal quest for her own autonomy, body and soul, as she traverses a cold and unforgiving world.


 

Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (女囚さそり 701号怨み節, Yasuharu Hasebe, 1973)

The saga seemed complete with the end of Beast Stable but inevitably Matsu returns in the bonus instalment, Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (女囚さそり 701号怨み節, Joshu Sasori – 701 Go Urami Bushi). Original director of the series Shunya Ito agreed that the ballad of Matsu was sung through, and so Yasuharu Hasebe reteams with star Meiko Kaji after their previous collaborations on Retaliation and the Stray Cat Rock series during their time at Nikkatsu. Hasebe’s style is the polar opposite of Ito’s arthouse inspired painterly majesty and heavily favours the groovy, ‘70s youth inspired aesthetic he employed in the Stray Cat Rock series. Coming as it does after Ito’s genre rocking visual tour-de-force, Grudge Song can’t help feeling a little regressive and a reminder of what a considered cash grab this fourth instalment really is but that isn’t to deny the fact that it can prove an enjoyable, genre skewing, effort when considered in isolation.

The end of Beast Song told us that Female Prisoner Scorpion served her sentence, was released and disappeared into the ether like the legendary creature she was. However, Grudge Song provides another episode to her history and begins with Matsu (Meiko Kaji) being re-arrested by police during someone else’s wedding (you have to feel sorry for the happy couple – could the police not have done this outside at least?). She fights them off in grand fashion and manages to escape though is gravely injured and not able to run very far. Luckily she is found by a damaged former protester working at a cabaret club who helps her hide out from the police. Soon the pair enter into a kind of romance but it’s not long before Matsu has some names to add to that ever increasing grudge list.

Along with the change of director comes a slight refocusing. Both the original trilogy and this fourth instalment have definite political undercurrents but Grudge Song allows these to be more overt with its constant references to the student protests of the late ‘60s and ’70s as well as to police corruption and brutality. Matsu’s ally and sometime lover, Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), had been a prominent protester picked up and repeatedly tortured by police leaving him with both physical and mental scarring. Obviously distrustful of authority but also made fearful, Kudo has been keeping his head down until he finds a kindred spirit in Matsu and decides to fight back.

The enemy here is the police – as it was to a degree in some of the other films, but Matsu’s concerns are playing second fiddle to her male saviour’s psychological traumas. This is the first film where Matsu has any kind of male help, and she’s essentially in an assisting role as Kudo attempts to defend her from the police (her injuries meaning she can’t exert the same kind of preternatural power as in the other instalments). There may be a kind of spiritual connection between Matsu and Kudo but the fact that she trusts him so quickly is strange given her behaviour throughout the series, though perhaps she has little choice given her physical condition. This is also the first time where Matsu allows an innocent woman to be killed in front of her – ironically another victim of male violence whose life is lost through no fault of her own. The other Matsu would at least find this upsetting, but this new Matsu who’s now more of an accomplice to a borderline terrorist protest cell consisting of one male member, is entirely indifferent.

Though Hasebe mimics some of Ito’s cinematography notably in the opening and his iconography of “Scorpion”, he abandons his stylistic concerns in favour of something very much more directly contemporary. In keeping with his work on the very groovy, youth orientated Stray Cat Rock movies, Hasebe turns Female Prisoner Scorpion into a standard ‘70s exploitation pic complete with gratuitous lesbianism, nudity, and random violence. Zooms, whip pans, and anarchic camera action are accompanied by jazzy electric guitar and a stoner vibe that is designed to appeal to the youth of the day but appears hopelessly dated now unlike Ito’s approach which is still of its era but manages to take on a timeless quality. As an example of ‘70s exploration cinema, Grudge Song pays its dues but as a Female Prisoner Scorpion movie, it falls far short of its predecessors.

Grudge Song marked the last outing for Kaji as the titular Scorpion, though this Matsu is not the Matsu of the rest of the series. Hasebe doesn’t seem so attached to the cult of Scorpion and more or less reboots her for a fairly straightforward genre affair which lacks the subtle intelligence of Ito’s vision. Still, taken alone Grudge Song is not without its charms though it loses the feminist edge of the rest of the series and recasts its heroine as a bit player in a game of revenge against the authorities in the name of vengeance for the death of the student movement.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (女囚さそり けもの部屋, Shunya Ito, 1973)

beast-stableAt the end of Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Matsu – the “Scorpion” of the title, had enacted parts of her revenge but lost even more friends and allies along the way. Still filled with an intense rage, she wandered away from her imprisonment towards the dawn and a free, if uncertain, future. It’s here we find her at the beginning of Beast Stable (女囚さそり けもの部屋, Joshu Sasori – Kemono Beya) – a fugitive from justice, but a seemingly calm one. Until, that is, she is cornered.

Beginning in an extremely memorable opening sequence, the film zooms in on Matsu riding a subway train like any other young woman when she gets spotted by a couple of policemen who decide to try and take her in. Whipping out her knife from under her coat, Matsu slashes away but is almost caught when one of the policeman handcuffs her. She reacts to this situation in a typically direct way by simply hacking the policeman’s arm off and running away with it.

Hiding out in a graveyard and gnawing at her macabre bracelet in an attempt to get it off, Matsu strikes up an improbable friendship with prostitute Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe). Yuki is harbouring a dark secret in that she keeps her brain damaged brother locked up in a back room where she is forced to satisfy his sexual urges lest he attack other women.

While working as a seamstress, Matsu becomes more and more involved with the underworld and its collection of pimps and madams, each eager to profit from the weakness and misfortune of others. Eventually, after becoming too much of a problem, Matsu is locked up again – but this time inside the birdcage of a dangerous and eccentric yakuza mama-san, Katsu (Reisen Lee), with the corpse of a less fortunate victim on the other side of the bars. New names are about to appear on Matsu’s ever growing grudge list as the wrongs done to others begin to outweigh the pain of those enacted on herself.

Beast Stable differs from the first two films in the series as it mostly takes place in the “free” world until it reenters the prison environment for the final stretch. Matsu may be out of jail but she’ll never be truly free and her intense inner rage might give her away if it weren’t for her the fact her face is plastered all over the city adorning wanted posters in every conceivable location. With no particular target for her vengeful spirit, Matsu is in survival mode but her growing alliance with Yuki and the cruelty of the underground sex industry quickly awaken her old fire.

This time the big bad is another woman – a cruel madam, willing to protect her investment to the max. When she finds out one of her girls has been hiding a pregnancy, she insists on an abortion even though the baby is six months or so along. Kicking and screaming, the pregnant woman is subjected to a horrific procedure conducted by a drunken doctor which is neatly contrasted with another abortion which is carried out with a much higher level of medical care. Needless to say, Matsu cannot let this one go and makes another of her daring and mysterious escapes to enact her revenge. As she leaves, she’s become a fury of vengeance once again – her face pixelated by the surgery window, shaving her of her identity.

Though more grounded in reality than Jailhouse 41, Beast Stable is still selling the ballad of Matsu as she continues her trajectory into legendary heroine status. Always playing a long game, Matsu has the uncanny ability to escape from any holding pen save the one that burns inside her mind. Having satisfied her personal desire for revenge, Matsu moves on to the cruelties of the wider world and those that bully and misuse already vulnerable people. Her sense of greater responsibility grows as her humanity begins to return through her friendship with Yuki which eventually becomes a deep alliance between two equally trapped women.

At the end of the film we’re told that Matsu served her prison sentence and was released, but no one knows what happened to her after that. Her apotheosis is complete as she becomes the legend – a wandering heroine, meeting out justice in a cruel and indifferent world. Kaji continues to excel in her performance of the near silent Matsu, burning with rage and resentment in every scene. Beast Stable would be Ito’s final contribution to the series and acts as a suitable conclusion to the trilogy as Matsu finally becomes Scorpion in our imaginations and, strangely, our hearts.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Shunya Ito, 1972)

scorpion-2Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Joshu Sasori – Dai 41 Zakkyobo) picks up around a year after the end of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and finds Matsu (Meiko Kaji) tied up in a dingy prison basement, apparently left bound and in solitary confinement for the entire interval. Once again directed by Shunya Ito, the second instalment in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series is another foray into the women in prison field but Ito resolutely refuses to give in to the exploitative genre norms, overlaying his tale of individualistic rebellion with an arthouse sensibility that has a much wider scope than its ordinary vengeance driven narrative may suggest.

Matsu may have been lying bound and gagged in a dingy underground hole for the best part of a year but today is a special day and sadistic prison warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) is going to let her out to be shown off in front of a visiting inspector who’s paying a final visit before Goda is promoted to a top job in Tokyo. When Matsu makes a lunge for Goda, the inspector is so afraid that he wets himself, sending the other woman into a frenzy and resulting in a riot. Once again the entirety of the prison is punished, but this time Matsu is singled out for a public punishment gang rape by Goda’s goons. This kind of humiliation is too much for her fellow prisoners who instantly turn on her, but their violence provides an opportunity for escape and before long Matsu is on the run, again.

At the end of the first film, Matsu had accomplished her first round of vengeance – against the man who orchestrated her downfall and the men who secured it, but ultimately she wound up a female prisoner once again. Though Goda may have had her hidden away because of her habitual escapism, Matsu had not given up as we see from her attempts to scrape the floor away with her spoon held tight in her mouth. Barely speaking, Matsu is an unstoppable column of pure rage but an elegant one, supported by her self contained restraint.

Her anger this time is directed towards Goda himself, especially after his despicable organised punishment rape that was designed both to break her own spirit once and for all and also to damage her in the eyes of her fellow inmates who are intended to see her defeated and destroyed. The guards are a stand in for society at large, using sexual dominance and social position to keep their women in line. The visiting prison inspector makes a point of telling Matsu that “they” don’t hate her personally – they’re there for her, to help her “recover” and become a functioning member of society. Which is ironic because Goda does hate her personally as he holds her responsible for the damage to his eye sustained in the previous film. His last act before moving on is one against Mastu – an attempt by the forces of authority to crush her individual rebellion and use their victory as a coercive tool to force others to conform.

In this way, Matsu’s position as a member of a subjugated class is less important than her status as an agitator but these are women who have each suffered at the hands of men. As an extremely theatrical sequence sung in the traditional form informs us, the women who escaped with Matsu committed their crimes out of love or jealousy. Poisoned rivals, dead lovers, even children murdered to get back at their philandering father in some Medea level psychotic rage which ruins the perpetrator even more than the intended victim.

Later while the women are enjoying their brief taste of freedom, one of them is brutally raped and murdered by a troupe of feral men who boast about the wartime atrocities they committed before descending on a lone woman like a pack of rabid dogs. The others take their revenge for their friend, but also for all the women who have met a similar fate inflicted by a male dominated society which sees them as something to be controlled and then made use of, little more that cattle hemmed in and milked until dry.

As in the first film Ito makes use of expressionist techniques and strange angles to give his film a more elevated feeling that might be expected but this time he adds in a surrealist, spiritual dimension as with the old woman who sings the stories of our heroines and then dies only to bury herself in leaves and disappear into the ether, like some forgotten deity of misused women. Likewise, when one of the prisoners is raped and murdered, the men throw her body into a nearby river like an empty beer can but the waterfall behind her suddenly runs with blood as an expression of the violence which pollutes the natural world. A bus suddenly splits in two, separating our subjugated women from the violent men who mentally sentence them, given free reign simply because of their sex. Ironically enough, our last glimpse of of Matsu takes place in the reflection of Goda’s glasses and then in his false eye when she is suddenly rejoined by her compatriots for a triumphant dance of freedom on a city rooftop.

Even stronger than in the original Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion, Jailhouse 41 further advances its ideology of free individuals battling the conformist authority of the state all filtered through the prism of the patriarchy. Matsu’s vengeance is personal, she keeps her distance from the other women who do not seem inclined to band together to oppose the forces which oppress them so much as seek a wary, temporary alliance of necessity, but seeing them all reassembled in spirit at the end brings a larger dimension to Matsu’s victory which now seems much less like solving a practical problem than a deliberate strike at a wall which was solely designed to keep a certain group of people in their place. The jail is broken, all that remains is to choose to escape its restraints.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW/gore)

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (女囚701号/さそり, Shunya Ito, 1972)

scorpion-701Meiko 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)