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)

Stray Cat Rock Collection (Uk-anime.net Review)

Stray Cat Rock Wild Measures '71 castReview of the new high definition Stray Cat Rock box set up at uk-anime.net

The late ‘60s/early ‘70s was a fascinating time in terms of Japanese popular culture and cinema was certainly no exception. With studios becoming desperately worried by the rising popularity of television and a troubled political situation, they knew they’d have to find someway to bring back that all important youth audience. Ultimately, they resorted to the time old solutions of sex and violence to try and lure the increasingly disinterested viewers back to the cinemas. In the end, Nikkatsu would end up becoming a purveyor of soft core pornography as its Roman Porno line all but dominated its production. The films from this era represent a kind of bridge between the youth orientated “Sun Tribe” films of the ‘50s and the full on exploitation films of the ‘70s. There’s no denying that in many ways they are very much of their time, which is generally a good thing, but the Stray Cat Rock films are an essential snap shot of a moment of counter culture shift.

This new blu-ray box set from Arrow films includes all five films in the Stray Cat Rock Series: Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal and Beat ’71. Perhaps “series” is a misleading way to describe the films as they’re really more of a “cycle”. There is no plot through line, each film stands independently with its own distinct story which appears to have no obvious connection with any of the other films in the series save sharing a certain sensibility (though even this shifts slightly as the films go on). The same actors reappear in several of the films, notably Meiko Kaji who is most closely associated with the franchise and Tatsuya Fuji who appears in every film, but even the actors who appear frequently are playing different (though often oddly similar) characters. What links the films together is their focus on what some might see as ‘low’ youth culture – bars, clubs, motorcycle gangs, drugs, drink and sex! What’s being sold, essentially, is a subversion of femininity – strong women who do not require the assistance of men but even take on male roles themselves such as forming or running violent street gangs.

The first film the series, Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss was intended as a vehicle for leading lady Akiko Wada and as a rival to Toei’s Delinquent Boss series. However, it was Meiko Kaji who became the breakout star of the film and a number of sequels featuring her were quickly put into production. The first film tells a fairly typical story of gangland warfare, albeit that it’s girl gangs, but the second, Wild Jumbo, takes a detour by telling a somewhat tragic tale of a group of students who plan to rob a mysterious cult – with tragic consequences! The third in the cycle, Sex Hunter, is the best known, perhaps because of its more complicated plot and engagement with racial politics. Apeing a western, a mixed race young man comes to town looking for his long lost sister and wanders straight into the gang war between Kaji’s female gang the “Alleycats” and the male “Eagles” lead by Fuji who has a prejudice against people of mixed race as his younger sister was gang raped by a mixed race gang. After this instalment the heavy sex and violence themes begin to fizzle out slightly and the fourth film, Machine Animal, is the most political of the Stray Cat Rock films as it follows a group of guys trying to dodge the draft for the Vietnam war planning to fund their onward journey to Sweden by selling LSD. The fifth and final film, Beat ’71 takes this even further and replaces the ‘gang’ motif entirely with a story set around a hippy commune.

Always fairly liberal in tone (even if the characters meet a ‘bad’ end, the series feels more aspirational than morally critical), the Stray Cat Rock films present a world of hedonistic, counter cultural youth. They’re full of the popular music of the time with long ‘live’ music sessions set inside the clubs, sometimes even prominently featuring popular bands and the theme song for Machine Animal “Gamble on Tomorrow” is even sung by Kaji herself. The earlier films are also filled with psychedelic imagery and interesting directorial touches like unusual split screens, blue screen cut outs, brightly coloured title cards, dissolves and freeze frames. However, Machine Animal marks quite a big change from the three previous films as the gang themes start to take more of a back seat to the politics and by Beat ’71, the tone of which is much more whimsical, they are pretty much absent. Films one, three, and four were directed by Yasuharu Hasebe while two and five where direct by Toshiya Fujita (Lady Snowblood) and there are some pretty clear directorial differences with Hasebe’s films being slightly more avant-garde and adventurous in terms of shooting style while Fujita’s are a little more classical. However, there might be something in the statement made by Hasebe in the interview included on this disc that by the end the pop culture tone had shifted from violence to beauty – the more salacious content, and in particular the sexualised violence, reaches its peak in Sex Hunter and decreases as the films go on.

All five films were made extremely quickly and released between 1970 and 1971 – that’s five films made and released in under two years! Though the creative team may have envisioned them as low budget, fairly disposable cash grabs designed to give a much needed boost to a declining industry, the Stray Cat Rock films have gone on to have cult appeal which still has its devotees all these years later. Hugely enjoyable in their own right, the films are an interesting window into a relatively small period time which nevertheless saw fairly massive changes taking place. Though they anticipate the trend of salacious exploitation that was to come, they stop short of some its excesses but were also to prove hugely influential in the history of ‘70s Japanese cinema.