The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-Ray Review - FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION

New hi-def boxset of the cult Meiko Kaji actioners.






Review by Jason Abbey (@abbeyjason)

Directed by: Shunya Ito, Yasharu Hasebe

Starring: Meiko Kaji



Anyone with an interest in Asian exploitation cinema simply must own this box set; the restorations are impressive, highlighting the expressive colour palette of Ito and the gritty street level action of Hasebe.


A career defining role for Meiko Kaji and also a long held favourite for those who watched dodgy blurred VHS copies of the finest Japanese sleaze in the '80s, the Female Prisoner Scorpion box set arrives in a spruced up 2K edition that highlights both the visual mastery and directorial idiosyncrasies of director Shunya Ito but reveals hitherto delights that also somehow denude it of its down and dirty reputation.

The prison drama has always held an interest to fine minded directors, the hothouse environment serving as a microcosm for political oppression, religious transcendence and your tolerance for eating hard boiled eggs. Its distaff cousin however has always had a face in the dirt and a nose in your knickers sensibility. Here a woman’s role is to be used, abused and objectified in a hothouse atmosphere of lesbian passion, rape and the kind of ogling that was a staple of '70s TV viewing.



Ito doesn’t avoid these murkier moral waters but instead embraces the sleaze and rubs the viewers face in it. He may be having his cake and eating it, but with the laconic to the point of mute Meiko Kaji as Nami - the ‘Scorpion’ of the title, who less holds the screen and more chokes the life out of it and stomps on the twitching corpse - he just about gets away with it. It might have the requisite nudity that was expected by Japanese audiences for this fare but it also puts front and centre the female characters, while the males are in general, cowardly dastards, sweaty, corpulent and so sexually repulsive that any viewer on the side of the wardens may need to seek help.

Female Prisoner #701 (****) sets the template for the series. Opening with a prison break and a subtle stab at the authoritarian bombast, we are introduced to Nami mid break. It is only in flashback that we find that Nami, in a bravura sequence, has been duped by her detective boyfriend into infiltrating a Yakuza gang that leaves her raped, beaten and betrayed as she discovers he is in the pocket of the mob. Making the most of limited resources, Ito stages the flashbacks as live theatre, with revolving sets and inventive camera angles and lighting. The artificial and inventive staging is simply breath-taking and transcends the genre. Imprisoned for attempting revenge, we see Nami sharpened and brutalised by the system and the inmates until she becomes The Scorpion, a piercing eyes, wordless avatar of vengeance.

It may well be familiar stuff, but it's enacted with brio, wit and a whole heap of style. A naked shower fight transforms into kabuki theatre, turning what could have been a standard cat fight into something strange and thrilling.



Prisoner #701 uses the generic storyline to marvellous visual effect, but Jailhouse 41 (*****) is by far the best entry in the series. Taking the gang out on the road after a prison break, it feels looser, weirder and just a little more perverse, whether it is introducing the back story of the escapees, using traditional Japanese song or hellish visual landscapes (the detritus from a closed mine and a rubbish dump that was real, so in all probability not a lot of laughs to film in). Here the themes of female abuse are front and centre. All of those involved in the break are there to a greater or lesser extent because of their partners’ actions. Even ostensible nutcase and villain of the group Oba (Kayoko Shirashi) is allowed some redemption, even if she has murdered her children. This time the male guards are given a run for their money in the repulsive stakes when a rowdy group of tourists who when not sexually assaulting the tour guard and regaling each other with tales of rape during war time, force themselves on one of the convicts, repeatedly raping her before disposing of her in a way both disturbing and visually beautiful. That said rape is played in a somewhat disturbingly comical register makes for uncomfortable viewing. More stylish and with what looks an elevated budget this feels somewhat less oppressive but sadder, more viscous and thoughtful. It is something of a minor classic and is a showcase in energetic storytelling and visual economy.

Ito’s final film in the Scorpion series, the evocatively titled Beast Stable (***), attempts to go in a more gothic horror tinged direction but feels a lesser work. Outside of prison and on the run with the world's sharpest pen knife after hacking off the limb of Detective Kondo (Mikio Narita), to escape arrest Nami takes refuge with a freelance prostitute who has an incestuous relationship with her mentally disabled brother (a sub plot that highlights the perseverance and sacrifice of the female characters, which goes nowhere and is insulting to those with disabilities).

Changing focus from the previous entries, this focuses more on a three-way face-off between a vicious brothel Madame who was once a fellow prisoner with Nami and the dogged attempts of Kondo to catch his quarry. Ito uses old gothic horror imagery and tropes such as the Scorpion hiding in the sewers like the Phantom of the Opera waiting to strike to distinguish this from previous entries. The acting goes a little broad in this entry, which is of a piece with the visuals, but there are some stand out moments like the murder of an abortionist that sprays the clinical operating theatre like a Jackson Pollock. It feels like a swansong with most of the major elements wrapped up. It is a satisfying work but doesn’t have the lean flights of fancy that made the second Scorpion entry such a stand out.



Ito left the series at this point to be replaced by Yasharu Hasebe, whose sensibilities are less baroque but grittier and streetwise. Kaji returned one last time for the unnecessary but serviceable final entry in the series, Grudge Song (***), a melancholy film that eschews the 'sisters are doing it for themselves naked' stylings of Ito’s work for something more sombre. There is even a putative romance between Nami and Kudo (Masakuzu Tamura) a one-time political activist turned sex club worker who once had a run in with Hirose (Hiroshi Tsukata) that has left him with boiled prawn balls.

There is less fun to be had and both Nami and Kudo are involved in an accidental death that leads to both betrayal and potential execution. If Nami being involved in a blossoming romance seems a betrayal of the character, it is key to her development, even if it changes her from an avatar of vengeance into a more ambivalent and potentially unsympathetic character.

Anyone with an interest in Asian exploitation cinema simply must own this box set; the restorations are impressive, highlighting the expressive colour palette of Ito and the gritty street level action of Hasebe.



Extras:

The boxset is comprehensive, containing a booklet written by Tom Mes featuring interviews with Meiko Kaji and Toru Shinohara, creator of the manga series the films are based on.

Gareth Evans provides an appreciation and an insight into his cinematic upbringing, critics Kier La-Janisse and Kat Ellinger provide an interesting feminist perspective that acts as a counterweight to the lascivious nature of the films themselves, while highlighting how Scorpion is a feminist icon in a work with troubling areas of misogyny.

Add to the mix newly edited archive interviews with both directors, an interesting visual essay from Tom Mes, two career overviews from Jasper Sharp and not forgetting Tadayuki Kuwana the production designer. All help to contextualise the political atmosphere of the times and the working practices of Toei studios.

Everything you could hope for from a Blu-Ray package, although nothing in the extras will help remove the theme tune from your head.

Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection is available on blu-ray from Arrow Video now.


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