Saturday, June 5, 2010


First-time director Shunya Ito has something to say about Japan in this Toei Studio manga adaptation, and it isn't nice. The movie opens with the raising of the peacetime red sun-on-white field flag over a prison, and that symbol is later equated with the blood shed in a woman's deflowering. The specific woman is Nami Matsushima, Matsu for short -- prisoner 701. She loved a narcotics cop. He used her as bait to entrap drug dealers. The dealers found her out and gang-raped her. The cop caught them red-handed. He then cut a deal with them; that's what he planned to do all along. Matsu was just the bait to give him some leverage over them. They don't mind the scam as long as "co-prosperity" results. Even Matsu gets some money, but it's poor compensation for her betrayal. She's in prison because she tried to kill the cop in broad daylight. She knows too much, but never told it to the authorities. That leaves the gangsters wondering, but no one orders a hit on her in prison. Maybe that's because this particular prison is a living death, if not a living hell, where Matsu is tormented by the trustees and harassed by the guards while she perpetually plots to escape.

Behold the widescreen awesomeness of Meiko Kaji as Female Prisoner 701, the metaphorical Betsy Ross of Japan.

Toei in the 1970s was the home (more or less) of Kinji Fukasaku, Bunta Sugawara and Sonny Chiba, the studio of gritty yakuza films and gory martial arts that I often equate with Warner Bros. in the 1930s. For me, this Toei outing is a flagrant change of pace. Grit and gore it's got, but Shunya Ito takes the proceedings to another level of feverish expressionism. He does stuff with color, lighting and set design that may suit this story's cartoonish origins but send the film reeling merrily out of the realm of realism. A location sequence of prisoners digging a massive crater into the earth is transformed by a gunshot into a setbound showcase of riotous red-painted sky. Matsu's backstory flashback features an erotic unwrapping arguably inspired by Singin' in the Rain, the flag/blood business I mentioned, a gang-rape filmed from below through a transparent floor, and rotating sets like something else out of a Hollywood musical. Matsu's trustee enemy Masaki, enraged by having a glass door pane slammed in her face, is transformed by lighting into something like a demon of rage until -- oops, she misses her target and puts the warden's eye out with a shard of glass. He's too annoyed to suffer and strangles her instead.

Ito's experiments in style are eclipsed in many viewers' minds by the human special effect that is Meiko Kaji. She's part of the Seventies pantheon of valkyries -- joining Pam Grier, Claudia Jennings, Angela Mao, Christa Lindberg, etc., who still set the cinematic standard of violent female empowerment. Kaji could wield a sword (in the Lady Snowblood films), a gun or whatever came to hand for killing or torturing purposes. In this one, she's hogtied in solitary and a trustee is torturing her by ladling hot miso soup on her body. How can she fight back. By catching an edge of a towel in her teeth and pulling it out from under the trustee so she spills the entire pot of boiling broth on herself, that's how. Matsu's resourceful that way, and once she's finally free the men who tormented her don't stand a chance. As her "Vengeance Song" plays she picks them off one by one, with only her once-beloved corrupt cop putting up much of a fight. As Matsu (aka Scorpion) Kaji's best known for her taciturnity. Apart from her narration of the flashback, she probably has less than a dozen lines of dialogue in the whole picture, and one of those is "You talk too much."

Meanwhile, this is the sort of women-in-prison film your parents warned you about. Every possible excuse for nudity is exploited, including a credits-sequence inspection that requires naked prisoners to climb ladders and cross bridges while male guards watch from below, presumably to watch for vaginally-concealed contraband but with obvious ulterior motives. Lesbianism is inevitable, with Matsu being the top of the tops. One hopefully intentional comic sequence has another prisoner attempt to seduce her. Our heroine quickly takes charge and proves herself no cool-hand Luka. The would-be seducer is soon groveling at her feet begging for more -- and she's later revealed to be an undercover cop who insists desperately on getting another chance to share a cell with 701.

I can fault some things about FP701 -- particularly the uniformly inept action whenever someone has to slap or punch anyone else, with most performers missing by a mile despite the sound effects, -- but it has an undeniable momentum, the kind that keeps you wondering what Ito's going to do next. It's ultimately just a nasty cartoon with a misanthropic streak, but it's perpetrated with grisly panache by all hands. It's worth watching as an exercise in pop-cinema decadence that few would dare imitate today.

This version of the English-subtitled trailer was uploaded to YouTube by asianwack.

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Here's a bonus. Following the custom of the time in Japanese cinema, Meiko Kaji sang the title song, "Urami Bushi," translated as "Vengeance Song" or "Grudge Blues." The original version plays over the end credits of the Kill Bill films. In this clip from sometime shortly after that film's release, Kaji performed the song in public for the first time in 20 years. It was uploaded by kukutxmuchu.


venoms5 said...

Awesome review, Sam! The second movie JAILHOUSE 41 is the most wild in terms of surrealism and artistic merit.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, I found this one at a closeout sale for a video chain store. It leaves me kicking myself that I didn't get the fairly inexpensive 3-film box set of Scorpion movies when it was readily available.

venoms5 said...

JAILHOUSE 41 isn't in that set. Licensing I assume is the reason Media Blasters were unable to obtain that one, but it's my favorite of the series although the first and third entries are no slouches themselves. There's an Image DVD for it as well as a British disc (which utilizes the same print with burned in subs). The Japanese disc is immaculate from my understanding.

The fourth with Kaji is mostly average and the least of the ones featuring her as the star. There are others as well as some direct to video entries from the 90's were are totally forgettable.