“Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.”
– “The Mourning Bride” by William Congreve (Act III Scene 2) (1697)
Revenge films are a sub-genre that dances along the edge of horror, but they can often be found diving fully into horror as well. Another sub-genre that is also known to do just that are the “women in prison” exploitation films. The film series I am going to discuss this time around brings all these together in Female Prisoner Scorpion franchise out of Japan.
The four films series from Toei Company ran from 1972 to 1973 with Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972), Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1972), and Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song (1973). Actress Meiko Kaji played the lead role of Nami “Scorpion” Matsushima in all four films with Shunya Ito directing the first three and Yasuharu Hasebe directing the fourth. Based on the manga Scorpion by Toru Shinohara, the stories center around Nami who was wronged in the worst ways by her boyfriend, Sugimi, a corrupt narcotics detective. Set up and abused, Nami attempts to kill Sugimi in front of police headquarters and earns her trip to prison.
In Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, Nami is subjected to brutal abuse from both the guards and her fellow inmates. But never does she break, because Nami is a bad ass, filled with rage and driven by vengeance. Fueled by this rage and through clever manipulations of her tormentors, things get bloody and gruesome, with many of those said tormentors meeting a nasty end. Outside of the “standard” tortures that Nami is put through, the set piece punishment in this installment was the digging and refilling and redigging of an exceptionally large hole in the prison yard. Events evolving from this led to a riot and escape, allowing Nami to finish her acts of vengeance.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 opens to Nami having been returned to prison and bound up in solitary confinement. But she can still move her head, and she has been holding a spoon in her mouth and grinding it down on the concrete floor to make a shank! Told you she’s a bad ass. The prison riot kicks off early in this one, permitting a larger group to escape and going on the run during a transfer. This one dips into the spiritual and metaphysical a bit when the group of escapees comes across the hut of an old woman who essentially foretells what crimes they committed and how each will meet their end . . . except for Nami. There is still vengeance to be meted out as the warden from the first film survived and continues to torture and torment Nami whenever and however he can. As the road trip continues, it literally gets on the road with the hijacking of a tourist bus that leads to a standoff with the police. The ending takes a bit of a surreal twist, but it works.
Now third film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, goes off in an odd but effective direction and adds in a bit of gothic horror and supernatural happenings. Yet again, Nami has escaped custody and is on the run. The first person to spot her is a prostitute in a cemetery . . . where Nami is trying to chew through the severed hand of the police detective that is still cuffed to her wrist. And that’s not even the most cringeworthy moment in this one! I don’t want to say much more than that, because I feel this is one you just need to jump into and go with. Just be prepared for the occasional head scratching and the “WTF?!?” reactions now and then.
The final film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song, ended up being the weakest of the films for me, and I can chalk it up to a few reasons. The first being that while on the run (again!), Nami is found and aided by Kudo, a former student revolutionary who was tortured and maimed by the police. More than a third of the film focuses on him instead of on Nami, and it’s suppose to be her film. The second reason is the change in directors. Shunya Ito had a style in the first film that bordered on giallo to me, with his use of creative sets, bolded lighting, and quirky editing tricks. In each of the three films he directed, there was something technique-wise that caught my attention. Outside of one or two slightly trippy scenes in Grudge Song, Yasuharu Hasebe’s direction didn’t really do much for me. And a third thing! Even though Meiko Kaji could convey so much with a look that it allowed for keeping her dialogue to a minimum in the first three films, she had maybe four or five lines in the entirety of Grudge Song, and even those were used as internal monologue instead being spoken out loud.
Overall, it’s not a bad series of film if these are genres you like watching. If you are a fan of Japanese martial arts cinema of the early 1970s, you might recognize Meiko Kaji’s name from the legendary role she would go on to play shortly after this: Lady Snowblood. Like the theme from Lady Snowblood, theme song of this series will stick with you, too.
So, if my musings have piqued your interest, all four films are currently streaming on Shudder. What better way to pass the time in lock down than watching someone else in lock down?