“Flowing , a woman’s tears pour out/
Softly floating on the river./
The river overflows/
Overflowing to the shore/
Drowning all the men.”
After the commercial success of the first movie, it was obvious Japanese production company Toei wanted a sequel to the “Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion”, a movie which not only manifested leading actress Meiko Kaji’s but also director Ito’s reputation among the Japanese film industry as well as audiences. The success was also proof Kaji’s and Ito’s approach to the role of Nami Matsushima nicknamed “Sasori” (scorpion) had been the right direction playing her in almost complete silence with only Kaji’s eyes doing most of the talking, a movie which would make the character iconic beyond the borders of Japan.
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For Kaji, who was 25 at the time the second movie was filmed, the sequel was a blessing as well as a curse. Even though it opened doors for her in her career with the offer of starring in Toshiya Fujita’s “Lady Snowblood”, being suggested to her playing Sasori again also meant a considerable physical challenge as the first movie saw her, and the other actresses, being sprayed by hoses, lying in wet, damp cells and most of that while only dressed in a relatively thin prison overall. Eventually, as each of the following films demanded the same kind of commitment Kaji explains to interviewer Chris D., she had to give up the role as it was less about her skill as an actor but rather about “physical endurance”.
“Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41” is set one year after the events of the first film. Much like its predecessor, it is an exaggerated, at times provocative statement about post war Japan, its patriarchal society and its treatment of women. To extend on the last film, it also shows the results of the system, how it has changed people into being perfect representatives of it, who would do anything, whether willingly or subconsciously, to defend it.
Nami Matsushima (Kaji) has been imprisoned in solitary confinement for one year, far away from the other prisoners so as not to disturb the sadist routine of Warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) and his crew of loyal, equally cruel male guards. However, after an exhausting work assignment and Nami being raped by several masked guards, she manages to escape along with six other prisoners.
While the seven women make their way from town to town with plans of either taking revenge on the world outside which has wronged them or of re-entering the social and family life they left behind, Goda leads the search party for them, convinced the only way of properly dealing with Matsushima and the Sasori-cries of the other prisoners is to kill her once and for all.
There is a seamless transition between the male figures one has seen in this film’s predecessor to its sequel. Perhaps Ito’s film only shows a more extended variety, ranging from cruel prison guards to crying mama’s boys who start whining the moment their violent actions have consequences for them. Again, the prison setting might be regarded as a microcosm of a patriarchal system in which the female prisoners are the mere logical conclusion of constant oppression, leaving them the options of either complying or resisting, the latter also resulting in desperate, violent acts.
Within the dialogues of the escaping prisoners, the theme of the beast becomes a pressing matter for all of them. As their time in prison and their crimes against society are shown and discussed, the question remains whether these women will ever find peace, especially considering the measures of control the system has at its disposal. Additionally, there is the subject of change, as the women find a piece of mirror which they pass around. The leader of the group, a woman named Hide Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi) who has killed her unfaithful husband and her three children, is appalled as she sees her reflection breaking the mirror in pieces. In an earlier scene, she tells Matsushima not to stare at her since she knows about her status as a “beast”, someone whose crimes have turned her into a savage.
It seems as if Ito’s movie tries to draw a parallel between the female’s actions and the actions of the males in the film. Without excusing either one’s actions, the exaggerated, at times gut-wrenching violence seems to be a reflection, a mirror-event, logical within the context of this system as portrayed in the film.
As someone who is between each of these groups, Matsushima is the ultimate angel of revenge, not blind as the others, but focused and determined, thus more dangerous than any of them. In a scene echoing her rape scene from the first film, she experiences an epiphany when comforting an old, dying woman, realizing her fate is one of many. As she picks up the knife, the long, black hair moving in the wind making completing the image of the Medusa, the slicing of the air becomes a move filled with finality, a decisive moment, a final stroke defining her from this system. Since the system can produce nothing but violence, rape and betrayal, the scorpion is best to deliver the final blow.
“Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41” is a film much darker and nihilistic than its predecessor. By showing the extent of the system introduced in the first film, the view is much bleaker, thus resulting in a much darker color palette and framing of each scene by cinematographer Masao Shimizu, the only person from the crew who was new to the series. While still faithful to its exploitation-roots, the end result follows the experimental, arthouse-core of the last film, at times taking its inspiration from Japanese theater, for example in the scene in which the six female prisoners and their crimes are introduced. Nevertheless, despite all its bleakness, it has perhaps one of the most hopeful final scenes of the series.
“Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41” is a story about the decay of the patriarchal order, an exaggerated image of the male-centered world and what kind of citizens it produces. With another brilliant performance by Meiko Kaji, a great direction by Shunya Ito and excellent visuals, this is the entry in the series which every cinephile should watch, one which breaks the bounds between exploitation and arthouse, a feast for the eyes and for the ears, especially considering its audio design and the two songs by Meiko Kaji which are part of the score.
Stephens, Chuck (2016) Vengeance is Hers.
Chris D. (1997) Grudge Song: An interview with Meiko Kaji