Today’s B.L.O.G. (Beautiful Lady of Genre, if you’ve forgotten.) is one of the best actresses in the realm of Asian exploitation cinema. In the late 60’s she got her start in martial arts and crime pictures before landing the lead role in Nikkatsu studios in the film Female Juvenile Delinquent Leader: Stray Cat Rock (1970). She would go on to make four more pictures in that series. Then, as Nikkatsu began to make more harder edged Pink Film, she moved to Toei studios where she made tonight’s film, and it’s three sequels. If you know who I’m talking about then you know what a treat tonight’s film is, and if you don’t know then let me introduce you to…
That’s right Meiko Kaji. She’s already a Lair favorite from when she knocked the Bug’s socks off with her hard edge turn as a woman of unstoppable vengeance in Lady Snowblood (1973).However, tonight we’re looking at another of her other iconic characters.
This is a flick that features art house lightning and directing, even though it’s a women in prison movie. It goes deep with camera angles, mobile sets, and symbolism, but it also pays off with sex, violence, and torture, the WIP mainstays. So it is my great honor to bring to you Meiko Kaji and her film…
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) starring Meiko Kaji, Rie Yokoyama, Fumio Wantanabe, and Isao Natsuyagi. Directed by Shunya Ito.
During a ceremony where the Warden (Wantanabe) is to receive a commendation for his jail, Nami Matsushima (Kaji), known as Matsu to her fellow inmates, tries to make a break for it. She is captured, and having raised the ire of the Warden she is thrown into solitary confinement. While confined she is tortured by the matron who brings her food, and she has time to recall what ended her up here.
She was madly in love with Sugimi (Natsuyagi), a cop out to take down the local Yakuza gangs. In fact she loves him so much, she agrees to be bait in a sting operation. Little did she know that Sugimi had been bought out by the gangs, and he leaves her out to dry. Matsu stalks her former lover and tries to murder him with a butcher knife, but she is stopped and hauled off to the prison.
Finally regaining a modicum of freedom and returning to general population, Matsu finds herself extremely unpopular with the other ladies. It seems the Warden is coming down hard on all of them for Matsu’s infraction. Especially full of hatred for Matsu, Katagiri (Yokoyama) is contracted by Sugimi to finish off his former flame before she can escape and get to him. When a prison riot provides perfect cover, Katagiri makes her move, but can she kill Matsu or will Sugimi feel the sting of the scorpion.
–The movie is based on a popular manga series.
–The character of Matsu was originally written as a profanity spewing brat, but the part was rewritten at Kaji’s request to portray the character as more hard boiled.
–Meiko Kaji sang the title song to this film, “Grudge Song” just as she performed the theme to her film Lady Snowblood.
–This was director Shunya Ito’s first film. He continued with the series for two more films.
The Bug Speaks
This is the type of film that is going to make you take notice. It may be the story, the look, the nudity, the violence, or just the kick ass hat that Kaji dons by the film’s end. Whatever the reason for it, there is no denying that there are quite few films which work on so many levels.The film owes much to the stereotype of a women in prison film. It reads like a checklist. A wicked warden, lesbian sex, prison riot, and torture while in solitary are all classic themes we’ve seen in movies from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975), Caged Heat (1974), and The Big Bird Cage (1972). Where this film deviates from the form of those films is with it depth.
The most obvious thing to mention is the look of the film. First time director Ito and cinematographer Hanjiro Nakazawa gave this film a very distinct and dreamlike quality. Many of the shots come from some very interesting angles, and their play with multicolored lights reminded me very much of Bava. The film still maintains a gritty look that seemed similar to what I saw in Girl Boss Gorilla. The balance of the two gives the film a grounding in reality where rooms with spinning walls, men in random kabuki masks, or gouging someone in the eye with broken glass (and they shake it off) seem as normal as can be.
The atmosphere of the film grants it a pass to do far out things, and the simplicity of the script’s familiar story really gives it wings. You already know where the film is headed before you watch it. Yet the dynamics of the film and the visual style are so impressive, that it ceases to matter.
None of these feats could have been accomplished without Miko Kaji as Matsu. I was reading an article on this film, and the author described Kaji as having a singular look in the film. This is entirely true. From the moment we meet Matsu, she is the vision of strength, power and feminine rage, and honestly can you blame her? Except for in the flashback we never get much of a look at Kaji without seeing her with flames in her eyes. This performance gave the film a constant which the dramatic and visual variables could orbit around. Kaji becomes the center of the movie by acting like the Sun. She is a molten, fiery, hot mass at the center of this film, and everything else in it is just stuck in her orbit.
There are several other fine performances in the film. I especially liked Yokoyama as the scheming prison rival and Wantanabe as the warden. So I don’t want to take anything away from them, but there is good reason that Miko Kaji was able to be the grounding force behind three successful franchise characters. Your eye is drawn to her for her beauty,her steely toughness, and in the final few moments of the movie, for her kick ass outfit.
If you haven’t seen this film and you’re a fan of either Women in Prison or Asian cinema, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. I think you’ll find yourself hooked from the moment you start watching it…. or should I say stung?