Film chosen and introduced by Devlin – listen to this episode now on your favourite podcast platform.
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MEIKO KAJI’S GRUDGE SONG: The Female Prisoner Scorpion Series
It’s not a matter of if looks could kill.
When Meiko Kaji’s Nami Matsushima, Prisoner #701, unleashes her wild-eyed, over-shoulder stare, usually having been thrown to the ground by some miserable agent of misogynist authority, physically subdued but radiating single-minded, determinedly violent defiance, it’s a near-certainty that the character on the receiving end of this will end up choked, slashed, or impaled in retribution. What fascinates most is that these death stares are often directed right down the lens – right at us. From the very first film in the series, debuting director Shunya Itō harnesses some of the visual and narrative tools of the pinku genre that were still coalescing to create films that worked both as satisfying, inventive exploitation fare, and bloody-minded critique of their contemporaries, industry, and audience. The boundaries of the pinku genre are malleable, and worthy of a lot more nuanced study – the Scorpion films likely sit without those boundaries, given that their primary focus is not as concerned with sexuality as it is with vengeance and violence, but in the series’ first film, at least, the expected female nudity and lurid content are very much present. Yet, it feels like any leering viewer seeking sordid thrills is being implicated in the subjugation of a woman who refuses to be a victim, and those thrills are thrust into the audience’s cornea like a shard of blood-stained glass. Just how did films this extreme, this politically volatile, emerge from what some of us foreign viewers might think of as a potentially staid, conservative Japanese movie studio system?
The Scorpion series begins in 1972. During the late 1960s, Japan’s post-war movie industry was going through a period of crisis even deeper than that which was playing out across the Pacific Ocean in Hollywood. Much like the collapse of the American studio system, the major Japanese studios’ products were haemorrhaging audiences. The leading lights of the industry were fading away – the great Yasujirō Ozu had passed away in 1963. Akira Kurosawa’s run of classics alongside his muse Toshiro Mifune ended in an unhealable rift with Red Beard (赤ひげ) in 1965; his follow up Dodes’ka-den (どですかでん) in 1970 left him financially imperilled and despondent enough to attempt suicide. His career would not recover for a decade, when the bright young things of the New Hollywood generation like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who benefitted from the opportunities afforded by the vacuum left by the fading away of Kurosawa’s American contemporaries/inspirations like John Ford and Howard Hawks, stepped in with funding that afforded him a more fitting conclusion to his pioneering career. In California, the ailing studios found that they had no choice but to hand the keys of the kingdom to the so-called ‘Movie Brats’, a group of often interconnected, mostly film school-educated, technically adept young firebrands who spent a decade-plus turning out an era-defining string of personal, ambitious films that often demonstrated the creators’ vast depths of knowledge of world cinema – they were rewarded handsomely enough that several of them went on to reinvest their vast new fortunes in preserving and reintroducing their idols’ work to their young generation of viewers (hence Lucas and Coppola’s involvement with 1980’s Kagemusha (影武者), Kurosawa’s great comeback picture). By the dawn of the 1980s, they were, in many ways, the new establishment – a changing of the guard had taken place, and that decade saw a period of dominance for big budget, audience-pleasing fare ushered in by Lucas’ Star Wars and his friend and frequent collaborator Steven Spielberg’s adventure-filled output. The American studio cinema’s indulgence of artistic individuality that the 1970s embodied simply couldn’t sustain against this explosion of more reliable, focus-group-driven profitability, but for a few years at least, cinephiles ruled the kingdom, and edgy and adult-oriented content briefly captured the zeitgeist.
In Japan, the studios did not follow this same method in their attempts to return to financial viability, exactly, although there are plenty of parallels. Whereas American mainstream cinema in the late 1960s and early 1970s made way for the new generation to step into prominent positions, in many cases having their films dominate the release schedules over more traditional, executive-driven products, the great Japanese studios vacillated on the decision, continuing to stuff the cinemas with disaster movies, war epics, historical dramas and broad comedies, created from within the rigid confines of the hierarchical structures of the grand studios like Toho and Shochiku, while TV continued to chip away at their viewership. But in the margins, a number of independent producers realised that TV was limited by regulations regarding ‘adult’ content, and, much like maverick filmmakers in the States, set about testing the limits of acceptability with increasingly racy content to offer potential punters something they couldn’t see at home – just as troublemakers like Russ Meyer were doing. However, the ailing studios in Japan seemed more receptive to the idea of getting down and dirty with these so-called undesirable pictures than their American counterparts, who were slower to adopt nudity and sexual content without first giving it a veneer of artistic validation. The Paramount Decision that fractured the Hollywood studios’ near-total dominance of the entire pipeline from inception to theatre ownership left gaps in the market for the independents to make a meaningful impact had no such parallel in Japan. The major studios still retained a fierce grip on the full vertically integrated process, which meant that they had to produce an enormous amount of product to restock their wholly-owned cinema chains to retain audience attention. Where American cinema had always had somewhat of a mixture of studios and enterprising independents – including alternative methods of distribution like drive-in theatres that were a viable outlet for independent movies, especially the kinds of exploitation and genre fare that we are focussed on here – Japan’s ‘prestige’ studios would have to put their seal on the kinds of films that would be a stretch to imagine a Hollywood major agreeing to, and with such a bloated production slate, maverick creatives were often given an awful lot of leeway.
In 1971, Japan’s oldest studio, Nikkatsu, who had achieved great success from the mid-50s through to the late-60s by attracting major emerging talents like Shōhei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki, announced that they would open something dubbed the “Roman Porno” (日活ロマンポルノ- derived from the Latin ‘Roman’, like novel, rather than ‘romantic’) division, at the expense of their prior focus on energetic action movies. Directors would be given huge amounts of freedom of expression, provided they produced one nude or sex scene in every reel (without falling foul of the censors’ very specific rules regarding what forms of nudity and sex were allowed to be shown) in films which could roam freely across genre lines, and allow young directors who had been overshadowed by their senior colleagues a chance to direct full features that would actually be released widely. It gave outlet to frustrated talents like Chūsei Sone, and in the coming decade or two proved to be a crucial training ground for directors like future Japanese Academy Award winner Masayuki Suo and one of his generation’s finest talents, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It was merely the codification of a trend which had been brewing for a few years – Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh (肉体の門), a dark post-war drama about prostitution, was the first major studio Japanese film to contain nudity in 1964, breaking this taboo in the mainstream, while a former Nikkatsu director named Kōji Wakamatsu formed a self-titled independent studio the following year which pioneered a very politically charged version of the genre that came to be dubbed pinku, or Pink Film (presumably to denote to eager audiences that there would indeed be unclothed flesh on screen), and was soon joined by a raft of others whose successes on the limited outlets outside of the studio-owned theatrical market did not go unnoticed – hence Nikkatsu’s decision to pivot an entire production division to their own proprietory spin on the subgenre. Some, like Wakamatsu, would see this physical libertinism as an intentional shot across the bow of the austerity and rigidity of Japanese culture; a protest against the creeping Puritanism of their American occupiers; a very hippie-60s cry for total freedom of self-expression and a rejection of the failed older generation’s ways. Others capitalistically saw a gap in the market that could be ruthlessly, quickly exploited for profit – sex sells. Most fell somewhere in between these poles.
Toei Studios, a relative newcomer having been established mostly as a producer of b-movies since the early 1950s, also responded to the volatile market place’s seemingly suddenly instatiable appetite for sex by shifting away from their slate of kaidan ghost stories, middling kaiju, and sci-fi fantasy, instead allowing, for example, director Teruo Ishii to indulge his more terrifying, queasy ero-guro (エログロ) instincts – ero-guro standing for ‘erotic grotesque’, a macabre and gothic merging of sex and body horror that would draw on folk tales, ukiyo-e shunga art, and novels like those of the celebrated Edogawa Rampo to inspire a challenging and harsh subgenre all of its own, drenched in sado-masochism and torture that would become increasingly lurid and graphic as the VHS era dawned in the coming years. They would also roll out a rat-a-tat production line of hyperviolent girl gang films, dubbed “Pinky Violence“, perhaps picking up the slack now that Nikkatsu was no longer going to produce action-driven films like its Stray Cat Rock (野良猫ロック) series, which featured and later starred an emerging talent by the name of Meiko Kaji as its lead actress. This sukeban (スケバン) or ‘girl boss’ subgenre foregrounded tough, delinquent teen girl gangs embroiled in knife fights, street drag races, and ill-advised sexual adventures, making rough and tumble stars of not just Kaji, but Miki Sugimoto, Reiko Ike, and more in the first half of the 1970s with dense, quickly produced series like the Terrifying Girls’ High School (恐怖女子高校) run, or the Girl Boss (女番長) pictures.
This explosion of wild, semi-explicit content was almost overwhelming. Japan’s production schedules were incredibly quick, especially compared to America’s major studios. A movie series like Stray Cat Rock put out 5 movies within a 2 year span. Terrifying Girls’ High School and Girl Boss combined for 7 films in little more than that. Myriad other standalones and series came and went in this heady burst of the 1970s. The distribution cycle of these films differed from the ‘prestige’ side of the studios’ output – dedicated picturehouses would run these in double bill screenings, and the appetite for fresh material to attract the mostly male audience was insatiable. Huge numbers of these films are lost due to prints actually being worn completely out by overuse. Yet, production standards were mostly high, especially when compared to some of the brutally incompetent exploitation films that other countries turned out in this era.
Many of these films would pull from a pool of directors like Norifumi Suzuki or Yasuharu Hasebe, who, despite the rapid production schedules and deluge of similar products, managed to infuse a remarkable level of visual inventiveness and creative strangeness into the best of their work. Following his swaggering, weird 1966 gangster movie Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者), the following year influential director Seijun Suzuki’s 40th feature, Branded To Kill (殺しの烙印), was a Yakuza movie that was so kaleidoscopic and anarchic that it saw him blackballed from Nikkatsu and unable to direct for an entire decade. So enraged was his studio head at this “incomprehensible…unprofitable” film, that he suggested the filmmaker quit and “open a noodle shop or something instead”. But, while he fell afoul of the hierarchy and suffered a huge career setback, many of those who came in his wake benefitted from his innovations, and he had become a countercultural rallying point and inspiration. Toei’s Pinky Violence output often used rapid editing, bold, intentionally theatrical lighting, and hip, funk and fuzz-drenched soundtracks to create a heightened, comic book alternative universe out of the grey concrete streets of Japan’s less desirable districts. Where a scene may begin with a grainy, handheld, almost definitely unlicensed shot of a character under the inconsistent neon of some Kabuki-cho back alley, it might end in a gleefully synthetic-looking backlot nightclub set, coloured lights artfully assembled around a gang in impossibly cool matching outfits swinging katana at each other. Other titles, like Suzuki’s aptly-titled Reiko Ike star vehicle Sex and Fury (不良姐御伝 猪の鹿お蝶), dropped their mayhem into historical settings, subverting ideas of the more staid jidaigeki (時代劇) – historical movies often set in the Edo period – by punctuating them with gambling, extortion, political chicanery and naked sword fights.
The success of films that fell under the broad banner of pinku was, genuinely, staggering. By 1979, fully 80% of films released into Japanese cinemas were either pinku, Nikkatsu Roman Porno, or sexploitation films of some stripe. While the budgets were low and the shooting schedules tight, filmmakers were provided with the requisite sets, cast, production design and lighting to create films that didn’t look or feel small. Added to this the rigorous training and apprenticing that they had undergone, often for many years before being granted their first feature, these creatives were hungry to grab their opportunities when they arrived. Like any exploitation boom, not every feature is a hidden gem or creative triumph – the dearth of surviving prints of the huge number of theatrical releases speaks to the disposability of many of them. Long running series usually discarded episodic storytelling canon for haphazard resets whenever they felt like it. Characters played by the same actresses, sometimes with the same names, sometimes renamed, would die in one film in the series and reappear in the next with totally different characteristics. Storylines were often overloaded with exposition and afflicted with a tendency for groups of characters to wander from one location to the next and back again with spurious motives. Tonal shifts were often breakneck, and a fixation on sexual violence could frequently be extremely cruel and callously, even lasciviously, filmed. The subgenre’s rotating casts of actresses were occasionally young enough to inspire concern for their wellbeing in the grindhouse atmosphere of nudity, bloodshed and rapid productions. The sexism that the best films skewer and lay grotesquely bare is all too frequently soaked into many of the titles, the leering, sweaty men pawing at the women onscreen seeming less like a satirical barb and more like an avatar for creators and slavering audiences alike.
It’s a thorny area to wade into, as all exploitation cinema is, and to ignore this not only does a disservice to the very real suffering most, more likely all, of the women who worked in the industry were subjected to at one time or another. In acknowledging this, we can appreciate the indelible and lasting work many of them put in, in extremely difficult circumstances. Not every film needs to be celebrated, and individual mileage will vary massively. We can also highlight those films that rose above and turned this cruelty on its head – the work that the Scorpion series especially did in creating an iconic and powerful female lead, one who only gains in stature and power throughout the series’ run. It would be chronically naïve to claim that the films are works of flawless modern feminism – they are products of their time, and the words of director Shunya Itō in interviews confirm that his was not designed to be a work that espoused that viewpoint intentionally. But because of his general spirit of anti-establishment urgency, coupled with the stoicism and determination of his extremely talented star, they have persisted and been rediscovered, and can be celebrated as phenomenal artistic achievements – bleak, brutal, uncompromising, and thrillingly creative.
In this cauldron of rapid transformation in the Japanese cinema scene, Toei hired one of Teruo Ishii’s former assistant directors, Shunya Itō, to adapt a recent women-in-prison manga by Tōru Shinohara called Sasori (サソリ), or Scorpion. His star would be Meiko Kaji, who had just quit Nikkatsu upon that company’s pivot towards more graphic sexual content. Ishii had worked with Kaji at that studio in 1970, on a supernatural-tinged yakuza movie called Blind Woman’s Curse (怪談昇り竜), which had helped transition the actress away from the delinquent girl roles and burnish her reputation as a fierce and capable force to be reckoned with. Itō was an ambitious would-be director at the time, desperate to make his own mark. Determined to make his full directorial debut before the age of 30, or else quit and start his own production house, his experience assisting Ishii on a series called Abashiri Prison (網走番外地) was deemed applicable enough to see him handed the reins to #701 right on the verge of carrying out his threat.
The union between director and star was not an immediately easy one – Itō felt that the super-fashionable, denim-clad, willowy Kaji could not portray the fierce instrument of rage he envisioned for the film. They clashed, with the director openly questioning and battling with his star in pursuit of his rebellious vision, perhaps even in ways which to Kaji reflected the patricarchal dismissal of the film’s many male villains. Fortunately for all involved he quickly realised the unique and brilliant power she brought to the role, and set about crafting a film which holds a very dark mirror up to Japanese society of the time. Itō didn’t set out to make a ‘feminist’ film – the term especially as it is understood now would have seemed a somewhat alien concept even to the avant garde-leaning, intellectual filmmaker. Rather, his aim was to create a story of pure rebellion. A symbolic stand against any and all forms of strict social authority. And in a heavily patriarchal Japan, a rebellious woman standing up to powerful men gave greater intensity to the resistance.
The tenor of the times was fractious – 1970 marked the 10 year renewal of the United States-Japan Security Treaty, the document that tethered Japan’s fortunes to that of their WW2 conquerers and subsequent occupiers. Protests were widespread, acting almost as a continuation of the roiling protests of the 1960s that mirrored those occuring in the United States and France, among other countries, as the young post-war generation sought to stamp their identity on what they felt were failing nations that had ceased to work for the benefit of their citizens. Itō, a committed union leader and agitator who lobbied hard against the traditional system of favours and seniority that the film industry generally had always relied upon, was an active participant. He channelled this anti-authoritarian zeal into his project, convincing the screenwriters to tear up their inital draft (much to the dismay of his producer) and start again with a wilder, more political, inventive, often psychadelic and expressionistic film.
Itō’s combativeness and own rebellious streak was tested and proven multiple times over the course of the film – in its initial creation, which was in question, in his selection as director, which many in the studio resisted, and in its eventual release, which was in grave jeopardy following a disastrous screening for Toei top brass. The director assembled several of his union buddies and accosted a high-ranking studio official in a hotel elevator to eventually secure a release, as the b-feature to a yakuza picture called Viper Brothers: Injurious Blackmail, 18 Counts. Despite skepticism from the studio that a film derisively referred to as a ‘critics picture’ could be popular with a general audience, its rapid success found the billings flipped – Sasori became the lead feature, and a suddenly enthusiastic Toei rushed to commission sequels. Itō would direct two of them before departing the series, feeling that he had said everything he intended to say and keen to move on to new ideas. His departure was not well received by the studio, who felt that there was more money to be made from the Scorpion series, but he refused to comply with their request to stay on. And despite his obvious skill at turning out great work under extremely tight deadlines, having sprinted his first three pictures into cinemas within one year, he would direct only one more feature before the decade was out – 1977’s Curse (犬神の悪霊), a lurid supernatural folk horror thriller that fuses nuclear power anxiety and canine demigods.
His subsequent career follows a very unusual, difficult-to-track path from this point on – not least because most have not been released in any sort of English translation. It’s difficult to say whether the striking, bleak, creative and colourful visuals he brings to the screen carry over to the mixture of mystery thrillers, crime dramas, and even a Japanese Academy-nominated Alzheimers’ Disease-themed comedy drama, Gray Sunset (花いちもんめ), but it is strange that such a firebrand creative with a trio of lauded, successful films didn’t get to carve out a more distinctive, cohesive career. He even directed, in 1995, an anime entry in a long-running series called Lupin III (ルパン三世), a comedic but adult-oriented manga adaptation that concerns the misadventures of a gentleman thief, following in the footsteps of Hayao Miyazaki and Seijun Suzuki in bringing the tales to the big screen.
Perhaps it was merely a sign of the times – the anarchic energy of the 1970s b-movie rush simply could not sustain itself into the 1980s, as Japan entered its era of rapid financial acceleration and an attendant cultural self-belief that sadly did not carry over to a healthy movie production industry. The days of rolling in the genre film muck were coming to a close, and the major studios, once happy enough to keep the tills ringing no matter how lurid and subversive the features became, suddenly seemed to adopt the same sense of self-importance and cultural conservatism as their transpacific counterparts in the States, even as audience figures cratered. Underground cinema fell deeper underground – pinku cinema trundled on, sometimes producing fascinating oddities until the subgenre sputtered out, but mostly morphing into softcore pornography and in other cases, increasingly disturbing S&M indulgences. It’s telling that a remarkably small number of Japanese films from this decade have stuck around in the cultural memory, at least among international audiences, and it wouldn’t be until the likes of Shinya Tsukamoto, with Tetsuo: The Iron Man (鉄男) and one-time TV comedy staple “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, with Violent Cop (その男、凶暴につき), both in 1989, brought widespread interest back to the national cinema among genre and world cinema fans, as the 1990s saw a renaissance that lasted well into the new millennium, driven as much as anything else by flashy crime dramas and horror movies.
Itō has continued to produce films throughout, with his latest released only 2 years ago, yet these works don’t seem to make a splash with those foreign cinema fans – mostly due to inaccessibility. His work is rarely, if ever, released on the American or European festival circuit, nor in English-translated home media. His 1998 film Pride (プライド 運命の瞬間) was, but caused a certain amount of international consternation, as it depicts the trial and sentencing at the International War Tribunal of former Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and his government for war crimes. The film was a fairly major hit domestically, but was castigated abroad for accusations of whitewashing and historical revisionism, in a way which read as potentially nationalistic. When set against the burn-it-down, anarchist, anti-authoritarian zeal of the Scorpion films which seemed to strike such a chord with the director in his youth, it becomes even more difficult and thorny to try and read the intent of this extremely talented, yet mysterious, filmmaker.
The defiant streak that eventually won over the stubborn Itō on the set of Sasori was no mere act for the young woman born Masako Ota in Tokyo in 1947. A some-time teen fashion model from the Kanda district of Tokyo, she was plucked from obscurity and placed on the production line of would-be stars at Nikkatsu Studios at the age of 18, primed for roles as prim and virtuous female leads in romantic dramas. However, her headstrong nature, even at such a young age, and on-screen intensity saw her shifted to films demanding more physical action. A stand-out supporting appearance in Toshiro Masuda’s Monument to the Girls’ Corps (あゝひめゆりの塔) in 1968 highlighted both her talent and her obstinance – she engaged in an argument with the director regarding a solo scene for which she had trained hard being cut, and despite being labelled one of the studio’s brightest prospects, she soon fell foul of the management and some of the more senior producers and directors for refusing roles she found uninteresting, or not showing sufficient deference to the ruling power structures.
At the risk of losing her spot, she was cast in a supporting role in Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 Yakuza movie Retaliation (縄張はもらった) – she would reunite with the director for her fourth and final turn as Matsu some five years later. One of a string of increasingly inventive, stylishly forward-thinking crime dramas of the era (Hasebe was a former assistant of the groundbreaking Seijun Suzuki), it signposted a new direction in her career, and the reinvention was complete when she adopted her new screen monicker the following year in Masahiro Makino’s Yakuza period movie Remnants of Japanese Chivalry. This kind of film was known as a ninkyo eiga – Meiji-era (1868-1912) costumed crime films which featured heavily tattooed yet chivalrous antiheroes in battle against more brutal, less scrupulous underworld competitors. Kaji quickly became adept at swinging a katana in a kimono, and featured in several more titles before receiving her first star billing in 1970’s Blind Woman’s Curse (怪談昇り竜) from maverick director Teruo Ishii. As expected from a filmmaker of such unique tastes, what could have been a run-of-the-mill revenge tale spins out into a gruesome, fantastical, often nonsensical visual feast of severed heads, bloody tattoo removal, rainswept sword violence and supernatural cats.
As the public’s appetite seemed to shift more towards the ‘borderless action‘ pictures that Nikkatsu was producing – so-called because of their willingness to adopt and subvert tropes from international cinema, primarily, the US and France, to update the old ronin character in modern day existential noir settings – the studio’s women were deployed to form gangs of fashionable, likeable, yet often ruthless young women. Kaji was second billed in Retaliation director Hasebe’s hip Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (女番長野良猫ロック), alongside statuesque pop star Akiko Wada as the lead. A kaleidoscope of impish hijinks, brutal knife fights, pop music interludes and a by-now customary bag of visual tricks and rapid editing creates an overwhelming, earnest and super cool vibe that carries, in fits and starts, throughout the four further features that Hasebe and director Toshiya Fujita alternated in creating over an outrageously short 8 month span from mid-1970 through early 1971. Kaji takes over the lead for the remaining four pictures (portraying often extremely similar characters but without any canonical conneciton between each entry), taking in everything from post-war Japan’s uncomfortable racial bigotry, drug use, and gun running, to blissed out hippies, beach parties, and tourist moonings. With each film being shot in barely a couple of weeks, the anarchic energy definitely helps to tape together its extreme tonal inconsistencies.
As the series concluded, Kaji reteamed with Fujita to essay her other truly iconic role: Lady Snowblood‘s (修羅雪姫) Yuki Kashima, a woman born in prison to a dying mother whose final act is to pledge the child to a life of brutal revenge. Emerging 20 years later from her relentless training with a martial artist monk, she cuts a stylish and blood-soaked swathe through the roster of criminals who had destroyed the life of her mother with murder and rape. The film is probably most notable in recent years for its very direct influence over the Lucy Liu sequence in Kill Bill Vol.1, including Quentin Tarantino’s use of the film’s excellent, lush theme song by Kaji herself. This fertile period of Kaji’s career contains, in rapid succession, Snowblood and its sequel; the four Scorpion films; and Wandering Ginza Butterfly, a Meiji-era crime and gambling thriller that combines the grim spirit of vengeance character she perfects in the Snowblood and Scorpion series with the more sly and charismatic earlier roles in the Stray Cat Rock films. What unites them all is Kaji’s voice – not her speaking voice, but her sultry and moving vocals in the soundtrack contributions she makes to them all. I’ve compiled my picks of her 70s output here – a truly addictive selection of torch song ballads, enka (演歌), mariachi-inflected kayōkyoku (歌謡曲), fuzzy psychadelic rock, and string-laden epic pop.
Kaji’s voice on these soundtracks, and in the Scorpion films especially, lends a vital line of communication between the audience and her character. Matsu’s near-total silence does not allow for audience identification in the way we would usually bond with them – through dialogue and sympathetic action. Her reserve, her defiance, while impressive and cool in a ‘Man With No Name’ way, does not give much time for vulnerability – even Clint has some zingers. So it is through her songs that we are given access to the hurt and vulnerability that she cannot afford to show on screen – although her expressive eyes work phenomenally well in tandem with the soundtrack. As she herself explains, the songs were often written quickly and delivered after filming had concluded – she sang these songs ‘in character’ and was given plenty of leeway to interpret the melodies as she saw fit. In the case of the Scorpion theme Urami Bushi (怨み節), the lyrics were also written by Shunya Itō as a way for him to acquiesce to Kaji’s request to play the character as all but mute. That Kaji felt that she could make such a demand speaks to just how confident she was in her abilities, and how committed and unbowed she was. As the production schedules on the films was so short, Kaji was frequently left to design and source her own costumes – in the case of Scorpion, that means that the iconic black hat/black raincoat look that marks the conclusion of her transformation at the end of #701 was entirely her idea.
This hyper-fertile early career burst, yielding an impressive number of cult classics that are elevated massively by her presence, slowed somewhat in the mid-70s after she gave up the mantle of the Scorpion. Kaji began to take supporting roles in dramas, eager to escape from perhaps what could easily have become a dead-end career of exploitation roles that would likely dry up as younger would-be stars entered the business and became the flavour of the month. In 1974, she exited her contract with Toei Studios, right after working with director Kinji Fukusaki on part 2 of his epic film series The Yakuza Papers or Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Hiroshima Death Match (仁義なき戦い 広島死闘篇), an entry in a vast 5 film project filmed in rapid succession that charts the sprawling organised crime underworld of the war-torn city, anchored by the charismatic star Bunta Sugawara. Inspired by this more grounded, less iconoclastic approach to acting, Kaji saw out the 1970s crafting more verbose characters than audiences has seen to this point – hooking up with director Yasuzo Masumura, the celebrated and prolific director of films like the visually resplendent corporate satire Giants and Toys (巨人と玩具), the incredible pinku psychological horror The Blind Beast (盲獣), and the dark wartime drama The Red Angel (赤い天使) for three of the great man’s last theatrical films – thriller Mainline to Terror (動脈列島), Lullaby of the Earth (大地の子守歌), and The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中). Kaji found working with the director extremely challenging, but seemed to flourish nonetheless in expansive and expressive roles. Sadly, the studio system foundered as the 1970s came to a close, and Kaji found that the kind of dramatic and realistic work she wanted to pursue had moved over to television. Taking time out to train in New York, and sporadically returning to the big screen, Kaji’s work continued to receive positive reviews, but becomes difficult for English-speaking audiences to access. She found her most recognisable late-career role in a period-set TV detective series called Onihei Hankachō (鬼平犯科帳), playing the female co-lead for over two-and-a-half decades.
A renaissance in interest followed Tarantino’s very public fandom, and the newfound attention led to a few extra film roles in the 2000s, and a contract to record another album. It also played no small part in bringing modern day Western audience attention to Kaji’s greatest hits – as first DVD, then Blu-ray sets of the Scorpion films, Lady Snowblood, and the Stray Cat Rock films have gifted new generations the opportunity to experience her indelible contribution to Japanese and international cult cinema.
FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION
This first film in the series burns with a palpable fury and creativity that transcends the elements that, on paper, would seem tawdry and seemy. Nami Matsushima, who has been tricked by a dirty cop into infiltrating a drug smuggling ring only to be raped by his associates when she’s rumbled, and left to rot in prison by the man that set her up where she suffers a series of sustained abuses from the lecherous guards and fellow inmates alike – is exploitation fare of the purest sort. The offhand way in which rape is used as a story device in so many films of this ilk is more often than not repellent and glib, as is the grotesque leering tone that typifies so many ‘women-in-prison’ movies.
And yet, in all the expected nudity and violence, the presentation forces radical empathy for the near-silent Matsushima, and indicts any lascivious viewer who drops into this film expecting titillation. Kaji may be beautiful, but the laser-focussed anger and determination she projects with every wide-eyed dagger stare defies any male gazing at her to see her as a mere sex object. She may have terrible things visited upon her, but the word victim is violently rejected as she defies her tormentors and lashes out whenever the opportunity arises. She is imperious. Her assault at the hands of a gang of criminals is one of the most difficult, yet bravura and creative sequences I’ve ever seen. Shot from below a transparent floor on a spare stage set that contains only the bare minimum of props, she is set upon by a leering, grotesque group of lecherous creeps. We, the audience, are trapped beneath them all, Itō assuring that we have to see the look on each of these terrible men’s faces as they twist and flush with awful intent. As they leave her there, bruised and exposed, the plastic floor tiles start to burn with a blood red light. Matsu turns her head to stare right down the lens. A stop-motion sequence sees her hair spread in stages out to form rod-straight spikes, evoking the image of a vengeful spirit. It is the first openly folk-horror influenced touch in the series, but won’t be the last.
Shun’ya Itô surrounds her with a setting that veers from the dungeon-like and filthily tactile, to surrealistic and dreamlike, without one ever breaking the spell of the other. Openly implicating Japanese society, and by extension the culture of all of our countries, of the time as a place of restrictive cruelty, misogyny, and hypocrisy, Itô presents the prison wardens and guards as the brutish, arrogant literal gatekeepers who revel in exploiting the women in their charge, employing a trusted cadre of sadistic inmates who receive preferential treatment for inflicting cruelty on their fellow prisoners. Defiance is punished collectively, leading to the indefatiguable Sasori being turned on by the entire prison population for failing to fall in line. The Police are corrupt, the system is designed to protect the shameless and the powerful, and in the end only rage and revenge seem like the logical response. So often this kind of anarchic posturing comes off as wildly unconvincing and weak – here, it positively sears itself onto the celluloid.
It’s a harsh, yet vibrantly entertaining film, its rough-hewn visual experimentation filled with indelible imagery that veers into full arthouse at times. Theatrical tricks intrude on the dank surroundings, as colourful spotlights, trick sets, and gorgously painted backdrops introduce colour and set the brutality in stark relief.
Matsu ends the film as a silent, white hot howl of rage contained within an unflinching glare – claiming her final vengeance under the blood red and white Hinomaru flag. Emerging from a creative class that had been born into a war-torn country, enraged at the many failings of the previous generation, held in check by the patriarchal class system that allows those with power to hand it down only to those who are deemed sufficiently deferential, this jagged, brutal, inventive film’s intensity radiates off the screen. Its success allowed Itô to follow up with an even angrier, more daring experiment…
FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41
Where the first film in the series fits more comfortably into the subgenre of exploitation, follow-up Jailhouse 41 travels far further into the realms of true weird cinema. Gone are the mandated shower scenes, the routine nudity, and whatever last vestiges of red meat thrown to those male audience members seeking base gratification. Jailhouse 41 turns a spotlight so bright onto the rigid structures of society that the film stock itself seems on the verge of flames.
One-eyed Warden Goda (a returning Fumio Watanabe, again magnificently essaying a portrait of venal corruption, bruised machismo, and increasingly desperate lust for control and power) gloats over a prone Matsu whom he has cast into solitary confinement since the chaos of the first film, before dragging her out for a parade in his honour before he takes up a cushy position in government. Unbeknownst to him, she has spent the last few weeks (or months?) carefully whittling a shiv out of a teaspoon using only her teeth and the bare cell floor – the distinctive sound and image we are greeted with in the opening sequence, establishing the single-mindedness, intelligence, stoicism, and focussed hatred of our protagonist. As she lunges at him in an attempt to remove his remaining eye, a cheerful, clueless visiting dignitary collapses and wets himself. This inspires a riot – one that drives Goda to carry out a vicious and shocking retaliation on the now-infamous Sasori in order to break the spell of influence her actions have inspired in the other prisoners. It works – as they are transported back to prison, she is beaten by a group of disillusioned jailmates so badly that they fear she is dead. But, playing possum, she leads a breakout with her attackers, killing the guards and holing up in the bleak ruins of a town that seems to have been overrun by a volcano, though visually it resembles a bombsite. The scars of a country recovering from war can’t help but come to mind as twisted bicycles, pylons, and homes are glimpsed buried under piles of ash.
Here, we find the film’s most incredible sequence. After the oldest of the group, Oba – a fierce, unhinged performance by a celebrated alternative theatre actress Kayoko Shiraishi – passes the dark evening telling the rest an awful tale of how she ended up in prison, they find an old woman huddled alone, muttering to herself, in a shack (which breaks apart around her in a stunning practical effect). Inspired by Rōkyoku, a traditional form of storytelling song, the prisoners suddenly appear in traditional attire against a black void, lit by candles, as the song, presumably sung by the mad old woman, tells us each of their crimes – and how they were damned to their fates by terrible men. A plaintive, harsh shamisen (an instrument used in traditional Japanese storytelling and theatre) accompanies – the same instrument can be heard over the very opening shots of the film, which helps to incorporate the films disparate formal elements as part of a cohesive, yet varied, whole. A poetic sequence in a forest follows, employing multiple coloured lights, impressively scaled sets, and more theatrically-inspired trickery, highlighting the forlorn beauty that punctuates the harsh episodes of violent revenge.
And this is, in the end, a harsh film. There is no pretence that this group are lovable villains, or antiheroes to root for, that there is any chance they’ll become a ragtag unit that bands together and survives against the odds. The Scorpion universe is far too cruel, and the people who inhabit it too damaged and desperate, for such frivolity. Actions are angry, vengeful, and moments of catharsis inspire only more bloodshed. Men are weak, angry, and brutish, and their selfishness and cruelty drives the women around them to either submit to victimhood, or be forced to lash out and retaliate. Moments of closeness between women are fleeting and offer little comfort – the game is rigged against them, and explicitly set up to deny them camaraderie.
And yet, for those who can stomach it, the urgency and the artistry of this film has few peers. This is, to me, the apogee of exploitation cinema – a full-throated exploration of dark subject matter that swerves any easy get-outs. It is stunningly well made, with any number of individual shots that demonstrate a unique and vibrant visual style that feels integral, rather than purely decorous. Jailhouse 41 steps up the scale, the strangeness, and the wrath of its predecessor, and the result is, for me, not just a shining example of Japanese exploitation cinema, it is simply one of the most extraordinary films I’ve ever seen. Maiko Kaji is even more implacable, her regal self-possession the still centre point to the swirling madness. Her song of vengeance, the haunting movie series theme Urami Bushi (怨み節), and new song A Woman’s Spell (女の呪文), play intermittently throughout and offer almost the only times you hear her voice at all. The lyrics, by director Itô himself, give poetic voice to her expressive eyes, often captured in striking, Sergio Leone-esque extreme close ups.
It’s an incandescent and bleakly brilliant film that leaves a hell of a bruise. One of the most incendiary, politically confrontational, formally daring movies of an era that had no shortage of them.
FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: BEAST STABLE
Shunya Itō’s third and final Female Prisoner Scorpion film opens with a bravura jolt – Nami is out of prison and on the run. As superimposed wanted posters fly past the screen while the camera barrels down a Metro track, we eventually enter the carriage where a glowering, olive green jacket-clad Matsu stares dead ahead while a crew of detectives scour the faces of the passengers. As their eyes lock, she springs violently into action, slashing away at the cops with a knife and escaping as the train pulls up to a platform. Alas, one dogged detective catches her arm and slaps the cuffs on her wrist, and tethers it to his own, just as the doors are closing. Wide-eyed, desperate, she takes a second to assess the situation and then begins hacking away with the blade, eventually severing his arm in a torrent of blood as she swings his severed appendage above her arm. Freeze frame, blood red title card, the first blast of Meiko Kaji’s now familiar theme song enters, as the image becomes aggresively solarised. The stricken cop writhes on the floor, as Matsu takes flight, emerging into the harsh light of the Tokyo streets. She sprints through panicked pedestrians with the bloodied arm flailing in her wake, we know that once again, Itō isn’t going to let his audience settle in to the familiar despite the rapid production schedule of his series.
This vérité approach strips away the grim-yet-operatic visuals of the previous film, coming off more like the street-level gangster movies that preceeded it with its use of long lenses, clearly unsuspecting ‘extras’, and grainy available light. Taking Matsu out of prison and grounding her in the real world, without the armour of her signature hat and long black coat, the majestic icon of vengeance is replaced by a more vulnerable, real-world figure, albeit one that is still fierce and ruthlessly violent when cornered. Yet, while the elaborate sets, stunning painted backdrops, and vibrant lighting are toned down massively, they are not entirely absent. We catch up with Matsu after taking a detour to meet sex worker Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe, who also played another ill-fated, unrelated character called Yuki, Matsu’s main ally, in the first film) who lives in a rundown house with her severely mentally disabled brother, with whom she shares an incestuous relationship out of pity, or severely misplaced guilt. If this sounds bleak, well, it is – this is a film that contains all of the grit and rage at the cruelty of men and their society of the other two, but comes across even more urgent and dour given the aforementioned relative lack of visual trickery. Although, when Yuki takes a john to a graveyard for a paid encounter, she notices, after he has cruelly tossed her payment to the floor around her, a figure lurking behind a gravestone. There, illuminated, by the flashing intermittent neon of the red light district signage like old Hollywood horror lightning, Matsu is clutching the arm of the detective in her teeth, grinding the handcuffs against the stonework as she stares like a woman possessed at Yuki.
These grand guignol moments return intermittently as the story sees Yuki take in Matsu, who eventually takes a small apartment and a job as a seamstress. This attempt to slip out of the cycle of vengeance, prison, and death doesn’t last for long. A former jailmate, Katsu (Reisen Lee), has risen up the ranks as a madam to the street workers in her area – and her violent gang of thugs have attacked Yuki for working on their patch without payment or permission. Katsu is the film’s most memorable creation – slathered in makeup which makes her look like a demonic pantomime dame, in a black dress decorated with vast black feathers surrounding her face, she sneers, threatens, and laughs bitterly as her henchmen dole out violence on her behalf. She imprisons women, including Nami, in her bird cage to be pecked and assaulted by her crows. It’s a bravura villain performance, perhaps the most memorable of the series.
The film’s later stages recall some of the mad, stagey visual panache of its predecessors, including a stunning, almost music videoesque outro sequence of those burning posters from the opening titles dancing across the screen, which serves only to highlight the creative risks being taken in having such different approaches to three films produced in such quick succession.
FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: #701’s GRUDGE SONG
New director Yasuharu Hasebe takes over the series, and there is, unfortunately, a noticeable dip in quality from the previous installments. That’s not to say there’s not a great deal to admire: Kaji’s evolution of the character of Matsu continues, and we even see her open herself up to a male suitor. Outside of the dastardly cop who took her virginity and then condemned her to a life of prison and revenge, the only physical intimacy we have seen from Nami is her brusque seduction of an undercover female prison guard, flipping the hapless woman completely and rendering her insatiable for more. Here, she finds kinship with the lighting operator in a strip club, Kudo, who bears the physical and psychic scars of his abuse at the hands of the police when he is arrested for his anarchist political activism. These two sullen outsiders bond in a way that Nami has not been allowed to since the cruel betrayal by her ex-boyfriend that set her on a path of seemingly endless vengeance and violence. Visual references to the preceeding films abound, especially her first physical encounter with her new partner symbolised in the same manner by a bedsheet slowly turning red. The two go on the run, killing incompetent cops with a similar abandon to the preceding anti-establishment films and plotting a cash heist to allow them to escape the city. But the inadvertent death of an innocent derails their outlaw plans, and the pair’s brief moments of companionship are simply not something that the powers that be will allow to stand. Nor can the film even allow, in this universe, for a guns-blazing Bonnie and Clyde blowout – Nami’s path inevitably leads to a solitary life spent consumed by venageance. The film’s final frames provide a cool, but tragic, coda to Meiko Kaji’s time as Sasori.
Hasebe is an accomplished director in his own right (his crazy nunsploitation feature School of the Holy Beast (聖獣学園), directed the following year, is a true highlight of the era), and he gets to show off his chops in flashes – especially in a gallows-set finale that is equal parts geometrically impossible and thrillingly mounted – but the film lacks the lighter fluid intensity of Itô’s trilogy. The pace can meander as we split our focus between Nami and Kudo, and the stop-start episodic nature of the plot doesn’t leave as much room for the more jawdropping craziness that especially the first two entries excelled at. But, its thematic send off for Nami/Sasori, seeing her betrayal at the hands of an evil man reinterpreted as she gets to experience something like mutual love or at least attraction, only to have it taken from her by his failings, and seeing the heartbreak as she is betrayed not by men’s cruelty, but by their weakness, is a standout moment for Kaji.
NEW FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: #701 and beyond…
After Meiko Kaji exited the series, the role of Nami Matsushima was taken up by Yumi Takigawa in 1976 with the aptly titled New Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (新女囚７０１号さそり), which sought to revive the series from its origins, but emerged shorn of the hallucinatory weirdness that Itō injected. More conventionally shot, solid, yet unspectacular, it fails to live up to what is honestly the most excellent of the original theatrical release movie posters despite a supporting cast stacked with exploitation cinema veterans. Takigawa commits gamely, but serves only to throw into sharp relief just how incredibly charismatic and powerful Meiko Kaji was in the role, how much she could carry with little more than a look.
Director Yutaka Kohira returns, minus his leading lady, for 1977’s New Female Prisoner Scorpion: Special Cellblock X (新・女囚さそり 特殊房X) – recruiting Yôko Natsuki to essay the taciturn heroine. Internal prison politics get more of an airing here, skewing the direction somewhat back towards the incendiary messaging of Itō’s trilogy, and the film picks up an extra injection of insouciant cool, but this last 70s installment suffers from recycling too many ideas with too little urgency. A snappy conclusion to the 70s run that does improve on its predecessor, but again, largely exists to prove what a phenomenal achievement Itō made with the material he was given.
The 1991 V-cinema (shot on video) remake Scorpion Woman Prisoner: Death Threat (女囚さそり 殺人予告) adds exploding skeletons and squibby gun battles to the mix, followed by the far more prurient and sex-drenched 2011 remake of the original. 2008’s Chinese production Sasori attempts a more grounded, logical approach to the actual story, while also reaching for the shiny, acrobatic post-millenial Hong Kong kung fu style that was so popular at the time to unwieldy effect. Beyond this, there is an overwhelming deluge of spinoffs, remakes, cash-ins and ripoffs that cover everything from violent action to straight up sex cinema that I, frankly, have not been able to marshal. But none have managed to trump Kaji and Itō’s triumphant work in the public imagination.
FIND OUT MORE!
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray boxset of the four Meiko Kaji Scorpion movies is far and away the best way to see the films. Loaded with extras, including visual essays, appreciations by filmmakers and critics, interviews with director Shunya Itō and some of his crew, trailers, and more. They are also available on the label’s streaming service.
For more Meiko Blu-ray goodness, Arrow’s Stray Cat Rock series boxset is an absolute blast. You can also find both Lady Snowblood films (albeit sadly out of stock, but widely available on Ebay etc), and Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse on the label.
Tom Mes wrote a phenomenal, succinct biography on Meiko Kaji which is available on Arrow, albeit out of print. 2nd hand copies should be available.
To tumble fully down the rabbit hole of Pink Cinema, Jasper Sharp wrote an extraordinary, dense guide to the genre in Behind the Pink Curtain. While Scorpion doesn’t sit comfortably in this subgenre, for the curious I recommend it very highly.
There are sporadic DVDs of other Pinky Violence titles, but most are rare or out of press. I’d recommend Reiko Ike’s Sex and Fury and Female Yakuza Tale for some more outrageous thrills that are widely available in the UK. Ike is exceptionally charismatic; a very different screen presence to Meiko Kaji, but no less iconic.