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Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 (Ito Shunya 1972)


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Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41
[Joshuu sasori: Dai-41 zakkyo-bo]

Genre: Visually Stylistic Escape and Revenge

review in one breath

Matsushima Nami aka Scorpion will use whatever opportunity is given her to exact revenge upon the sadistic prison warden Goda. But such opportunities come rarely and she soon finds herself fleeing the prison with a handful of women. Their trek is dangerous and brutal, and near its end is waiting the warden's police force eager to put these women in their place. This is a highly stylized story drawn in almost manga-like strokes. Matsu is definitely a COOL heroine.


other Female Convict Scorpion films
Female Prisoner 701 Scorpion 1972
Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 1972
Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable 1973
Female Convict Scorpion: Grudge Song 1973
New Female Prisoner Scorpion 701 1976
New Female Prisoner Scorpion Special Room X 1977
Female Prisoner Scorpion Murderer's Announcement 1991
Scorpion's Revenge / Sasori in U.S.A. 1997
Scorpion Female Prisoner 701 1998

intro

This is director Ito Shunya's second film. His directorial debut was only months earlier with this film's prequel Female Prisoner 701 Scorpion (1972). Ito will go on to direct one more in this series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973), a film not yet released in the West (though it appears it will be released in March 2006 by Tokyo Shock under the simple title "Scorpion").

In all, there are eight Female Prisoner Scorpion films, one as late as 1998. Ito's originals comprise the first three films. Next comes the 1973 Scorpion: Female Prisoner 701 Grudge Song by director Hasebe Yasuhara of Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter fame. (Hasebe's "Grudge Song" film will be released in Region 1 DVD format by Tokyo Shock sometime in April 2006.) The fifth and sixth in the series are by director Kohira Yutaka who worked as assistant director on both Ito's first film and Hasebe's "Grudge Song". Kohira's two slightly later films are New Female Prisoner Scorpion 701 (1976) and New Female Prisoner Scorpion Special Room X (1977). The seventh film is Female Prisoner Scorpion Murderer's Announcement (1991) by director Ikeda Toshiharu who a decade earlier directed Angel Guts: Red Porno (1981). And lastly is director Niimura Ryouji's 1998 film Scorpion Female Prisoner 701 (Niimura spells "scorpion" in katakana rather than hiragana to make his title "different" from the original's).

Since most of these films don't really have an actual English title, here are the Japanese titles (and pronunciations):

[1972] Joshuu 701-go�: Sasori
[1972] Joshuu sasori: Dai-41 zakkyo-bo
[1973] Joshuu sasori: Kemono-beya
[1973] Joshuu sasori: 701-go urami-bushi
[1976] Shin joshuu sasori: 701-go
[1977] Shin joshuu sasori: Tokushu-bo X
[1991] Joshuu sasori: Satsujin yokoku
[1998] Sasori Joshuu 701-go

Only in Ito's original three films is the main character Matsushima Nami played by the well-known actress Kaji Meiko. Kaji can be seen in several prominent roles within films during this era such as the Mako character in the Stray Cat Rock series and as Kashima Yuki, the lead character in Lady Snowblood (1973) and Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974). It is her presence here that really drives the "Scorpion" films and in the current film obtains an almost mythical status and power.

Though produced only months apart, there is a very marked and impressive stylistic evolution between this film and Ito's first. In my review of Female Prisoner 701 Scorpion I noted how the narrative seemed to drag on in spots and that Ito's desire for style got in the way of a clear development of the Matshushima character. In the current film, however, these weaknesses do not appear even though Ito remains true to this interest in stark visual styles. The Matsushima character comes through SO strongly and clearly here that she truly does achieve an almost mystical heroine status thanks to some truly creative presentation by Ito.

There is a scene around the midpoint of the film where I really felt Ito was transcending the genre in a very powerful way that had me wishing for more. It is the scene where the fugitive women encounter the abandoned old woman and for a brief yet powerful moment this tales becomes a supernatural ghost tale wherein spiritual powers aimed solely at revenge are handed down to Matsushima. It is a very dramatic scene and seems to promise that the film is headed in a completely different direction than previously thought. But the supernatural motif quickly disappears and we find ourselves back in a pure flee and escape tale.

story

One year has passed since Matsushima's violent jailbreak and murder of corrupt police detective Sugimi (in the prequel). All that time Matsushima has been chained hand and foot in a damp and dismal underground cell in solitary confinement. It is only when a top prison official visits the prison in order to celebrate and recognize (one-eyed) Warden Goda's upcoming promotion that she is released from her cell and brought out into the daylight.

Her name is infamous amongst the other female prisoners. They refer to her as the "Scorpion" (sasori) and her reputation has only grown during her year underground. And she is about to prove she deserves such respect when, though barely able to stand, she lunges and nearly removes Goda's one remaining eye. The incident sparks a raucous riot as the top official wets himself out a fear (luckily for him the women yanked his pants off prior to his bladder malfunction!).

Matsushima and a handful of women soon have escaped their captors and are fleeing through rather wild terrain in order to elude those chasing them. On their way they encounter a variety of harrowing situations and not all of them will survive. Some of the women desire to return to their children while others plan on making their hometown neighbors suffer for the ridicule and abuse they heaped upon the women for their crimes. Matsushima has only a single desire, to exact an ultimate revenge upon her stark nemesis Goda.

verdict

In the first film, Matsushima finds herself behind bars after being deceived and betrayed by her true love Sugimi. And after escaping and killing him, she is back in the slammer for this film. Here, however, director Ito explicitly expands the "betrayal" theme, making it a social condition which all the fleeing women prisoners have in common. "Women commit crimes because of men" is the literal message here and an eery song by the very old shaman they encounter describes how the crime of each of the women is traced back to their being mistreated at the hands of a man.

While this is a rather interesting and coherent theme to pursue, it unfortunately requires Ito to draw ALL the male characters in this film as rapacious brutes capable (and willing) of the most heinous actions. Thus the sadistic brutality of many of the male characters comes across as almost unbelievable, though Ito makes a very poignant connection to reality when one of his characters boasts about his rapacious escapades during his military years in China in what is now referred to as the "Rape of Nanking".

Don't misunderstand. This film is NOT gory, nor are their any graphic scenes of violence against women. Though depicted, Ito is careful to use shots which imply such events rather than display them. Nevertheless, the tone here is quite dark regarding the apparently non-existent conscience within the males of the species. This is in essence a tale about women's liberation from the abusive domination of men. (For example, contemplate the meaning of the final scene of the film which plays while the credits roll.)

This gets a thumbs up for being quite a compelling story. By placing his characters outside the prison walls and within often expansive landscapes, Ito escapes the easily stale claustrophobia he encounters in the prior film. His skill with cinematic styles has grown and in many instances these styles really come through wonderfully. And his unexpected turn toward the supernatural at film's midpoint kicks Matsushima's heroine quotient into high gear.

One last trivia tidbit: This film's theme song, Onna no Jumon ("Spell of a Woman"), is sung by none other than Kaji Meiko who, in her day, had quite a singing career, of sorts.

Version reviewed: Region 1 subtitled DVD available at all mainstream venues.

NOTE: The (unremovable) subtitles on the DVD (Image Entertainment) I reviewed were the old-fashioned and vastly inferior "white on white" which made reading them quite difficult in a few places.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Second in a series of films revolving around the stone-faced and formidable Scorpion character. Plenty of knife and gun violence, more direct and blunt than the prequel's. Two (non-graphic) rape scenes and an entire undercurrent of mistreatment of women. One rather graphic scene following the womens' retribution upon a male guard involved in rape. MUCH less gratuitous flesh here than in the prequel, though "sex" is a constant theme throughout. And you will be treated to a rather disturbing full screen shot of a horny geezer's sagging posterior. Visually rich and narratively compelling, particularly as regards the mysterious old woman. Matsushima really comes across here as the heroine she is intended to be.

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