Meiko Kaji in 1972's "Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion."

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion January 14, 2021

DIRECTED BY

Shunya Itō

 

STARRING

Meiko Kaji
Isao Natsuyagi
Fumio Watanabe
Hiroko Ogi

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1972

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 27 Mins.

I

n the electrifying Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), Nami (Meiko Kaji), the heroine, is so abuzz with anger that she can’t see straight. She wants nothing more than to get even with (which is to say violently kill in retribution) the man, Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi), who wronged her. A little while ago, Sugimi, a cop, enlisted her to help him infiltrate a drug-smuggling ring. Since he was the first man she ever really loved, Nami

agreed to go undercover, not noticing it odd a police officer persuade his civilian girlfriend to do something so dangerous. Nami remembers that as she got deeper inside the drug milieu, she never felt scared. All she could think about was Sugimi and how much she loved him. For her, their love was alleviative — like a drug. 

 

Just when she started feeling like she had made real headway in the case, Nami was forced to reckon with something unthinkable: that Sugimi, apparently neither the good cop nor the loving partner she had believed he was, both evinces himself someone with yakuza ties and someone who does not love her. When he sent her to “investigate” for him, he was really setting her up to be a scapegoat. Before Nami is inevitably arrested, she’s brutalized by Sugimi’s associates, too. She briefly evades captivity and tries a public assassination — as Sugimi is traipsing along the front steps of the police station, no less — but it’s no use.

 

Most of Female Prisoner (unsurprisingly, given its title) is not spent in the throes of conventional revenge-plotting in the shadows but of Nami’s prison-stay. There, the cruelty is so ceaseless that we’re not sure if the writers of the movie, Fumio Konami and Hiro Matsuda, are striving to in part indict the embedded brutality of the prison-industrial complex or if they simply wanted to ensure every aspect of Nami’s life we see is unbelievably pitiless. The guards gratuitously provoke violence; they constantly ogle. The light at the end of the tunnel for Nami, ever-bleakly, is the thought of serial murder. Although the movie ends rather tidily, two sequels were made almost immediately. Each 

starred Kaji and was directed by Shunya Itō. (This movie was his filmmaking debut.)

 

Female Prisoner is an effective revenge movie; it has no problem getting us to temporarily believe simplistically in retributive justice. It hooked me from the start. What I wasn’t prepared for — and what I assume some other viewers might also be unprepared for, since this is a low-budgeted exploitation movie — was how formidably made it would be. Itō hasn’t directed a movie matching the flat leeriness of the American variants of the women-in-prison and/or women-focused revenge movies of the same decade. He approaches the material almost impressionistically. He seems to want us as much as possible to connect with his heroine viscerally through the film's visual style — an outlier given that most of the time in exploitation-movie fare, one tends not to think of the direction as particularly thoughtful. An economical approach is usually deemed good enough, and so innovation is rarely bred. 

 

When we’re swept up in flashbacks in Female Prisoner — specifically ones dramatizing the circumstances leading up to Nami’s betrayal — the screen is doused in a suggestive light blue. There will be no distinctive furniture in her memories, reflecting how when we recall a traumatic incident, the filigree decorating it will become almost entirely irrelevant in our memory unless it is inextricable from it. When thinking back on her assault, Nami can’t remember the surrounding decor but will never forget the bumpy texture of the floor her face hit when she was slammed into it by an aggressor — something the camera stresses. In a later scene, Nami is attacked by another inmate in the shower; everything is again overwashed in an oceanic blue. Her attacker’s face suddenly gnarls up, contorting into the visage of what looks like a kabuki monster. The screams of onlookers merge with the soundtrack. When a guard shoots a prisoner in cold blood as a menial task is performed later in the film, the sky immediately turns a devilish red. It’s a prelude to the hell that is about to break loose. 

 

Nami as a character is pretty narrow and opaque. Her homicidal desire defines her, and because the part mostly requires Kaji to be silently incandescent, there isn’t much else we can cull from the performance. With her long black hair (and once she gets out of prison, her costume-like giant black floppy hat and vampiric cloak), Nami resembles something of an angel of death. She’s so placid it’s as though she knows the cosmos are on her side, and as such she can feel a little unreal. She becomes visually iconic during the movie's last act — something Kaji again accomplished in a different revenge movie she’s more famous for, 1973’s Lady Snowblood.

 

What makes the movie unmissable is how Itō homes in on what makes the revenge movie appealing when it works: how much of an emotional reaction it can evoke from a viewer, and how much it can make you practically lick your lips when a bad someone is “taken care of.” His impressionistic tendencies in Female Prisoner give it a further dimension. You’re not simply watching horrible things happen to Nami but experiencing them with her. When at the end of the movie she escapes prison and starts confronting the men who have destroyed her, a prospective victim’s face is unnaturally doused in a traffic-light green, in what seems a projection of Nami’s adrenaline and laser focus. Itō’s direction gives the revenge movie an emotional realism it isn’t often afforded. 

 

Female Prisoner still puts on a pedestal the beats of the woman-driven revenge feature that don’t sit very easily — the use of rape as a catalyst for action; passages of women being tormented that run long enough to make us wonder if the misogynistic viewer were being pandered to. But this movie has evidently been made by someone who had seen enough women-in-prison movies, enough revenge films, knew what both required/what drew people to them, and realized that you didn’t have to ascribe to their limitations if you knew they could be more. A