By 1972, Meiko Kaji’s career was beginning to take shape and Pinky Violence was well under way, but it was the release of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion that really defined both. For Kaji, it shot her to iconic status among cult film fans, and by providing songs for the films soundtrack, was the breakthrough she was looking for in the music industry. For Pinky Violence, the film was a bold statement to the Nay-Sayers that the genre could be much more than just smut and could prove to be just as artistic as any arthouse film could hope to be.
We’re introduced to Nami Matsushima, otherwise known as Matsu the Scorpion, in the midst of her doing something you’ll get quite accustomed to throughout the series; escaping from prison. It’s not a successful attempt, and Matsu is quickly caught and thrown into solitary confinement, where she’s abused by the guards, who are none too pleased that Matsu escaped on the same day the prison was having a commendation ceremony on doing such a good job, as well as a group of women prisoners appointed to a powerful position by the prison staff. Matsu isn’t liked by many, yet always keeps a stone-cold demeanor, and most would like to see her break.
While in solitary, Matsu reminisces about how she found herself in prison. She was head-over-heels in love with a man named Sugimi, who worked as a narcotics officer. In the depths of making love, Sugimi talks Matsu into going undercover to bust a drug ring. Things don’t go well, and Matsu is found out, and raped by the gang of drug pushers. Sugimi eventually arrives, but Matsu quickly realizes she was used for bait to nail the drug ring on not only drug charges, but rape as well, and that Sugimi may very well be working in the underground drug trade and was only looking to eliminate the competition. With a broken heart, as well as an intense desire for revenge, Matsu attacks Sugimi outside of the local police station with a knife, and is quickly subdued, leading to her current situation.
Matsu is eventually freed from solitary once everyone realizes they’ll never break her that way. The guards decide to put Matsu, as well as the rest of the prisoners, to work doing impossibly difficult jobs in hopes that the other inmates will begin to turn on her. But it may not be just the other inmates Matsu has to look out for; Sugimi has learned of Matsu’s escape attempt, and is afraid that if she is able to escape, that his underhanded tactics would be exposed. To try and prevent this, Sugimi makes contact with one of the prisoners and promises her parole if she’s able to kill Matsu. This is all, of course, much easier said than done.
Mixing the arthouse class of the Japanese New Wave with the grindhouse sleaze of the Women-in-Prison genre, it’s a wonder that Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion works so well. These are two facets of cinema that most would imagine wouldn’t gel very well with one another, but it does, and it does so spectacularly. Director Shunya Ito doesn’t skimp on the seedy elements that the WIP genre is rife with, yet he does so in such a classy way that you’ll never feel dirty, nor does the artistic nature of the film ever feel pretentious. In fact, many of the scenes that use arthouse-like techniques are actually enhanced by them. The tricks aren’t just merely “tricks”; they help along the intended meaning of every scene they’re used in. This was Shunya Ito’s first ever film, so seeing the restraint shown with when to use certain techniques to create impact and not going overboard is truly astounding.
Visually, the film is awe-inducing, and it doesn’t just come from the artistic flourishes. The set designs, especially during Matsu’s ruminations on her past, are amazing. Through sparse set-pieces and theatre-style lighting, they come off looking like sets from a play, yet fit perfectly with the “flashback” tone these scenes are going for, and it never feels contrived. Likewise, throughout the film there is some amazing eye candy to be had, from trippy lighting, on-rail camera movement, and painted skyscapes. You’ll quickly realize you’re watching a film that transcends the genre it’s a part of.
As much of an imprint Shunya Ito left on this film, it’s really Meiko Kaji’s show. As far as I’m concerned, the Scorpion character is just as iconic and influential as Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of The Man With No Name, and if the part had gone to anyone other than Kaji, this probably wouldn’t be the case. Even though the character only speaks a handful of lines throughout the film, Kaji commands the screen with a wealth of mannerisms and body language that conveys the characters range of emotions, and you’re never really left to wonder what she’s feeling or thinking inside. In this case, actions definitely speak louder than words.
Through all of this high-praise, you may forget this is a Pinky Violence film. Even with all of the upscale elements on display, the film delivers in both the violence and the “pink”. There’s an ample amount of bloodshed in the film, including a shovel to the back that results in a wicked blood geyser, as well as some catfights, gunshot and stab wounds, and an unfortunate incident with a shard of glass and an eye. On the sex side of things, you’ll get to see a lot of topless young ladies parading around (you didn’t forget this was a Women-in-Prison film, did you?), and a couple of sex scenes, although only a certain scene with Matsu and an undercover woman officer is of the titillating variety. For the Meiko Kaji fans out there, this is the only film where you’ll find any nudity from the actress. And just like most of the other aspects here, even the sexual nature of the film isn’t conventional, as some of the inmates eventually turn the tables and force themselves on the male guards.
An original in every way, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a true masterpiece, and along with the two Shunya Ito directed sequels, is the benchmark for the Pinky Violence genre. For those looking to experience Pinky Violence for the first time, there’s no better place to start than here. Cult cinema doesn’t get much better, or influential, than this.
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