Director(s): Shun'ya Itô, Yasuharu Hasebe
Arrow Video USA

The world needs more Meiko Kaji in high definition, and Arrow Video USA fills that need with the complete FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION series on Blu-ray/DVD combo.

FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION is Nami Namishima or Matsu (Kaji), imprisoned after attempting to exact revenge on Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi, TIDAL WAVE), her narcotics officer lover who sent her to infiltrate a yakuza club but then betrayed her when the gang's boss cut him in on the action. Keeping to herself for three years, she soon earns the ire of the entire prison camp when her failed escape attempt with fellow prisoner Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe, SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST) coincides with the warden's (Fumio Watanabe, VIOLENCE AT NOON) commendation and he punishes the entire prison population (in addition to putting Nami and Yuki in solitary). The prison's aides – lead by Masaki (Yôko Mihara, SWORD OF THE BEAST) – enjoy relative comforts as enforcers and take charge of feeding and torturing Nami and Yuki; but bound Nami manages to severely injure sadistic aide Imune (Sue Mitobe, RED BEARD). Masaki's attempt on Nami's life ends her own when Mastu dodges her and the warden ends up with a glass shard in his eye. The warden then imposes "the devil's punishment" on Nami, forcing her to dig a pit without food or sleep as the other prisoners are forced to fill the pit in. Meanwhile, Sugimi and the yakuza decide to hire an assassin to kill Nami since she managed to survive her escape attempt and approach drug mule Katagiri (Rie Yokoyama, DISTANT THUNDER). When the inmates riot against their treatment and takes hostages, Katagiri manages to shift blame for their predicament onto Nami, and the warden is only too happy to let them vent their anger on her; but Nami will withstand any punishment in order to avenge herself on Sugimi and others who have wronged her.

Based on manga comic by Tooru Shinohara (ZERO WOMAN), FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION is an amazing cinematic experience. Whereas most women-in-prison films are gritty and generally reserve their more surrealistic touches for flashbacks, the first of the "sasori" series is a living, breathing, manga with striking canted compositions, split diopter shots, expressive cloudscape matte paintings suggestive of a watchful eye above the prison yard, slow motion graphic blood splatter from gouged eyes, split skulls, slashed skin, and gunfire. The film also employs theatrical transitions with revolving sets, hellish red and otherworldly blue lighting, and sudden applications of kabuki-style make-up to make characters look even more deranged and depraved. The most powerful weapon in director Shun'ya Itô's (WHITE SNAKE ENCHANTMENT) playbook, however, is Kaji's stoic beauty and deathly glare. Kaji does not don her trademark Sasori slouch hat and black trenchcoat until very late in the film, but the film keeps viewers in constant suspense as to just how much abuse she will take before striking out strategically like a viper to maim or kill one of her tormentors. "To be deceived is a woman's crime," and Nami is willing to take punishment so long as she has her justice.

And so, FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41 finds Nami in solitary for a year after her last escape and crime, with the warden announcing that he is being promoted but she will never get out. The warden has her hosed down and brought up to show the other prisoners and the visiting inspector general that Scorpion has been broken; but she manages to humiliate both men by having a go at the warden's other eye and emboldening the prisoners to wage another riot. The riot is quickly stifled but the prisoners now idolize Scorpion and even use her name as a code word in plans for future riots, so the warden decides the only thing to do is to humiliate her in front of the other prisoners via gang rape by the guards. Even though Nami is completely immobilized, the other female prisoners take blame her for not resisting. On the way back from hard labor at a nearby quarry, Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi, THE DEVIL'S BALLAD) – a Medea-like figure who drowned her toddler son and stabbed her unborn child out of hatred for her unfaithful husband – stirs a group of four other prisoners into a frenzy and they apparently beat Nami to death. When the guards investigate, Nami strangles and castrates one of the guards who raped her and the six women escape into the countryside. They manage to stay one step ahead of the manhunt as they take shelter in various derelict settings from a disused American army base to a hilltop cabin, but the warden gives his men orders to take any steps necessary to capture them. When three drunk and horny sightseers catch escapee Rose (Kuniko Ishii, ZATOICHI'S CONSPIRACY) at the waterfalls, they rape and accidentally kill her. The vengeful women then hijack the bus, torture the men and hold the other sightseers hostage, unaware that they are heading into a roadblock with plenty of firepower.

The theme of JAILHOUSE 41 is that "women commit crimes because of men" and early on in the escape, the women come across a mad and abandoned knife-wielding old hag (ONIBABA's Fudeko Tanaka) who theatrically recites the crimes of the "six sinful women" floating in the darkness. Whereas the first film utilized kabuki theatrical techniques, JAILHOUSE 41 plays at times like one of the more surrealistic spaghetti western from the compositions – including Nami crucified to a dead tree – to the score. The surrealistic touches are even more impressively, including the death of the old woman and the bus carriage splitting behind the women and falling away as the tormented passengers take on the personas of the juries that committed them; these women do not need to be broken by the prison, they are already broken however defiant (we do not learn the names of the other prisoners until just before or after they meet their deaths). Although Kaji commands the frame throughout, Shiraishi's Oba is a compelling figure who is completely mad yet not unsympathetic even at her most treacherous (it helps that the establishment figures are even more odious). The finale is more satisfying for than the first once Kaji dons the Scorpion garb and takes revenge in an even more merciless fashion than the first film.

FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: BEAST STABLE changes up the formula with Nami on the run after the conclusion of the first film. Having seemingly achieved some sense of justice, Nami racks up new enemies starting with the pre-credits hacking off of the arm of Detective Kondo (Mikio Narita, GRAVEYARD OF HONOR) when he cuffs her aboard a subway train. Running through the city with a severed arm cuffed to her own, she is eventually discovered hiding out in a cemetery by Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe again) who works as a prostitute to support herself and her brain-damaged brother who she also allows to have sex with her to keep him calm. Nami takes a job as a seamstress and an attic apartment where she catches the eye of yakuza man Tanida (Takashi Fujiki, PALE FLOWER) who blackmails her into sex. When a neighbor tells his mistress about them, she attempts to disfigure Nami with boiling water but accidentally douses her boyfriend instead. When he dies of his injuries, she blames Nami who is dragged before the boss to be put to work as a prostitute for compensation until she discovers that the boss' mistress is former cellmate Katsu (Reisen Ri, SUMMER SOLDIERS) who instead drugs her with heroin and tosses her into her oversized cage of carnivorous birds where she witnesses the depraved tortures Katsu dreams up to keep her prostitutes in line. When Katsu forces one of her prostitutes to have an abortion and the girl dies from the back alley operation, Nami escapes and takes revenge on the girl's behalf by going after the drunken doctor and then the gangsters. One-armed Kondo offers to team up with the gang in order to capture Nami, but she proves elusive and the increasingly unbalanced Katsu decides to turn herself in for pimping and serve time rather than be killed on the outside. Nami is chased into the sewer and hides out there with the help of Yuke until the girl – who also had an abortion after being impregnated by her brother – is arrested and tortured into giving up Nami's whereabouts; but Nami is not about to go down without a fight.

Largely devoid of the surrealistic cinematographic and optical touches of the first two films, FEMALE PRISONERS: BEAST STABLE starts out kind of dull with a slow build-up following the gory teaser (and the striking image of Nami as cemetery ghoul holding Kondo's severed arm in her mouth while trying to saw through the cuffs against a headstone). However perverse the nature of the relationship between Yuki and her brother, her backstory pads the running time until her more functional role in the third act. Katsu, on the other hand, seems at first like a flamboyant-looking but uninteresting female foil to Nami but her increasing fear of Nami, guilt, and eventual madness is compelling to watch and plays a part in the satisfying "kill two birds" climax which should have been the series send-off it was meant to be by director Itô. Kaji and Toei were eager to continue the series, and she recommended Yasuharu Hasebe (ASSAULT! JACK THE RIPPER) from Nikkatsu – where he directed Kaji in RETALIATION and three of the STRAY CAT ROCK films – to take over the series. The resulting film FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: GRUDGE SONG would be the series' final entry, and it is pretty obvious from the results.

Having served her sentence for a different crime under a different name, Nami has made a life for herself until she is arrested at the wedding of some new friends by Inspector Kodama (Yumi Kanei) who regards her as "evil incarnate" who must be captured and punished to uphold "the dignity of the state." Nami manages to escape custody during transport and murders and maims several more cops along the way. Wounded in the escape, Nami is found by Kudo (Masakazu Tamura, BLACK ROSE), a former student protestor who runs lights and sound for a strip club and lives a solitary life. Kudo, who was emasculated by sadistic cops and gave up his fellow student protestors under torture, shelters Nami in a junkyard hideout until a nosy stripper gives him up for a cash reward and he finds himself once again brutalized by Kodama who was his chief tormentor before. Kudo withstands beatings and is set free so the cops can follow him back to his hideout. Nami and Kudo escape the ensuing shootout and hold Kodama's pregnant wife hostage only to accidentally kill her when she attempts to escape. Kudo is captured again but Kodama wants Nami and leans on him to give her up. Betrayed again by a man she cared for, Nami finds herself in a different women's prison facing death-by-hanging but the warden – who only believes in repentance not rehabilitation and that her prisoners have nothing to offer the outside world – is willing to look the other way as Kodama and his fellow officers visit from time to time to beat Nami and rape the female guard who he feels is too soft on her. Nami tries to figure out how to escape the prison, but Kodama's hatred for her is so deep he has decided he wants to kill her himself.

GRUDGE SONG hits all the notes in terms of nudity, sexual violence, and gore, but it is otherwise a misguided mess. Although Hasebe states in one of the disc's accompanying extras that he has never expressed his political views on film and only took the anti-establishment tone with this film in keeping with Itô's previous entries, the protracted first act of the film seems to favor the motivations and emotional turmoil of Kudo while the women-in-prison section seems crammed into the remainder. Kaji's Nami is stoic as ever, but it seems out of character in the first place for her to have ever trusted a man again in order to be betrayed here and the climax lacks the visceral punch of the earlier films. Even if this one had been as good as the first three films, it is hard to image how the series would have continued.

Previously released on DVD stateside by Media Blasters and in the UK in a three-disc set minus GRUDE SONG, the four "Sasori" films come to Blu-ray combo from Arrow Video in an eight-disc combo set of four maxxed-out bitrate 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen encodes on BD50 (and high bitrate dual-layer DVDs). Transferred and restored in 2K from low-contrast 35mm prints newly-struck by Toei from the negatives, all four films sport filmic textures and motion but are grainy as hell thanks to the opticals, the anamorphic lenses (including a lot of telephoto lens shots), and the low-lighting looking very different from the Nikkatsu films of this era and budget. Each film sports clean LPCM 1.0 Japanese mono tracks highlighting the dialogue, some exaggerated sound effects, and the scores and feature optional English subtitles. Since the subtitles translate the theme songs during the opening credits, translation of the principal credits is included in separate video on each disc (fifty-five seconds each).

Extras are spread across the four discs – some of which are derived from a 2008 German DVD set of the series – and accumulate some redundancies in information as they progress. FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION's extras start off with an appreciation by Gareth Evans (24:34) in which he discusses his youthful encounter with film and Kaji, the stylistic differences between LADY SNOWBLOOD and the Scorpion series, and the influence of Ito's style on his own storytelling in THE RAID series. In "Shuna Itô: Birth of an Outlaw" (15:47), the director discusses his beginnings at Toei in the assistant director department and how his heavy involvement in the union during the turmoil of the late sixties had him on the outs with the management. The first Scorpion film was given to him for his directorial debut with Kaji already cast. The two did not get along at first, but he found they had in common her defiance and natural stubbornness, and reveals that it was Kaji herself who minimized her dialogue in favor of the Clint Eastwood-esque "Man with No Name" stoicism. In "Yutaka Kohira: Scorpion Old and New" (14:46), the assistant director also recalls the political turmoil of the sixties and how that colored Ito's dealings with the studio and his heavy reworking of the film's original script. Theatrical trailers for all four films are included here (3:03, 3:11, 3:08, and 3:14 respectively) and on the other three discs suggesting they may be released separately once the limited edition runs out.

JAILHOUSE 41 is accompanied by an appreciation by writer and film programmer Kier-la Janisse (28:03) who discusses the feminist aspects of the films, including the violence between women in the film, the sexual violence and the revenge-aspect. She compares Scorpion not so much to rape-revenge heroines (even though she is raped) but to Pam Grier's COFFY and Jeanne Moreau's THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (which is especially apt in terms of JAILHOUSE 41's third act twist). Although Jasper Sharp is usually the go-to guy for anything in Japanese cinema, his piece on Itô (10:29) here is not particularly informative. He makes a case for the surrealistic touches in the film as stemming from the original manga as Ito's subsequent filmography did not continue in this vein, although he is only going by the titles of some of these films since Ito's films were not widely distributed other than his GREY SUNSET which was submitted by Japan to the Oscars for best foreign film the same year that Akira Kurosawa's RAN was making a much larger impact (RAN was a French/Japanese co-production but it did win in other categories). "Tadayuki Kuwana: Designing Scorpion" (16:35) finds the art director discussing his collaboration with Ito and the films' cinematographers to achieve everything from the non-standard look of the prisons (based on Auschwitz rather than real Japanese prisons) and achieving the surreal imagery.

BEAST STABLE features an appreciation by writer Kat Ellinger (25:48) who discusses the influence of discovering Kaji on her own appreciation of spirited women in cinema, as well as Ito's blending of genre stylistics including those of horror and the influence of Scorpion on more overtly horrific works like those of Takashi Miike (AUDITION). "Shunya Itô: Directing Meiko Kaji" (17:32), Ito elaborates further on his initially adversarial relationship with Kaji and his admiration for her as he realized that she indeed embodied some of the characteristics he envisioned for the character. "Unchained Melody: A Visual Essay by Tom Mes" (21:30) finds the writer providing some much-need overall career context to Kaji starting with Nikkatsu trying to groom her into playing the sort of well-bred, submissive young love interest characters that populated their earlier works before she reinvented herself for the STRAY CAT ROCK series (she chose the wardrobe for those films, including those that would be incorporated into the Scorpion character), and her subsequent career starting with the Scorpion series after leaving Nikkatsu at the time when they were switching over to Roman Pornos.

GRUDGE SONG features an appreciation by Japanese director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (11:13) who first saw the Scorpion films condensed into a Toei BETA highlight reel tape and saw the full ones at university where they reshaped his perceptions of Kaji who he had only known from her later work in TV dramas. "Yasuharu Hasebe: Finishing the Series" (19:49) finds the director revealing that it was indeed Kaji who recommended him to continue the series, and that he is usually not a political filmmaker but wanted to adhere to Ito's approach with the earlier films. He also reveals that the character essayed by Akiko Wada was meant to be the protagonist but Kaji was the more magnetic personality. "Jasper Sharp on Yasuharu Hasebe" (16:54) is the more informative of Sharp's contributions to the set, covering Hasebe's career from assistant director under Seijun Suzuki, his early films including the Suzuki-like BLACK TIGHT KILLERS and the more conventional (for Nikkatsu) gangster films MASSACRE GUN and RETALIATION, as well as the STRAY CAT ROCK films, GRUDGE SONG, and his later Nikkatsu Roman Porno titles. "They Call Her Scorpion" (40:00) is another visual essay by Mes in which he discusses the trajectory of studios Nikkatsu and Toei in the context of Kaji's career, leaving the former when it moved towards Roman Pornos for the latter, as well as Kaji's other characters including WANDERING GINZA BUTTERFLY which proved less popular with the changing Japanese theater-going audiences of the period who favored anti-establishment characters over the film's heroic representatives of old Japan. Unlike the other three discs, GRUDGE SONG includes only the trailer for that film (3:14) and not the others. Not supplied for review were limited double-sided foldout posters for all four films, reversible sleeves, and the booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Chuck Stephens, a brand new interview with Toru Shinohara, creator of the original Scorpion manga and an archive interview with Meiko Kaji by Chris D. illustrated with original stills. (Eric Cotenas)