By the late 1960s, the vengeance genre was taking off on the big screen. In the West, offshoots of westerns like The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and Django (1966) established the vigilante narrative as a box-office draw, while loosened Production Code restrictions ushered in heightened and stylized ultraviolence, as seen in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch at the end of the decade. This was merely a delayed response to the noir-centric ronin pictures that Japan had been putting out ever since Akira Kurosawa picked up a camera. In these, a samurai is often pitted between warring clans, acting as an agent of justice on behalf of an innocent soul, and/or struggling to find his purpose in a world that has “advanced” beyond the warrior code he holds himself to. Vigilante films went on in North America to function as a defense of white patriarchy; think back to all of those punks and hoodlums that met the hammer of Charles Bronson’s street justice in the Death Wish films, or in Eastwood’s Dirty Harry joints—what class did these threats mostly come from? What ethnicity were they, usually? What sort of social deviations were thrown into the mix? But an interesting schism erupted, a mutation with lurid exploitation elements that, while inherently problematic, worked to flip the script on big-screen gender norms: the rape-revenge film.
Sometimes set in prison, other times set in a peaceful rural everytown, the rape-revenge film assumes two things: that power imbalances exist everywhere that allow men to get away with treating women as objects, and that the only way to get true, cathartic justice is to circumvent the law of the land. Black exploitation cinema of the 1970s made Pam Grier a star through these and more general revenge plots, acknowledging racial,class, and gender hatred to drive its gun-toting brand of retribution. Throughout four feature films spanning three short years, the saga of Nami Matsushima unpacks the concepts of violation, revenge, and justice in an epic sprawl of stylized bloodshed.
A Scorpion retrospective is incomplete without explicit due praise to its running star, Meiko Kaji. Before she headlined the Scorpion series, Kaji starred in Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) and was a staple of the Stray Cat Rock films of 1970-71, a series meant to compete with the Toei Company’s Delinquent Boss entries that dominated the Japanese box office for half a decade. Following the Female Prisoner series, Kaji starred in another classic J-revenge franchise, Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood films. Throughout them all, the Tokyo native holds the frame with a sleeping giant doggedness that Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to three decades later, in his creation of The Bride (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill. Beatrix Kiddo is a far more talkative iteration than her Japanese predecessor, but the stiff-upper-lip stoicism and immaculate strategy-making remains.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1970)
“To be deceived is a woman’s crime.” – Yami
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is, at its heart, a women-in-prison film. Shunya Itō’s first feature as a director begins with a sizable male prison staff holding a formation ceremony to receive accolades for upholding the rule of law. A siren interrupts the warden’s speech; someone has made a break for it. Specifically, Yukiko (Yayoi Watanabe) and Kaji’s Nami have made it past the facility wall. The women are caught, beaten, and sent right back to prison. As the credits roll, Meiko Kaji flexes further: her title song, “Urami Bushi” plays over vignettes of the women prisoners who are forced to navigate an exercise gauntlet fully nude while their sadistic guards leer lasciviously, recalling the deafening procession of faceless schoolchildren as they march towards the meat grinder of the state in Pink Floyd: The Wall. Within four minutes, Itō establishes both the systemic power imbalance and the vigilante motivation; this is clearly not a hierarchy where brutality can be resolved by filing a complaint.
That prison brutality is as de rigeur for the subgenre as it is for the likes of The Last House on the Left; Nami is routinely beaten, kicked, and sexually assaulted with batons. It’s just after a beating that her story gets screen time. Her detective boyfriend Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi) sets her up as a pawn in a drug-smuggling ring; a group of thugs ultimately gang-rape her before Sugimi comes in—not to save her, but to score the yakuza bribe he was looking for. She lies on the floor, her clothes in tatters, her ravaged body lying in a piercing spotlight. The scene is shot primarily from a bird’s eye view and from below, both heaven and hell watching the events unfold and waiting for her to pick a side. Sugimi clearly knows that he will get away with treating Nami as he did, and that there is no legal recourse for her if she were to speak out against a celebrated detective. As she says later, “To be deceived is a woman’s crime.” She does not wait to be fooled twice before vowing to herself that she will not be fooled again.
After Sugimi callously tosses money at her for her troubles and laughs at her plight, Matsushima rolls over to her back. Cinematographer Hanjiro Nakazawa stylizes Nami’s metamorphosis from victim to angel of vengeance with blood-red underlighting signaling her coiled rage. It’s here that the film’s manga origins (by Tōru Shinohara) assert themselves; every major moment is concentrated in an EC Comics-style delivery, visually similar to the shocking primary color backlighting during the climaxes of Creepshow’s eerie segments. Following a knife attack on her now-ex-boyfriend, Matushima finds herself in prison.
Back to the present, Nami is shot in cold isolation as she sits hogtied in solitary confinement following her failed escape. The icy blue spotlight through the cell bars is a cosmic eye that watches but doesn’t interfere, a sentiment also reflected by the observational deity in The Exorcist III – always watching, never acting. It is up to Matsushima to decide her own fate, and she does.
For the rest of the film, it is open season on anyone who wrongs Nami or her allies. The punishments against her are swift and severe: more beatings, starvation, and a special gem known as “The Devil’s Punishment”, but it doesn’t matter; standing at the bottom of that hole, Matsu is both overwhelmed and threatening. The camera waltzes around her as she digs in a futile, Sisyphean effort. Without uttering a syllable, Kaji stares straight ahead and works her hands to the bone. She is unstoppable, and her fury quietly fuels her.
One by one, Nami knocks wrongdoers off of her list. She scalds a woman prison aide who taunts and starves her. She causes a fall that breaks another prison mate’s neck. Following a revolt that leaves her lesbian lover dead, Nami escapes once again and embarks on a revenge kill montage that predates that of The Godfather by two years—yet it’s just as iconic.
In the same way that men and women alike are constantly caught off-guard by Nami’s grit and determination, so do the Female Prisoner films subvert expectations. Women characters, including the bad ones, consistently get more depth than any male character. Men are caricaturized as sunglass-wearing, center-framed authoritarians (all shot like the highway patrolman in Psycho), whereas the femme antagonists achieve precious on-screen seconds to explain who they truly are. On the other hand, the lesbian love story is dripping with the gaze of a male fantasy, and (spoiler) the death of Nami’s discreet lover is purely used to motivate Nami’s revenge spree. Matthew Leyland of Sight & Sound (vol. 17 no. 2) found difficulty reconciling “the sustained, glib emphasis on female torment” with feminist readings of the film, a disappointing but unsurprising judgement from a binary critical culture that insists that films can either be feminist or not, with no in-between. A more thorough reading is comfortable with the uncomfortable, pointing out subversive ideas and representations within a film that also sensationalizes brutality against women. This makes the lasting legacy of the Female Prisoner Scorpion series more digestible.
Jailhouse 41 (1972)
“We will treat you like a human… just for today.”
If #701 lyrically overturns social norms of representation, then its sequel, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 turns the volume up to eleven. The opening credits have Nami in solitary confinement once again, scraping the ground with a spoon in her mouth. “Urami Bushi” wails about the woman’s plight; juxtaposed with the heroine once again being oppressed, the song organically turns into a folk hero refrain. Indeed, the one-eyed warden from the first film sees which way the wind blows. He exposits that the prison has kept Nami in solitary for one year, but because an official was visiting the facility, the head of the prison has decided to give Nami the rare mercy of treating her “like a human.” But he has not forgotten how he lost his eye, and the emboldened power that someone like Nami can inspire among the ranks of criminals.
“The name Scorpion is rising,” he grumbles. “It will soon be the password of the riots.” To nip that in the bud, the jailer sends in a quartet of law dogs to gang-rape a restrained Nami—in full view of the prisoners. “Their idol will fall,” he grins. As the men jump onto the defenseless woman, the barking of prison dogs becomes indistinguishable from the laughing and growling of the rapists. The tactic works; the other women prisoners develop a collective disgust for their Scorpion.
In the transport truck, the other women descend upon Nami like a flock of birds and she is stomped out at every angle, with Ito’s gymnastic camerawork and Osamu Tanaka’s frantic editing working to disorient the viewer. During high-tension moments like a guard taking a shovel to the back of the head, spraying comically arterial blood, Itō holds the frame in suspended animation for a good five seconds at a time, like a frozen tableau, before allowing the story to advance again. These formal flourishes further the presentation of Nami as a sort of demi-goddess, departing from the more straightforward storytelling of the first film.
Twenty-five minutes in, the women rally behind Nami when she incapacitates a guard and they all make their escape as the movie proper begins. Across pallid blue terrains, the flock swoops and dives across the land with all of the steely-eyed swagger of the Seven Samurai. One thing has stayed the same, however: each woman gets a story. Here, a woman sings a song that delivers all of the exposition of Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango” with none of the cheek and twice the gravity:
Women commit crimes because of men
driven by love, hate, and jealousy
Listen to my story
of those seven lustful girls.
The first one, she hated her unfaithful husband.
It drove her to kill her children.
The second one, she had a son by a former marriage.
Her lover bullied him, so she killed him.
The third one, she hated her lover’s wife so much
that she fatally poisoned her.
The fourth one, she sold herself to several men.
It caused quarrels and bloodshed.
The fifth one, she was jealous of other’ happiness.
It drives her to set things on fire.
The sixth one, her father tried to violate her.
It drove her to kill her own father.
The seventh one…
The seventh one is Nami herself, a mysterious lone lamb who only became a wolf when she was thrown into a lion’s den. In the woods, Nami is witness to an old woman’s death. At the final moment, a bold purple light makes the body glow while autumn leaves dance in a furious swirl around the pair, eventually covering the body entirely. In the old woman’s hand is a knife, which Matsushimi takes. The body disappears, the forest turns dark and monochromatic. Nami, now the Scorpion, slowly draws the blade before her eyes. Nature responds with a flurry of wind and a warm glow from the leaves. The cold figure she cuts is nothing short of phenomenal.
In keeping with proper sequel formula, strong elements of the first film get bigger, better amplification in the second. The scattershot phantasmic sequences of #701 amp up to a more consistent abstract vibe throughout Jailhouse 41. As the warden throws a prisoner’s child across the room, the chaos of the moment is captured in a series of snapshot frames, serving the film with the sobering realism of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. One nifty edit (again, Osamu Tanaka is in the cutting room) has Nami slashing a past assailant’s face, and the screen slashes open before transitioning to the next frame.
Women are dehumanized, yes, but the men aren’t exactly handled with kid gloves, either. One particular moment stands out, when a guard is impaled through the crotch with a large log. While the moment of impact is skipped, he gets a long, undignified focal push onto his face frozen in fear as well as the bloody remains of his manhood, scattered underneath the log like crushed rhubarb pie. The catharsis that comes with this vengeance is the kind that simply cannot be achieved with a quick, clean bullet. For the intensity and sheer offense of rape and torture, the bodies of these patriarchs are violated in kind – this is why the foul resolution of The Last House on the Left is more satisfying than the courtroom justice served in The Accused. As with most rape-revenge movies, the returned violence is necessary. Jailhouse 41 is the strongest and most entertaining of the series entire.
Beast Stable (1973)
“Don’t fool yourself, she’s no ordinary woman.”
Ito, in his third and final collaboration with Meiko Kaji, wastes no time getting to the carnage. In a fresh twist that doesn’t require her to be raped as a prerequisite, Nami begins the film’s journey by drawing first blood; a cop chases her on the subway and handcuffs his hand to hers before she makes it out onto the platform. The woman brandishes a shining blade and immediately hacks his arm off at the door to free herself. Nami spends the entire opening credits sequence running through the train stations with a human arm dangling from her handcuffed wrist, a banger of an opening.
Beast Stable comes in hot with another sleazy plot. With Nami again out of prison and on the run from the authorities, most of the runtime is spent outside of the facility walls. Her “Wanted” posters are everywhere, amping up the legend of the Scorpion. She eventually takes refuge with Yuki, a sex worker with a mentally disabled brother who happens to be a rapist. Also, Yuki tries to quell his animalistic urges by voluntarily (out of necessity, not because she enjoys it) having sex with him regularly. She’s also pregnant. It’s Yuki and another woman whose ordeals inspire Nami’s latest spree of retribution; in fact, she kills an abortion doctor she never met before on someone’s behalf.
The abortion angle is a fascinating one in Beast Stable. In a parallel scene, a pregnant sex worker is taken to an abortion doctor against her will; the gang whose territory she sells herself on wills it. Restrained and screaming in pain and anguish (she wants to carry the fetus to term), a grinning medical professional dripping with flop-sweat unveils his tools and gleefully puts his hands on and in her body. At the same time, Yuki voluntarily undergoes a D&C procedure in a quiet, somber environment. Both are juxtaposed as heavy personal ordeals, but one is not given agency over her body and so it is the more shocking of the pair. The nuances of such a monumental decision gets more screen time in 1973 than most American films had for the whole decade.
Cinematographer Masao Shimizu handles scene compositions with dizzying deftness. Making liberal use of negative space and/or darkness, Nami is constantly shot to accentuate her loneliness, a vulnerability she didn’t quite display in the first two films. Hyper-sensitive editing removes frames from climactic events to achieve a disjointed effect, similar to the shootout sequence of Michael Mann’s Manhunter. As another proto-Godfather montage occurs wherein bad men are dispatched in an alley, a movie theater, and a car wash, the Scorpion has cemented herself as a femme John Wick. By the second film she has achieved icon status within the film’s universe, but by the third film, her legend precedes her presence and she has hardened criminals quaking in their silk slippers.
As she sits before a backdrop of burning “Wanted” posters of her, Nami breaks the fourth wall as Kaji croons the mourning wail of “Urami Bushi”:
I cannot die before I fulfill my fate
so I live on, driven only by my hate
A woman’s life is her song
her song of vengeance.
Grudge Song (1973)
The final entry in the Scorpion series is helmed by Yasuharu Hasebe, and this makes sense, considering that the Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song is structurally and tonally different from its three predecessors. Grudge was Hasebe’s first foray with Toei, but not his first time working with Meiko Kaji. The two had previously collaborated on three Stray Cat Rock films before he replaced Shunya Itō in the final chapter of the saga. What ensues is not another rape-revenge film, but a Poliziotteschi with a vengeance plot squeezed in. With detective Hirose (Hiroshi Tsukata) hot on her trail, the Scorpion tradition of near-feral male authority figures abusing their power stands strong.
Another departure comes in the form of a male accomplice: Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), who does support work in a peep show club, rescues Nami from the cops’ clutches. A militant radical with a rap sheet, he provides refuge from stool pigeons and detectives alike. Threats plague their alliance up until the end credits roll.
In Hasebe’s re-calibration of the convicted heroine’s story, Kudo’s role ends up overshadowing that of the star. While all of the films have socio-political commentary, Grudge Song directly comments on student uprisings of the decade in addition to gross law enforcement overreach. Kudo, a dedicated participant in protests, is traumatized from his trials and tribulations with the law. It is his struggle with authority that takes center stage, while Nami’s wounds from her brushes with police have muted her near-mythic power and agency. While the choice to add a male sidekick is a historically fresh one in the film series, Scorpion is at her strongest when in cahoots with other women or on her own. Here, our girl Nami is an afterthought in her own story.
The Female Prisoner Scorpion films are both feminist and not feminist. Originating with a woman radicalized by scorn and rape (not good) but doling out extrajudicial justice to systemically-enabled abusers (good), critical circles will dissect these films for ages. Through the ambitious swings of a director refusing to resign himself to churning out tick-the-box jailhouse sleaze and an incredible set of performances by 70s genre giant Meiko Kaji, the legacy of the Scorpion is an outstanding top-tier chapter in rape-revenge exploitation cinema, doing just as Kaji moans, in “Urami Bushi”:
No flower would bloom on my dead body,
so I will live along hanging on my grudge.