The second instalment of Itô’s Female Prisoner series remains a fascinating film that deserves to be rediscovered for its wildly inventive portrayal of an uncommon, gutsy female rebel.
In Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, the second in a series of women’s prison films adapted from a violent manga by Toru Shinohara, the supremely cool Meiko Kaji, made famous by her role as a badass delinquent in the Stray Cat Rock films, stars as the implacable avenger Matsu – nicknamed Scorpion by her co-detainees. As Jailhouse 41 opens she is lying in a dreary basement cell in solitary confinement, from which she is taken out only to be hosed down, beaten and variously abused. But nothing can break Matsu, and after escaping with six other female prisoners, she leads them on a violent rampage, ruthlessly striking down the men who have wronged her.
The Female Prisoner series is often seen as part of the seventies wave of exploitation films, in particular the sub-genre of the Women In Prison flicks. However, while on paper the plot of Jailhouse 41 may sound like a flimsy excuse for bawdy bondage and Sapphic shenanigans, in fact the film contains very little in the way of exploitative material. For a start there is no nudity, and there is nothing remotely alluring or revealing about the shapeless striped dresses and grey woollen capes worn by the female convicts. Although there are two rape scenes in the film, in both cases very little flesh is exposed, the female victims fully retain their dignity, and it is not long before the most horrifying punishment is meted out to the bestial perpetrators.
In fact, rather than showing scantily clad women in salacious situations this is a film that takes every opportunity to depict the abject humiliation of as many male authority figures as is possible in the course of 90 minutes. The rapists are beaten up, stripped, and even, in one truly grisly scene, emasculated. Early on in the film Matsu’s violent outburst against the Warden frightens the visiting Head of Prisons so much that he pitifully wets his pants before being stripped of all his clothes by a crowd of riotously guffawing female prisoners. This is most definitely not exploitation as we know it.
Paradoxically Jailhouse 41 has also been described as a feminist film. It is true that director Shunya Itô’s vision is highly polarised. While all the male characters are without exception self-important cretins, the women’s crimes were acts of self-defence or retaliation against abusive men. Each of their stories is told by a narrator in a striking theatrical interlude, the traditional music and dress and the bare setting giving poignancy and gravitas to the women’s tragic tales. While the women also display less than pleasant sides – the aggressive Haru in particular – absolutely nothing redeems any of the men and it is clear that Ito’s sympathy lies with his female characters.
Yet this is no feminist manifesto, as Itô himself explained in an interview conducted on the occasion of the French release of the DVD. Rather, he said, it was about creating the ‘ultimate rebel’. Ito therefore uses a gender opposition to explore another kind of conflict -rebels versus authority. In Jailhouse 41 all the women are outlaws while all the men are connected to some kind of institutional authority – they are prison wardens, policemen, businessmen. Let’s remember that at the time Japan was still a deeply misogynistic society where power remained the almost exclusive preserve of men while women were confined to a subservient role. In that context the ultimate rebel has to be a woman, someone who by her very gender is the polar opposite of authority. What Itô’s heroine is fighting is less gender oppression than the larger social order of which it is a part, and the brute moronic force used to maintain it.
That Jailhouse 41 is not a feminist film is confirmed by the shocking absence of female solidarity in the group of escapees. While Matsu’s violent attack against the Warden first galvanises the other female prisoners into open revolt, they soon turn against her, and over the course of the film, betray, abuse and savagely beat her. Matsu is therefore no symbol for women’s revolt but a lone rebel too radically different to fit into any group. For Itô, the ultimate rebel is no social reformer fighting to improve the plight of her community but a fiercely individualistic outsider.
Aloof and apart from all, Matsu never speaks – she utters no more than one line in the whole film. This is a departure from the original manga in which the heroine rained down streams of obscenities on her enemies. As that was unacceptable to Meiko Kaji, Ito and the actress decided that Matsu would remain silent. Born out of necessity, this is a great touch that considerably enhances the charisma of the character. Wordlessly darting lethal arrows of cold reproof out of her coal-black eyes, Matsu seems possessed of an uncommon force. What’s more, while the other women’s crimes are revealed in the theatrical interlude, Matsu’s is not. As no cause is ever given for her imprisonment, she becomes an almost abstract embodiment of pure revolt. Her silence and the deep mystery surrounding her raise her above the mere human, projecting her straight into the realm of the mythical.
This mythical aspect is emphasized by the weird, unreal landscapes through which Matsu leads the escaped convicts – desolate no-man’s lands, barren, moon-like hills of stone, and a ghost town covered in volcanic ash. The violence of the story irrupts into nature and a waterfall turns red after a brutal murder while sumptuous autumnal woods turn wintry to mark the death of a tragic old woman. The music, recalling Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks, underlines the film’s affinities with the cool detachment, anarchic spirit and offbeat sense of tragedy of Sergio Leone’s westerns.
The protracted final show-down, shot in a crude, cartoonish style, is a rather disappointing and unsatisfying denouement, rendering the violence comical and therefore ineffective, which significantly diminishes the impact made by Matsu’s character. Despite this, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 remains a fascinating film that deserves to be rediscovered – not because it inspired Quentin Tarantino’s ridiculously overrated Kill Bill but for its wildly inventive portrayal of an uncommon, gutsy female rebel.