Shunya Itô’s third film in the acclaimed Female Prisoner series is a heady mix of fierce attitude, visual potency, and unflinching violence.
Shunya Itô’s third film in the acclaimed Female Prisoner series is a heady mix of fierce attitude, visual potency, and unflinching violence. While the series was later sullied by an inferior director who made a number of second-rate sequels, Itô here creates a stylish slice of Japanese exploitation cinema that also helped cement the fiendishly cool Meiko Kaji’s status as an iconic screen siren.
Since escaping from prison, life on the run hasn’t been easy for Scorpion. After an outrageous opening sequence in which she hacks the arm off the steely-eyed Detective Kondo to avoid capture, Scorpion finds refuge with Yuki, a tragic and desperate prostitute who personally satiates her brain-damaged brother’s sexual appetites to keep him in order. Attempting to live a modest and inconspicuous life, Scorpion is soon in the clutches of a vicious prostitute gang led by Katsu, an ex-cellmate drunk on power and in the mood for revenge. Drugged and locked in a cage with menacing crows for company, she wakes to find herself next to the body of an abused young prostitute, and thereafter seeks to escape and exact vengeance. Scorpion is certainly a formidable predator, skilfully despatching her enemies in the blink of an eye and never looking back. But will the determined Detective Kondo catch up with her before she has executed her deadly rampage?
Beast Stable is forthright in confronting taboo themes such as abortion and incest, yet Ito handles them deftly, creating affecting scenes without being overly gratuitous. One such scene juxtaposes two abortions so that the composure of one highlights the viciousness of the other. And although the women in the film suffer at the hands of brutish men, the puppet master is Katsu, the evil queen-style villainess who wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney film. In spite of her abhorrent cruelty, once stripped of her accoutrements and without the help of her henchmen her superficiality and weakness are exposed. This is in stark contrast to the almost ethereal Scorpion, for whom action speaks louder than words. Indeed, Kaji barely utters two lines in the entire film and everything is communicated through the intensity of her eyes: they are her ultimate weapon, eventually sending Katsu round the bend.
There are moment when stunning cinematography lends the film a fairy-tale atmosphere, for instance, the fiery cascade of matches Yuki releases into the sewer; or the bird’s eye view of Scorpion and the dead prostitute lying face to face. This is further enhanced by Scorpion’s Houdini-esque feats. Even while on the run Scorpion is always imprisoned in some way, but each time she inexplicably escapes, and such narrative flaws only add to her mythology. A gentler side of Scorpion is also explored through an unlikely bond with Yuki. Solidarity is formed out of the adversity of the situation, but mutual trust gives rise to moments of unexpected tenderness, and as Yuki becomes instrumental in Scorpion’s fight for survival, Scorpion seems to give Yuki strength, even if her future looks bleak.
Despite sitting comfortably in the niche market of 70s exploitation, Beast Stable is also surprisingly restrained yet inventive, and still feels fresh today. What it lacks in explicit violence it makes up for in style. No wonder then that it has its part in influencing contemporary filmmakers (I won’t mention any names). Beast Stable has enough bite to stand independently, but fall under its spell and it won’t be long until you seek out its predecessors.