Itô’s psychedelic, offbeat direction makes his Female Prisoner films much more than politically aware exploitation movies, positioning them somewhere closer to art-house cinema than to some of their crass, demeaning counterparts in the genre.
Raped by a gang of yakuza, sacrificed and betrayed by the corrupt cop that she innocently gave her virginity to, Nami Matsushima (played by the stunning Meiko Kaji) finds herself in a women’s prison, watched over by monstrous guards determined to crush her indomitable, vengeful will. Matsu, nicknamed Scorpion by her fellow inmates, seeks not only revenge on the men responsible for her fall from grace, but justice for her tormentors within the prison walls.
This is the premise for Shunya Itô’s debut film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), the first in a series released by Toei in the 1970s as part of the ‘Pinky Violence’ line the studio developed to attract declining audiences back to the cinema. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion ticks all of the requisite boxes of classic exploitation cinema, in particular the sub-genre of Women in Prison films that also flourished in America and Europe: violence, nudity, rape, bondage, lesbianism and catfights. Yet, Shunya Itô’s contribution to the genre (he also directed the following two films in the series) defies easy categorisation.
Genre and exploitation films offered young, radicalised directors like Itô a vehicle for subversive messages about Japan’s entrenched patriarchal society. Itô’s pointed, sarcastic criticism appears in the film’s opening shot: a Japanese flag is raised at a ceremony to commend the sadistic prison guards for their (anything but) honourable service to their country. A banner draped down the side of a building in a later shot celebrates the ‘Beautiful Soul and Harmony of Japan’. In contrast, the prison guards are presented as little more than animals, who routinely brutalise the female inmates, meting out collective punishment when the women fail to submit to their undeserved authority. When the prisoners riot, their demands for an end to slave labour, torture and beatings are met by a categorical refusal by the demented warden, who sees any sort of negotiation with them as entirely unacceptable.
In contrast to the villainous, grotesque men (and some of the women) in the film, Matsu is always quietly composed and dignified; she mostly keeps her clothes on, and in her only lesbian scene, she cleverly uses her charms to seduce a mole planted by the male authorities. Even when causing the violent death of her enemies, Matsu is nothing but elegant in extracting her revenge.
Itô’s psychedelic, offbeat direction makes his Female Prisoner films much more than politically aware exploitation movies, positioning them somewhere closer to art-house cinema than to some of their crass, demeaning counterparts in the genre. Matsu’s rape scene is filmed on a Perspex floor, with the camera shooting the grotesque faces of her attackers; another stand-out scene bathed in nightmarish blue light sees an enraged, demonic fellow prisoner attempt to stab Matsu with a piece of broken glass in the communal baths; while during a prison revolt the painted sky burns blood red. Although Itô’s exaggerated, cartoon-like style can sometimes seem a little crude, and the un-synched sound effects are comical, there’s an undeniable sophistication in the filmmaking that matches Kaji’s performance. Itô and Kaji made a formidable team in the trilogy of Female Prisoner movies they created together (Kaji made one last Female Prisoner film in 1973, directed by Yasuharu Hasebe), and the result is a film that plays out not so much for a male audience in search of titillation as for a female audience bent on its own liberation.