Category Archives: Check it out

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

Female Prisoner Scorpion 2
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Part of Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection limited edition box-set

Release date: 8 August 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Shunya Itô

Writers: Shunya Itô, Fumio Kônami, Hirō Matsuda

Based on a manga by: Toru Shinohara

Cast: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi, Yukie Kagawa

Original title: Joshû sasori: Dai-41 zakkyo-bô

Japan 1972


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.

Virginie Sélavy

This review was first published in February 2007 in connection with the DVD release of Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 by Eureka Entertainment.

Branded to Kill

Branded to Kill
Branded to Kill

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 February 2007

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Writers: Hachiro Guryu (aka Group of Eight)

Cast: Jo Shishido, Mariko Ogawa, Annu Mari

Original title: Koroshi no Rakuin

Japan 1967

91 minutes

Quentin Tarantino’s main gift to the world of cinema in the last year or two was the wretched Hostel, of which the best I can say is that it spared me any nagging ambivalence by marrying political ineptitude with perfect aesthetic nullity. I mention this at the head of a review of Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill because, when he is not frittering away his credit by endorsing incompetent horror flicks, Tarantino is relentlessly re-building his stock by referencing cult classics whose relative unavailability safeguards him from embarrassing comparisons. Until now. This DVD release of Branded to Kill marks the latest instalment in a remarkable digital renaissance.

Branded to Kill is re-released in UK cinemas on 25 July 2014 by Arrow Films, followed by a dual format Blu-ray/DVD release on 18 August.

Hanada, number 3 killer, has to either kill or be killed; the only possible outcomes are die or become the new number 1. Nominally setting this in motion, but actually only giving the inevitable an eerie beauty, is Annu Mari’s Misako. Hanada botches the kill for which she hires him when a butterfly lands on his gunsight. Misako may be an instrument of Hanada’s fate: her apartment is full of nothing but pinned butterflies, and the ornament dangling from her rear-view mirror when he first meets her suddenly reveals itself as a canary pinned through the throat. Or she may be nothing of the sort. At any rate, Mari’s face, impassively luminous, shot through fountains, or head-on with an astonishing mixture of clarity and hangover bleariness, is the desireless object of desire around which everything revolves. Her torture by flame-thrower while tied to a sort of mobile crucifix, screened for Hanada’s benefit onto the back wall of her apartment, is one of the most astonishing scenes in a film of many breathtaking set-pieces.

Watching Suzuki’s delirious descent into the self-annihilating logic of the assassin, and the inevitability of desire, made me wonder: what is it that makes this film primary and Tarantino secondary? It is certainly not that Suzuki’s film has no sources and reference points of its own. The sharp suits, cool violence, claustrophobic spaces and chiaroscuro could easily be traced to American noir. And as in noir, the unadvisable yet irresistible, in the shape of Misako, liquor and tobacco, is very much to the fore. So why, beyond snobbery, do I not find Suzuki knowing and wannabe in the same way as a lot of Tarantino? One way into this would be Suzuki’s film’s relationship to commodities. Tarantino’s aesthetic is affluent to the point of being bloated: there is no sense of desperation or risk. Suzuki’s Japan, on the other hand, is aspirational with its Ray Bans and cigarettes, but it is also avid with austerity. A car that looks a bit like a Morris Minor trundles round a beach mowing down colleagues/adversaries in a battle with no apparent motivation beyond itself. The car, even then surely ridiculously, absurdly cute for the job, struggles up a dune towards a concrete blockhouse, presumably a second-world war coastal defence. One petrol-can later, the bunker is ablaze.

The scene encapsulates a clash of commodity and landscape that seems to me to inform the whole film. The blockhouse stands as a reminder of the recent past, of defeat, ruin and desertion. The car has been built from a British design under licence; the foundation of an automotive industry that will soon, but not yet, cap Japan’s post-war economic miracle. Beyond the ‘existential’ futility of a shoot-out between the numbered minions of a nameless organisation, there is another battle going on here, between fetishisation and pathos; between the desire for, and the humiliation by, imported glamour. The bottle of Napoleon brandy that glows centre-screen against a murky interior is there for one thing as the counterpart of Annu Mari’s femme fatale, but for another as a popular and longstanding Japanese tipple. But this is the flipside of Bill Murray’s abortive ads for Suntory Whisky in Lost in Translation. Suzuki neither mocks nor apologises for the bottle of Napoleon. His aesthetic imports the fatality of the commodity along with its glamour. Tarantino, on the other hand, imports nothing because his aesthetic already owns everything on the same flat plane of lazy availability.

There is a danger in this argument of casting commodification itself as an export from the west. The bottle of Napoleon as a normal feature of Japanese life is already a clue here. In another remarkable scene, Hanada takes out a hit with one shot in the blink of a giant mechanised cigarette lighter on an advertising hoarding. Does commercialization equate to Americanisation here? The subsequent American appropriation of Japan as the very source of grandiose advertising and media hyperreality, from Blade Runner to William Gibson, somewhat complicates this model. This re-release, and this review, are likewise testimony to a willing re-invasion from the east that is at once imperialistic and critical. The critical element depends on the fact that this film is, in all the senses I have been discussing, not simply ‘Japanese’; securely oriental and comfortably other. There are ‘Japanese’ elements in Suzuki’s film, but they are ones that do not allow me to simply orientalise. Hanada’s house takes the structure of the Japanese house to a level of abstraction approaching noirish delirium: the camera pans across a field of lengthy, too-close-together partitions that reduce the space to a series of brutally foreshortened corridors, broken only by a shower room and spiral staircase. The main indication that there is living space at all is provided by Hanada and his wife’s inventive and gymnastic lovemaking. The space that emerges is neither ‘authentically’ Japanese nor manneristically noir: it is a properly artful Japanese noir that reminds us, more forcefully than anything, that the American original was itself more than mere, easily appropriated mannerism.

Stephen Thomson