Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Obi-Wan and the Scorpion in Japanese Prisons

I saw two very different prison films in September. Both featured Japanese captors but other than that, there wasn't much in common.

The Bridge on the River Kwai starring William Holden, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa; directed by David Lean; (1957)
Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion starring Meiko Kaji; Japanese with subtitles; directed by Shunya Itō; (1972)


The Bridge on the River Kwai was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won seven including Best Picture. I can't add much to the record regarding this film. I enjoyed Guinness' performance as the implacable British POW commander with an impossibly stiff upper lip. There was a memorable scene between Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa as the camp commandant which was masterfully staged. In the scene, Guinness's Colonel Nicholson realizes that he has beaten Hayakawa's Colonel Saito in a contest of wills and gradually assumes the dominant position during their conversation.

I have learned that the iconic "Colonel Bogey March" was well known to Brits who lived during WWII. During the war, the British sang a ditty set to the tune of "Colonel Bogey March."

Hitler has only got one ball,
Göring has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim'lar,
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all.


Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion is less well known to Western audiences but is one of the seminal films in the "Women in Prison" subgenre of Japanese Pinky Violence films. For the uninitiated, here is a primer for Pinky Violence.

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion was screened as part of week long J-Pop Summit at New People. The film was preceded by a TokyoScope talk by Patrick Macias. During his presentation, Macias screened clips from the following films.

Female Slave Ship; (1960)
Lady Yakuza - Red Peony Gambler; (1968)
Playgirl; (1969)
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter; (1971)
Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom; (1973)
Female Yakuza Tale: Inquisition & Torture; (1973)
Zero Woman- Red Handcuffs; (1974)
Rica The Mixed-Blood Girl; (1972)
Sukeban Deka - The Movie; (1987)
Wives of the Yakuza; (1986)
Lady's Documentary; (1990)
Majisuka Gakuen; (2010)
Hard Revenge Milly; (2008)

I list the films because I think I see the makings of Pinky Violence Film Festival...

I should acknowledge that there was a happy hour before Macias' talk which featured free food and drink provided by Haamonii Shōchū and a restaurant whose name I unfortunately cannot remember. I do recall the curry they served over rice was delicious.

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion is a revenge story akin to I Spit on Your Grave which coincidentally was remade recently. In Scorpion, Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) is a naive woman who is manipulated by her police detective boyfriend...manipulated into being raped by Yakuza gangsters. She tries to gain some frontier justice by killing her cop boyfriend but he survives and she is sent to a female prison that would break Linda Blair in two days. In the prison, she acquires the nickname Scorpion because she can strike from anywhere and her stinger hurts like hell. Among my favorites among her victims are the fellow prisoner she burns with hot soup while tied up on the floor of her prison cell (she yanks with her teeth a blanket the woman in standing on while holding the soup kettle), the undercover female guard sent into her cell as a mole who is converted into a Scorpion-crazed lesbian in a matter of minutes,

Director Shunya Itō has a flair for the artistic though. When Matsushima is raped, it is filmed from below through a sheet of glass. In another scene, a blood stain grows outward in a circular pattern to form the Japanese flag. After escaping from prison, the Scorpion dresses in a stylish black trench coat and floppy hat which serve as a sartorial counterpoise against her muderous intentions.

Make no mistake, Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion is as exploitative and grindhouse as any film I've seen. However, Itō adds enough flourishes to raise the film up a notch. Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion richly deserves its status among the great films of not just the Pinky Violence genre but exploitation films in general. The Scorpion would kick Foxy Brown's ass everyday of the week and twice on Sundays.

No comments: