Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41
(Joshuu sasori: Dai-41 zakkyo-bo) (1972)
Directed by Shunya Ito

Artistic Value: * * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * * *

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Synopsis Matsu (Meiko Kaji), better known as Scorpion, a troublesome prisoner serving her sentence in a women's prison, is being held in solitary confinement, but when the warden receives an important visitor, she is brought out to be inspected. Once facing the warden, Matsu tries to stab him in the eye, an action that inspires the other prisoners to start a riot. Once this has been quelled, the warden, to punish the women for their misbehavior, sends them to a quarry to do heavy labor. At the same time, he has Matsu bound to a stake and allows the guards to gang rape her. She endures this assault and, while on the way back to the prison in a paddy wagon, manages to escape with the other prisoners in the vehicle. They flee into the nearby mountains, but their troubles do not end. Not only are they subsequently chased by the police, but they also encounter a group of tourists, who rape and murder one of their number, prompting the women to hijack the bus and try to use it, and its passengers, who are now their hostages, to escape.

Shunya Ito's sequel to Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 might not be a masterpiece, but it is an astonishing film. I can think of very few cinematic works that have impressed me as much as it has. Within the framework of an exploitation film, filled with various dark, brutal, and vicious crimes, Ito has brought together countless moments of such incredible or strange beauty that they lift his narrative out of the realm of ordinary experience and into that of legend.


The movie is certainly as harsh as is any ancient tale. The director has packed Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 with numerous grisly or sorrowful occurrences, which repeatedly show just how vile human beings can be. The movie is unremittingly grim. In one scene, for instance, when the escaped convicts are hiding in an abandoned town, Ito cuts away to a black screen, empty except for the seated, kimono draped forms of the prisoners and of an old woman. This latter then sings, in traditional Japanese style, of the crimes of the women, and of how women commit crimes because of men. The scene is like something from a No play and is unlike virtually anything found in cinema. It is both fascinating and affecting, stirring up, in the viewer's heart, an overwhelming awareness of the tragedies women have, throughout history, been made to endure. Later, on the tourist bus, a businessman is depicted recalling, with joy and laughter, the good old days of the Second World War, when he roamed through China raping, at gunpoint, any woman he desired. His comments so excite his fellows that they set upon their female tourist guide and begin fondling and petting her, much to her obvious displeasure. I cannot imagine how anyone could watch these events and not be repulsed. Then there is the scene wherein one of the prisoners, a wild and ferocious older woman, recounts how she, angered by her philandering husband, murdered him and her child, and jabbed a knife into her own stomach to kill the fetus she carried inside of her. The sequence is, at once, horrific, pathetic, and transcendent. The director actually transports the viewer into some mythical world where emotions are felt with a weird poignancy.

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It should be obvious from these comments that Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 is a violent, emotionally intense film. It is not, however, focused on the physical aspects of violence. Instead, the effects that acts of brutality have on those who endure them are consistently emphasized. There are, thus, few action sequences, no eviscerations or mutilations, and nothing is shown in close up. In place of such things, the director unveils the cruelty of existence. He shows, in particular, how men mistreat women. Matsu's suffering is exposed again and again, and the misery of her fellow prisoners is not neglected. Although these latter do victimize Matsu herself, it is clear throughout that their cruelty is a result of desperation and anguish. They have been made to suffer so intensely that their humanity has, at least to some degree, been sacrificed.

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As appealing as these elements are, they alone would not have been enough to make the movie into a masterpiece. Fortunately, they are enhanced by some of the most enthralling images I have encountered in cinema. Visually, the movie is often stylized and it is invariably gorgeous. Over and over again, Ito conjures up one incredible tableau after another, so that, within a short time, the viewer is left genuinely awed by the strange, otherworldly universe into which he has been plunged. There are, in fact, so many astonishing moments in Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 that mentioning only a few of them hardly conveys a sense of what the movie contains. In one scene, Matsu stands in a forest of golden leaved trees while a wind whips her hair up about her head. In another, after a trio of businessmen, having raped and killed one of the women, throw her corpse over a cliff from which a waterfall spills, the waters start to flow bright red. Not only are these scenes beautifully staged, but they are beautifully filmed. At different times, the director zooms in on his heroine's wrathful face, lets various faces rush past the camera as though caught up in a whirlwind, or simply catches the beauty or the beautiful ugliness of some location.

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Lastly, I must commend Meiko Kaji for her performance. The actress probably does not speak a dozen words in the whole of the film, but she conveys such an intensity, and has such an amazing presence, that the viewer is both captivated by her and affected by her feelings, which are always entirely clear. Her terrible, almost deranged anger is especially present. It is virtually a character in its own right and inhabits nearly the whole of the movie.

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Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 is a beautiful, touching, cruel, and ferocious film, and watching it is an experience that should not be missed.

Review by Keith Allen

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