Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion
(Joshuu 701-go: Sasori) (1972)
Directed by Shunya Ito

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

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During a ceremony in which the warden (Fumio Watanabe) of a women's prison is receiving a commendation for his years of service, two of the inmates try to escape. After they are captured, the women are put in solitary confinement, but one of them, Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji), usually called 'Matsu,' remains rebellious. Though bound hand and foot, she manages to fight back when a fellow prisoner attempts to pour scalding soup on her - dumping the pot of boiling liquid on this individual instead. Later, after several guards have beaten and sexually abused her with their truncheons, Nami is taken from solitary, but her troubles do not end. She angers and injures another prisoner, who then chases the heroine around the communal showers (past numerous terrified and naked women) trying to stab her with a shard of glass. Nami, however, escapes from her, and she ends up accidentally driving her improvised dagger into the warden's eye. He, being a little irritated by this, and by Nami's truculent refusal to confess her misdeeds, starts punishing all the prisoners, having them repeatedly dig and fill holes in the ground. Nami endures such treatment, and the animosity many of her fellow inmates now feel for her, but she has ghosts from her past that are about to increase her worries yet further. She is in prison because of an attempt she made on the life of her former boyfriend, Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi), a corrupt policeman who callously tricked her into working undercover for him so that he could use the unsuspecting woman as a means to form a connection with a yakuza gang, and who even allowed the mobsters to rape her before he himself discarded her. Now, Nami's former lover and his yakuza associates, desiring to get rid of her so that she will not make trouble for them, hire one of her fellow prisoners to murder her. Unfortunately for them, Nami is very hard to kill and is, in fact, determined to escape and take her revenge on those who betrayed her.

Shunya Ito's Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a weird, beautiful, brutal, sexy, and captivating film.


Throughout most of its duration, the movie is suffused with a sense of harsh reality. The dark squalid cells filled with puddles of water into which Nami is repeatedly tossed are as frightening as are the locales of any nightmare. The prison generally, in fact, is a gloomy, miserable place, the unpleasantness of which is somehow intensified by the disturbingly beautiful images of it that Ito casts onto the screen. The man consistently captures the loveliness of the most grubby and loathsome of things. What is more, besides the rows of cells with their metal doors, the austere walled courtyard where the prisoners are gathered, and the sweatshop where they forced to work, and where some of them surreptitiously gamble, there are yet other details that make the place distinctly creepy. The viewer is, for example, shown how the women, having been stripped naked, are forced to ascend and descend flights of stairs while male guards ogle them lasciviously.

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The moviegoer's experience of the horrific nature of this grim, earthly hell is, however, made more intense by the occasional stylized moments Ito has included in his work. Early in the film, when the events that led to Nami's imprisonment are shown in flashback, Ito changes to an almost surreal style. First, he reveals Nami, naked but wrapped in white sheets, and Sugimi, the police officer she loved, before a featureless, bright blue backdrop. The man, unrolling the sheets concealing the woman, seduces her, at which point the screen is filled with a close up of the white cloth. A circle of blood then expands upon this (strongly implying that the man took Nami's virginity) until it resembles the Japanese flag. Next, when the woman's rape by group of yakuza is depicted, the scene is filmed from beneath a transparent floor. The devastated girl lies upon this while demonic, contorted male faces leer at her. The movie's strange, nearly supernatural sequences are not confined to these, however. When a fellow prisoner attacks Nami in the shower, the protagonist slams a door in her face, causing the glass window set in this to shatter and cut her assailant. Suddenly, the woman is transformed into a fiend whose bloodied countenance looks like it has been painted in the style of a Kabuki villain. Later, towards the end of the movie, the inmates start rioting, and the sky above them abruptly vanishes, to be replaced with a painting of an oppressive reddish cloud that tinges the actors with its grisly hue. Over and over again, the director takes the viewer away from this ordinary world into some personal inferno.


Fortunately, the realistic and stylized elements of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion alike contribute to the film's poignancy. The director skillfully uses these opposed means of presenting his fictional universe to expose the horrors of Nami's existence, to enhance the viewer's awareness of the cruel treatment she is given, and to make him feel the woman's terrible resolve, her unflinching determination to survive countless indignities so that she can have her revenge.

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The things the protagonist endures are, I might add, often dreadful. She manages to perform the most gruelling physical labors and survives several assaults and beatings. One of these near the film's end is especially intense. Nami, having angered her fellow prisoners by getting them punished for her transgressions, is captured by a group of rioting prisoners who hoist her up into the air, pummel her with sticks and shovels, and burn her with a heated light bulb. Shortly after this, one woman nearly sets her on fire (although it is this individual who is eventually burned alive). Admittedly, Nami is not always able to fight back, and is often compelled to take the abuse given her (which she does without flinching), but when she can resist, she does, and with considerable energy.


Obviously, much of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is lurid and exploitative, but its being so adds to its appeal. The director revels in creating a sense of brutality and allows the viewer to immerse himself in the grotesque, savage world conjured up on the screen. Even the film's sexuality increases this sense of sleazy, disreputable, and yet pleasurable darkness. Ito populates his movie with innumerable naked women, and most of his sex scenes are tinged with cruelty. Whether he is depicting Nami being raped or her and a fellow prisoner, having been put in a tiny cell together, engaging in a lesbian romp, he manages to give these moments a harsh, jarring sexiness.

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All of these qualities, admirable as they are in themselves, are made better by Ms Kaji's intense but nearly wordless performance. Thanks to her work, the moviegoer is sure to be affected by the tragedy of the protagonist's life. Having been horrified by the story of her past, by her giving her love to a man who seduced and betrayed her, who left her to be gang raped for his own advantage, the viewer cannot help but sense that Nami, now warped by her hatred, exists in a real hell, both internally and externally. This sense, although required by the narrative, and partially stirred up by the events depicted and the images shown on screen, could not have been aroused without the lead actress's work. She does deserve considerable credit for her performance here.


Alive with savage violence, cruel sexuality, and gorgeous, often abstract images, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is an impressive, affecting movie.

Review by Keith Allen

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