Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)
***½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Meiko Kaji, Natsuyagi Isao, Rie Yokoyama, Fumio Watanabe
written by Fumio Kônami and Hirô Matsuda, from the manga by Toru Shinohara
directed by Shunya Itô
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972)
****/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Meiko Kaji, Kayoko Shiraishi, Fumio Watanabe, Eiko Yanami
written by Shunya Itô, Fumio Kônami and Hirô Matsuda, from the manga by Toru Shinohara
directed by Shunya Itô
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973)
***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B
starring Meiko Kaji, Mikio Narita, Koji Nanbara, Yayoi Watanabe
written by Hirô Matsuda, from the manga by Toru Shinohara
directed by Shunya Itô
Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701's Grudge Song (1973)
**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B
starring Meiko Kaji, Masakazu Tamura, Toshiyuki Hosokawa, Sanae Nakahara
written by Fumio Kônami, Hirô Matsuda and Yasuharu Hasebe, from the manga by Toru Shinohara
directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
by Bryant Frazer One of the most audacious debuts in cinematic history is rookie Shunya Itô's expressionist rape-revenge saga, the Female Prisoner Scorpion trilogy. These three films, released in the 11-month period between August 1972 and July 1973, elevate Japanese studio Toei's series of "pinky violence" sexploitation films with daring, theatrical visuals reminiscent of the bold work that got Seijun Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu and a subversive sensibility that could be described as genuinely feminist. Of course, Itô's studio bosses didn't have art in mind. Loosely adapted from a popular manga, the first Scorpion was conceived as a gender-swapped take on Teruo Ishii's popular Abashiri Prison film series, on which Itô had worked as assistant director. Moving the story from a men's prison to a women's prison accommodated sensationalized images of nudity and sexual violence, which even major Japanese studios were relying on in the early 1970s as a way to compete with American imports. But Itô talked his screenwriters into throwing out their derivative original script and starting anew. He also convinced Meiko Kaji, a rising star thanks to her appearances in the popular Stray Cat Rock movies about Japanese youth street culture, to take on the title role. (Kaji arrived at Toei from Nikkatsu after the latter studio diverted its production resources to so-called "roman porno" softcore in an attempt to compete with the popularity of television.) The results are singular. Itô's flamboyant visuals created florid showcases for Kaji's riveting screen presence, especially her oft-deployed 1,000-yard stare--a stone-cold, daggers-to-your-eyeballs glare of the type seen elsewhere in only the most unnerving of horror films. Itô and Kaji turned out to be an electrifying combination.
Arrow Video's new "Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection" comprises the three films Itô and Kaji made together, as well as one more entry that Kaji made with director Yasuharu Hasebe (he directed her in three of the Stray Cat Rock films, including Sex Hunter, widely considered the best of the series) before saying sayonara to the character altogether. So as far as Kaji is concerned, this can be called the Scorpion quartet--the four films are even united by a shared theme song, "Urami Bushi" ("Grudge Song"), a top-10 hit in Japan with vocals by Kaji herself. However, although Hasebe took pains to make a film that hewed close to its predecessors in tone, his instalment represented a clear departure from the rest of the series in terms of both form and content.
Let's start at the beginning, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. Things break bad for Nami Matsushima (Kaji) after her narcotics-detective boyfriend Tsugio (Isao Natsuyagi) asks her to go undercover in a casino. She is gang-raped by yakuza and kicked aside by Tsugio, who turns out to be a corrupt cop using her in a scheme to benefit a rival yakuza kingpin. When Matsu tries to kill Tsugio, she's sent to prison and abused by her jailers and fellow inmates alike. Ferocious, stoic, single-minded, Matsu earns the nickname Scorpion--Sasori in the original Japanese--thanks to her deadly quickness with a blade. She endures humiliation, hard labour, and solitary confinement mostly silently (the bulk of her dialogue was excised from the script before production began), fixated on lasting long enough to find an opportunity to escape and get one more shot at Tsugio.
Obviously, Itô had to fulfill a certain titillation quota, and Scorpion is replete with bare flesh and sexual violence. Yet Itô's directorial strategies elicit sympathy for the female convicts and highlight their mistreatment by the cruel prison warden. Itô was a union leader inside the studio and thus well aware of the proletariat struggle; his depiction of scores of unhappy nude women in prison highlights their vulnerability in the face of systemic exploitation. (Think of it this way: one nude woman on screen may be an object of sexual desire and a half-dozen nude women on screen may suggest a brothel, but many more than that begins to resemble a concentration camp.) Itô certainly evinces little respect for the conservative Japanese government. In the picture's opening moments, the Japanese national anthem begins playing over the Toei Company logo before the film cuts to the hoisting of the Japanese flag inside the prison walls as a government functionary delivers a commendation for "the re-education and rehabilitation of our nation's convicts" since the end of World War II. Moments later, a siren goes off denoting a prison break. In their rush back to their posts, the guards trample the commendation certificate into the dirt. Not two minutes into his feature debut, Itô has indicted the Japanese government by explicit comparison to the sociopathic prison system it condones.
The tipping point for the inmates comes after a 10-minute sequence depicting "the devil's punishment"--the women are made to dig, quite pointlessly, a wide and deep hole in the ground, and then refill it. It culminates in violence and a riot that finds the prisoners taking hostages and commandeering a warehouse. During those long minutes of footage depicting exhausted women working at a forced pace, shoving dirt in and out of the earth, I was reminded of toiling coal miners. Indeed, I suspect this lengthy sequence, which culminates in the warehouse being set ablaze, is a metaphorical recounting of the lengthy Mitsui Miike labour dispute, a year-long strike at Japan's largest coal mine that culminated in the defeat of the labour union. In November 1963, following a decline in working conditions and various other budget-cutting measures at the mine, an underground explosion killed 458 miners and injured hundreds more. (The government lent the Mitsui Coal Mining Company a billion yen to compensate victims.) It was a watershed event in the history of Japanese labour movements, and it echoes through this portion of the film.
Even more startling than the movie's ambitious political agenda is its visual realization. At a time when Toei productions had a standard shooting schedule of three weeks, Scorpion took four months to shoot. (In an interview in Chris D.'s book Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, Kaji herself said Itô only got away with it because he was then head of the union.) The monochromatic colour-coding of sets and costumes amplifies the depressing claustrophobia of the prison, while some of the scenes set outdoors take place against a fiery red backdrop that underscores the violent action. Most striking of all are the flashback scenes explaining Matsu's transgression against the state--her attempted revenge for lost innocence against Tsugio. Itô shoots them as if they were staged for the theatre, with moving pieces built into the set that allow the background settings to change as though being transformed in front of a live audience. The effect is sublime; the stagecraft deepens the sense of unforgivable deceit as Matsu looks back on her abandonment. The moment when she loses her virginity is depicted on screen with a single drop of bright red blood appearing on an expanse of white fabric--the Japanese flag in its sanguinary glory, filling up a movie screen. Has she been betrayed by a deceitful paramour, or by her country?
The crucial rape scene itself is shot from underneath a glass floor, peering up at the faces of Matsu's multiple attackers. It's the more difficult route, though it ensures the audience experiences the scene from the point-of-view of the survivor rather than the perpetrators. In the aftermath, Itô's camera looks down at her as, over a series of quick cuts, her black hair spreads out over her head. Red light burns brightly up through the glass floor, and teal light shines down on her skin. Kaji's eyes roll towards the camera and her impassive face twists into something tormented. In those moments under Bava lights, with that frightening, accusatory glare plastered across her formerly lovely face, Kaji transforms completely and convincingly into a vengeful spirit. She can't help what has happened to her any more than Peter Parker can keep from doing whatever a spider can. She is a superhero, and this is her origin story.
The box-office success of the film made Scorpion more than a superhero--she was a franchise. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion was released in August 1972, and Toei immediately put Itô and Kaji to work on a sequel for release in December. You'd expect a movie made under those time constraints to be little more than a rote, paint-by-numbers cash-in, but Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 improves on its predecessor in almost every way. It's more lyrical and arguably even more daring than the previous film, less concerned with ticking the exploitation boxes than with myth-making. Yes, there is another sexual assault, early on, in which Sasori is taken by four prison guards in grotesque outfits--boots, long underwear, brown cloaks, and facial stockings that press their features into grotesque caricature--in a ritualistic rape meant to humiliate her. Itô ups the symbolic ante by having Sasori literally tied to a wooden cross while the violation takes place.
This time, the rape catalyzes another revolt. Sasori and six other prisoners manage to escape, holing up in a deserted village half-buried under mountains of volcanic ash. It's here that we learn their individual stories, after they meet an old woman who murmurs about cursing and killing. Under her aegis, the story of each of the "seven sinful girls" is told in turn through a mix of highly theatrical, kabuki-like staging and jōruri voice-and-shamisen accompaniment. "Women commit crimes because of men," the song goes. "Driven by love, hatred and jealousy. Listen to my story." So jaundiced is Jailhouse 41's view of the world that the vacationing salarymen the women eventually cross paths with turn out to be rapists themselves. Sasori/Scorpion emerges from the muck not so much as a vengeful antihero as a symbol of agency in the face of systemic oppression. There are no good men here. There is no well-meaning Thelma & Louise cop who just wants to help Sasori. There is no sensitive boyfriend trying to get through to her. Did I mention the first film could be read as feminist? Jailhouse 41 is damned near a lesbian separatist work. In its final images, Sasori leads a charge of dozens of female prisoners running proudly and purposefully down a nearly-deserted city avenue.
Jailhouse 41 announces itself as an unconventional exploitation picture from the very first image, in which the camera pulls back at a canted angle from the door of a prison cell as a voice cries out on the soundtrack, "Sasori!" Visual flourishes are abundant. An early scene where prison authorities have to quickly put down an inmate rebellion unfolds as an evocative montage of the women chucking their sandals into the air. After a brief dissolve, these airborne sandals become prison guards' uniform caps; after another dissolve, they are sandals again. Cut to: the guards firing their guns into the air, Japanese flags dominating the background of the frame. And then cut to the prisoners standing and kneeling, hands over their heads, as both guards and inmates hold absolutely still in a live-action tableau. The end result is exquisite in its unforced singularity; it is only explicable as poetry. Later, a scene in which police track down an escaped prisoner at her home, where they threaten her by throwing her young son at her, slams to a literal halt, unfolding as a series of still frames that convey her sheer terror. And the movie's midsection, wherein its dangerous women get to know each other, is never reduced to expository dialogue and over-the-shoulder conversation shots. Instead, Itô has his camera forever prowling around his characters, tracking towards and past them as they speak. He shines purple lights and red lights on them, illuminating them against inky blackness, and he puts them on turntables, so that for brief moments, the world seems to revolve around them.
Kaji was magnetic but raw in Scorpion. She's more intense this time around. You can pick her out of any group shot immediately--she's the one with the wide eyes and the grim stare conveying the confidence of a killer or the paranoia of a wild animal, depending on the situation. Ruthless as Kaji's Sasori is, she gets a truly effective foil in the person of Ôba (Kayoko Shiraishi), a fellow prisoner doing time for stabbing an unborn fetus to death in her own belly. Shiraishi, in her film debut, has a large face with deep laugh lines that emphasize and extend her grins and grimaces. She was known in Japan as "the Mad Actress," owing to her performances in Japanese underground theatre, and her work here is sly, haunting, and smouldering. It lingers, it burns.
Next comes Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable. Released just seven months after Jailhouse 41, Beast Stable adds incest to the series' already heady cocktail of rape and murder, as Sasori befriends Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), a prostitute who regularly has intercourse with her mentally-challenged older brother to defuse his sexual yearnings. (Sasori learns about the arrangement while crashing at Yuki's pad. She almost fillets the fellow's junk when he puts the moves on her in the morning.) Beast Stable gives us our first glimpse at Sasori leading a normal life, earning a living as a sewing-machine operator, but that tentative new beginning is cut short when local gang boss Katsu (Reisen Lee), a Cruella De Vil look-alike, recognizes her and throws her in a cage full of ravens. Because Sasori is Sasori, she eventually escapes, but with both Katsu and the police in pursuit she's forced to retreat, à la Harry Lime, into the sewers. Yuki searches for her by calling to her through the sewer grates, dropping lit matches into the darkness below; Itô's camera makes an otherworldly tableau of little smears of firelight tumbling down into the tunnels from above, highlighting the world of difference between the open city above and the dark, closed-in labyrinth in which Sasori finds herself.
If Jailhouse 41 retreated from exploitation, Beast Stable doubles down, featuring a scene where Yuki is stripped to the waist before being raped with a golf club. Another especially harrowing scene involves a forced abortion. (That's the thing about Japanese exploitation films: not only will they go there, you also never know how graphic "there" will be.) Still, it has some genuinely fun bits, like the gritty subway chase scene that opens the film, with Sasori escaping after being handcuffed to cop Mikio Narita by sawing his arm off. It's the first chapter in the series to take place mostly outside of a prison, or a prison-escape scenario, allowing Sasori some character development as she reluctantly accepts help from a stranger and worries about whether her trust has been misplaced. It gives the movie a sense of freedom and fresh air, too: The urban set designs evoke Tokyo's colourful nightlife in a way that recalls the youthful sensibility of the Stray Cat Rock films, while the scenes set underground are tense, especially when an effort is made to smoke Sasori out by setting the sewer passages ablaze.
Whether due to studio pressure, time constraints, or simply because the director had settled into a comfortable groove, Beast Stable is the most visually conventional of Itô's Sasori films by a wide margin. Though it's a pretty bloody affair with highly-stylized costumes and set designs, it's hardly as outré as the two earlier entries; there are no ruined cities or kabuki digressions here. Storywise, it suffers mainly by comparison to the wild risks taken in the earlier films. Beast Stable feels less like a new way forward for Sasori's character and more like an effort by the director to close the door on her saga without walking her through the same women-in-prison scenarios already explored. It's affecting, however, especially inasmuch as it shows our stoic protagonist spending long moments quietly enjoying something like a normal life. When Kaji is seen bent over a sewing machine, rapt in concentration over the stitch, you get the sense that the ordinary chore puts her as close to peace as she's been since the series began. It's those images, more than any of the flashy action stuff, that stick. Beast Stable's concluding act, which takes place back in prison again, is a little muddled, down to the title card informing us that Sasori served out her final sentence, was released from prison, and disappeared. Be that as it may, as a handful of wanted posters featuring her face in close-up are set ablaze on screen, it feels like the happy-enough ending that Nami Matsushima deserves.
Nevertheless, Kaji had one more go-round as Sasori with Female Convict Scorpion: #701's Grudge Song. Determined not to simply follow in Itô's footsteps, director Hasebe broke the mold and gave Sasori a boyfriend, laconic strip-club MC Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), who runs lights and music while topless women wiggle and writhe on stage. It's not quite as arbitrary as it seems. Kudo is a former political dissident--already disfigured from his earlier run-in with the cops--who meets cute with Matsu when he finds her passed out and bleeding on a men's-room floor. He's the type of guy whose flat features a convenient underground passage, for those times you really gotta get moving, so he's not a bad match for her. Still, it's a decision that undermines one of the fundamentals of Sasori's character: After all this time and everything she's been through, a supposed thirst for male companionship rings somewhat hollow. (I suppose having her fall in love with a female dissident would have been a bridge too far, even for Japanese exploitation cinema in the 1970s.) Long story short, she ends up back in the slammer at a little past the picture's halfway mark, this time facing the death penalty in a prison where the convicts are exhorted to scrub the steps leading to the gallows so that they are extra-clean.
Grudge Song is a transparently low-budget affair (much of the picture consists of a handful of characters in small rooms), and occasionally it hews to the clichés of a police procedural, as detective squads fan out across the city to search for Kudo and Sasori while jazzy cop music squeals and buzzes on the soundtrack. It all looks good, with lots of moody, noirish lighting by cinematographer Hanjirô Nakazawa and dynamic widescreen compositions. For better or worse, the exploitation content was ratcheted up again: there's plenty of incidental skin on display, not to mention an explicit third-act rape perpetrated by cops who intend to use the victim's post-assault feelings of shame as a way to keep her in line. Sasori gets in on the mind games, too, undermining a fellow death-row prisoner's attempt to face her execution with dignity. It's a cruel film, and psychologically astute, but it doesn't feel much like a Sasori movie. Not a whimper, exactly, but not much of a bang either.
Its Kaji's performance that earns Grudge Song its place in the Sasori canon. Although this is probably the one whose story is least focused on her character, as long as she is on screen, the picture is pretty much riveting. That's not to say essential: Ultimately, the first two films are the first and last word on Sasori. In Scorpion, her revenge arc is established and completed; Jailhouse 41 is an exercise in myth-making that turns her into a kind of folk hero. But the key moment in the whole series happens, I think, during the original film, when Matsu/Sasori first confronts her boyfriend on the street with one breast exposed, as she's wearing the torn dress in which she was raped. Displaying herself like that, in public, sends an important message. It says to the man she's facing down, This is not my shame, this is your shame--and, because I am a survivor despite your efforts to break me, it is now my source of strength. That's when she goes at him with a knife. The Sasori films serve as a textbook example of why well-told rape-revenge stories are such powerful fantasies for anyone who can see themselves in the scenarios of assault and abuse they depict. Rape is many things, including a tactic used by men to keep women down. Sasori is the woman who stands back up again.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Female Prisoner Scorpion series has trickled out slowly for home-video viewing in the U.S., starting with the 2000 release of Jailhouse 41 on DVD by Image Entertainment. (The other three Meiko Kaji titles eventually followed in Tokyo Shock Video editions.) I'd like to report that Arrow Video's box of Blu-rays is the definitive collection, but this set has proved controversial due to a consistent cool, bluish cast throughout all four films that does not reflect prior releases. Arrow issued a statement indicating that Toei supplied only a set of low-contrast 35mm prints--not original 35mm film elements--that had the "cyan/blue look" baked in through processing. Arrow suggested, without much elaboration, that the tint had to do with how the prints were struck, and how the original elements had faded over time--neither of which inspires confidence, given that an ideal Blu-ray release should reflect the look originally intended by the filmmakers, not the one adopted by recent prints struck from damaged archive materials. I saw Jailhouse 41 on 35mm film in its U.S. premiere engagement at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood (and again when the same print made its way to New York), and while some sequences--such as prison scene early on where Sasori is blasted with water from a firehose--were very blue indeed, I remember the balance of the film looking quite a bit warmer (thus more naturalistic) than this disc would suggest. However, given Itô's proclivity for strongly coloured lights, vibrantly-painted backdrops, and other reality-distorting techniques, it's hard to know for sure what he intended--and absent clear instructions from the director or DP, it would be even harder to justify aggressively re-colouring the materials provided by the studio. I'm inclined to read Arrow's statement as, essentially, "We did the best we could with what we got."
Despite that shadow cast on the colour-correction (or lack thereof), the 2.35:1, 1080p transfers are still quite nice, especially considering the condition of the source material. There is occasionally some uncorrected flicker in the image as different areas of different frames have varying brightness levels (maybe owing to physical distortion of the archival elements)--mainly in the fourth film--and grain is abundant throughout. I don't mind film grain at all as a rule, but a few shots seem unnecessarily harsh, as if the grain has been thrown into sharper-than-usual relief. (Fortunately, with video bitrates averaging around 35 Mbps, digital artifacting is not much of a problem on these discs.) There are also expanses of crushed blacks in darker shots--the presentation is rather contrasty overall. On the positive side, it's impressively clean across the board, and the colours, however accurate, are rich and saturated. Fans of Asian exploitation cinema in particular, who know how hard these movies were to see in decent versions, should be satisfied with the quality of the image, although digital purists might be irritated by the noise levels.
There are no issues at all with the losssless soundtracks, which are exactly what you want from vintage monaural mixes transferred to digital. Hiss and other unwanted noise was successfully reduced without compromising the clarity of the audio that was originally recorded; the harsh, trebly edge just comes with the source material. The tracks are presented, correctly, as one-channel uncompressed PCM, 24-bit/48 KHz. Extras meanwhile are plentiful and spread across the four discs. The spoiler-averse may want to avoid digging into them too deeply until they've watched the entire anthology, as the supplements on Disc 1, for example, do include some discussion of (and brief clips from) the fourth film. Digging in...
The Scorpion disc contains "Shunya Itô: Birth of an Outlaw" (16 mins., HD), an interview originally shot in 2006 for Rapid Eye Movies, in which the director talks about his early years at Toei, his feelings about Japanese cinema of the era, and the political environment that informed his approach to the Scorpion films. It sheds considerable light on their anti-authoritarian bent. "I considered everyone my enemy," he says. "I thought I had to bring down the ancien regime." He specifically recalls the popular television series "Metropolitan Police Story", which ran from 1956-1964 and which he says "represented another kind of realism" in contrast to the "left-wing realism" of filmmakers like Imai and Ieki. "I had a particular feeling about that kind of 'police stories' realism," he continues. "If I speak in plain terms, it was something to be detested."
"Yutaka Kohira: Scorpion Old and New" (15 mins., HD) is a new interview with assistant director Yutaka Kohira, who discusses how deeply impressed he was with Itô's work on the saga: "It was as if [his] anger towards the state was transformed into Scorpion's anger." He recalls a dramatic moment when tensions between labour and studio management had gotten so high that the police were called in; Kohira fled with Itô to avoid arrest. He touches on the difficult production of the final film, a struggle to write (because the screenwriters thought Beast Stable had brought Scorpion's story to a satisfying conclusion) and to shoot (because the cinematographer and director didn't get along). Kohira went on to direct the post-Kaji title New Female Prisoner Scorpion: Special Cellblock X.
In "Female Prisoner Scorpion: An Appreciation by Gareth Evans" (25 mins., HD), The Raid's writer-editor-director-choreographer speaks intelligently about the first film, offering thoughtful takes on exploitation cinema, depictions of explicit violence, and the movie's implicit condemnation of the Japanese government. Also featured on this platter are HiDef trailers for all four films, each approximately three minutes in length, and an on-screen listing of the picture's full cast and credits--important because the names and titles don't appear on screen in English during the movie proper.
On the second disc, "Female Prisoner Scorpion: An Appreciation by Kier-La Janisse" (28 mins., HD) picks up where Evans left off, as writer and film programmer Janisse lets fly with an analysis of the series that cites other films with similar themes, from Coffy and Foxy Brown to 9 to 5 and The First Wives Club. She gets into how the Scorpion films deploy stylistic tropes found in other genre and exploitation works, discusses the contrast in performance styles between Kaji and the actresses playing the other female characters, observes some Japanese theatrical elements featured in Jailhouse 41, and makes a case for the films' feminist integrity despite their frequent depictions of sexual violence. "Jailhouse 41...addresses a lot of problematic issues," she says. "It gets right into these issues and does not shy away from them or gloss over them in order to try to make the film more feminist. It just is a feminist film."
In "Tadayuki Kuwana: Designing Scorpion" (17 mins., HD), the art director for these movies reflects on the conception of the film's rotating sets (which Kuwana compares to elements of kabuki theatre) and the third film's elaborate underground environments, filled with rushing water. As influences on his work, he cites political atmosphere of the time--conditions at the studio, where the union was split into Communist and non-Communist factions, as well as the Asama Sanso incident, a nine-day hostage crisis involving the United Red Army, and the continuing Anpo protests against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States. "Ordinary people were unsatisfied," he recalls. "Their motivation for those protests had to be something like a grudge, born out of being subjected to long-term oppression. We put those elements together and gave them to Scorpion." He reveals that the outfits worn by the female prisoners, with their horizontal white stripes, were meant to evoke memories of the vertical stripes of concentration-camp uniforms, something he had seen during a recent exhibit in Tokyo. As far as the design of the prison itself, he says, "I wanted to create an environment which made it feel like she was in Hell."
"Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jasper Sharp on Director Shunya Itô" (10 mins., HD) has Sharp, co-editor of the MIDNIGHT EYE website, offering a concise info-dump of details on Itô's relatively obscure career, from his earliest (non-IMDb catalogued) filmography (including a possible co-director credit on a 1970 Sonny Chiba film) to his most recent pictures. "It's very difficult to get an angle on what Shunya Itô's qualities were as a director, because aside from the Female Convict Scorpion films, I don't think any have been released in the West," Sharp tells us. He even opens the discussion on how much of the Scorpion films' visual adventurousness is attributable to Itô's vision and how much is borrowed from Toru Shinohara's manga, using specific shots to make his argument. Unfortunately, corresponding panels from the source material apparently weren't available. He does mention Itô's 1998 film, Pride: The Fateful Moment, calling it "a rather hagiographical account" of the life of WWII-era Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who was hanged as a war criminal in December 1948. The big takeaway is that Itô's career has been remarkably unexamined, given how few of his films screened outside Japan and how little is written about them in the English language.
Also on this disc, the full-length Jailhouse 41 trailer makes a repeat appearance, along with a shorter version (1:45). Additionally, there's a pair of slides featuring cast and crew information.
The third disc of supplements is led by "Female Prisoner Scorpion: An Appreciation by Kat Ellinger" (26 mins., HD), in which DIABOLIQUE magazine's editor-in-chief confesses her "life mission" to track down everything Meiko Kaji had starred in after watching Lady Snowblood, and elevates Kaji to the same iconic level as Tura Satana and Pam Grier, citing a "stoicism" that separates her from other stars in the pinky violence cycle. Ellinger talks mainly about Beast Stable, addressing the ways it differs from the first two films in the series, such as the introduction of a "camp element" not seen previously in the flamboyant character of Katsu. Wildly conversant in genre film, Ellinger embarks on a vigorous discussion of how elements of pinky violence have made their way into contemporary horror films, and she considers how Itô leverages elements of Japanese kaidan, or ghost stories, in the Scorpion movies.
"Female Convict Scorpion: Directing Meiko Kaji" (18 mins., HD) returns to the 2006 Itô interview excerpted on Disc 1. Itô comes off as a bit condescending towards Kaji, despite self-deprecating comments about his youth and inexperience at the time, but that's not an uncommon attitude among directors. He does suggest that tension on set may have helped invest Kaji's performance with a certain intensity. Much more brief are his remarks on Kayoko Shiraishi and Reisen Lee from the second and third films, both of whom had been working in underground theatre. Itô remembers drawing on Japanese folktales for inspiration--he says the scene in Beast Stable where Scorpion cuts off the arm of a pursuing policeman was inspired by the legend of samurai Tsuna Watanabe, who severed the arm of the Ibaraki Demon at Rashomon Bridge--and remembers the first screening of the first Scorpion film at the studio, after which boss Shigeru Okada warned him, "Films favoured by journalists don't normally succeed."
Clocking in at 21 minutes is "Unchained Melody: The Films of Meiko Kaji", a "visual essay" written and narrated by Tom Mes, Sharp's co-editor at MIDNIGHT EYE. Mes uses film clips from Hasebe's Retaliation, Ishii's Blind Woman's Curse, and the Stray Cat Rock, Scorpion, and Lady Snowblood films, as well as a raft of production stills, promo shots, and other memorabilia to craft an extended ode to Kaji. Mes starts with the movies Kaji made in the 1970s under her given name, Masako Ohta, and continues through to what he calls her "most fascinating period as an actress," once she left Toei and her outlaw screen persona behind for Daiei Film, where she collaborated with Yasuzô Masumura and others. By the 1980s, Kaji had become primarily a television actress, and Mes has the clips to prove it. The audio can be mushy and boomy, making it difficult to decipher some of Mes's words, but it's an engaging and informative piece.
Also on board the Beast Stable BD is another copy of the three-minute Beast Stable trailer, as well as a shorter variant of the same (1:44) and a full English listing of cast and credits.
The beefiest feature on the fourth disc is "They Call Her Scorpion: A Visual Essay" (40 mins., HD), another Tom Mes contribution. This time, he puts the Scorpion films in the context of Japanese exploitation cinema as a whole, considering the evolution of the yakuza film at Toei and the changing demographics of Japanese moviegoers. If you've worked through the extras on the first three discs, this one will start to seem redundant in many ways--Mes regurgitates a lot of the same information covered in the Itô interview segments--though it becomes more interesting as he delves into the meat of the movies themselves, working through the four Scorpion titles in turn and encouraging a close reading of their visual style and subtext as they relate to feminism, recent Japanese social and political history, and the nation's post-war power structures. Mes also offers a glimpse at the subsequent Scorpion spin-offs, such as a 1990s direct-to-video resurrection and the character's eventual reincarnation on television.
"Yasuharu Hasebe: Finishing the Series" (20 mins., HD) is a career interview with the late director of #701's Grudge Song shot in 2006. Hasebe remembers working as a clapper loader and 3rd assistant director for Seijun Suzuki and making his own directorial debut in 1965 with Black Tight Killers. He says he studied the first three films so that he wouldn't deviate far from Itô's visual concepts and proceeded with caution even as he tried to put a fresh spin on Kaji's performance. "I was aware that she wouldn't look like Scorpion if I went to far. I was mindful of that." He also recalls his return to Nikkatsu, where he became involved with a sort of second wave of roman porno films in the mid-to-late-1970s before retreating to television work. "I was so desperate to make films," he says, "but there was no place for me to do that in reality."
"Jasper Sharp on Director Yasuharu Hasebe" (17 mins., HD) has Sharp returning to discuss Hasebe's style, from his early gangster movies through to his TV work and direct-to-video titles. He cites a vibrant use of colour, employment of long lenses to create a flattened widescreen image, and documentary-style handheld camerawork. Sharp acknowledges that some of Hasebe's roman pornos were "absolute dross," cautioning that titles like Raping! (1978) make the films sound more lurid and less defensible than they actually are.
In "An Appreciation by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri" (11 mins., HD), the Japanese writer-director considers his own affinity for the Scorpion series, explaining that he first encountered it on a "best-of" compilation compiling key scenes from the films on a single 40-minute VHS tape. He admits it was surprising not just because of the content, but because he was familiar with Kaji from her relatively staid latter-day television dramas. "I never knew she could play such a cool character, so I was shocked when I saw it," he says. Elsewhere, he elaborates: "Beautiful women behaving violently--that was so much to my taste." Viewers who have seen and enjoyed Kumakiri's films will no doubt get more out of this than I did.
The fourth disc is closed out by a recapitulation of the trailer for #701's Grudge Song plus the obligatory listing of cast and crew. The boxed set is packaged with further, print-based bonus material (a two-sided poster, interviews, and an essay) that was not provided for review.