Director: Shunya Ito
Notable Cast: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi, Yukie Kagawa, Yuki Arasa
There is no series of films quite like the Female Prisoner Scorpion films. They are unique, impactful, and layered to the point pure density. While I reviewed the first film for our Meiko Kaji celebration earlier this year [check out that review HERE], Arrow Video has been kind enough to package all four of the original Female Prisoner Scorpion films in a new box set for collectors and this vulgar auteur could not be happier with the results. So it’s with great pleasure that the next three installments of the series will get official reviews here on the site and hopefully, in all seriousness, these reviews convince someone to purchase and experience these films for the first time – or again – so that the legacy of their artful approach to exploitative cinema can only grow. The films are all worthy enough that they deserve that much.
This leads me to the focus of this review, the second film in the series and the widely acclaimed Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41. In many circles, this is the considered the best of the series and for legitimate reason. Jailhouse 41 is not only a film that continues on with the themes, style, and story that the first film established, but it takes each one to the next level and punches it through with a thoughtful (and forceful) impact that simply cannot be ignored. This is the kind of film, like its predecessor, that nimbly elevates itself to a high art level of creative cinematic purpose where the exploitative elements on its surface only help to craft a foundation for the art to exist on. This is a film that entertains ultimately with its prisoners on the run plotting, but it leaves such a resonating message and feeling that it lasts well beyond its time frame and might even be just as relevant now as it was in 1972.
Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) has been quarantined down to solitary confinement for most of her sentence after escaping to take revenge on the corrupt detective that put her there to begin with. Her nickname, Scorpion, has become something of a legend in the women’s prison system. When the chance for six women and Scorpion to escape arises again, the seven prisoners will go on the run from the police once again.
|Scorpion goes full wind storm.|
Reading that synopsis probably doesn’t inspire a lot of faith into what I said in the introductory paragraph. Understandably. At the core level of its being, Jailhouse 41 is essentially a women in prison exploitation flick. Mistreated women in prison find a way to escape, they must deal with the power struggles within the group, outsmart/out run the police, and somehow find a way to survive. At its basic levels, this film is pretty straight forward and it hits a lot of the basic tropes of that genre. Enough so that it can be a bit predictable for those familiar with its foundations. However, don’t let its basic plot fool you. The narrative and the execution of the plot lift it well above and beyond the regards of its own boundaries. This film is so much more than its plot progressions.
Much of Jailhouse 41’s success can be traced to director Shunya Ito’s style and ability to elevate the film into some new levels of character and thematic exploration. In the first Scorpion film, he used a theatrical style to portray the back story of the heroine Scorpion and then punctuated scenes of heightened emotions with surrealistic color schemes and exaggerated detailing that gave the film a distinct tone and feel. For Jailhouse 41, both of these stylistic choices return, but they are used in stronger and often more theatrical ways where everything is symbolic for the women’s plight. As our heroine, played with a muted and stoic intensity by Meiko Kaji, leads six other women on the run, their back stories are told in the same sort of theatrical fashion as the first film using borderline fantasy like elements. Bright colors rips across the visual landscape and moments of symbolism – including one of my favorite which is when a waterfall runs blood red after the death of one of the women – make for a visually striking and often fresh feeling film. Even the settings of the film seem to feed into this atmosphere as the women traverse forests, volcano burned villages, rocky rivers, and even a tour bus to attempt their escape. Ito never pulls back from these surrealistic moments, disembodied voices and an exaggerated atmosphere are only two of his tools, which makes the gritty and realistic pieces of their struggles all the more impactful. When the women come to final shoot-out with police in that tour bus, it feels all the more effective in its extreme violence and punishing emotions because, just prior to that sequence, there is a surrealist scene of the women trapped in a net that Scorpion envisions where their identities all seem to blend together. It’s this kind of balance that makes Jailhouse 41 such a spectacularly artful film while retaining its exploitative qualities.
This balanced approach to visuals and tone makes for some phenomenal character and thematic beats that carry the film further too. Meiko Kaji once again excels in the role of Scorpion and while she is not necessarily the main protagonist in the sense that she’s driving the action of the film, that falls to another woman in her group named Oba who is played with an over the top outrageousness by Kayoko Shiraishi that balances out the stoic look of Kaji so well, the story is essentially told through the eyes of Scorpion as she absorbs all of the things around her. The injustices and corruption are the social commentary themes that continually pummel her and the audience as well. The performances are solid, even when some of the secondary characters only receive a little bit of development, and it adds a lot of layers to characters that might have been throw-away roles. The layering also deepens the feminist and anti-authoritarian themes that streak through the film. The first film had the many of the same themes, but this film is less concerned with adhering to the plot as much as it is crafting the tone and message. The final minutes of the film reflect this focus intensely, although I won’t spoil anything too much for those new to the franchise.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 is a film that should be experienced and not just watched. At the base of its plot, it might be simple and straightforward, but it’s lacking complexity of plotting allows the film to stretch its wings when it comes to its execution delivering thoughtful, deep, and resonating concepts that reach well beyond its exploitation pieces. It’s not a film for everyone with its surrealist visuals and occasionally abrasive moments of sexual violence, but if you are willing to look past the exploitative surface than Jailhouse 41 proves to match its predecessor beat for beat in thematic expression – if not expand it at every turn.
ARROW VIDEO FEATURES:
- Limited Edition Blu-ray collection (4000 copies)
- Brand new 2K restorations of all four films in the series presented on High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD
- Original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays) for all films
- Optional English subtitles for all films
- Double-sided fold out poster of two original artworks
- Reversible sleeves for all films featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan
- Booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Chuck Stephens, a brand new interview with Toru Shinohara, creator of the original Scorpion manga and an archive interview with Meiko Kaji by Chris D. illustrated with original stills
- Newly filmed appreciation by critic Kier-La Janisse
- Japanese cinema critic Jasper Sharp looks over the career of Shunya Ito
- Designing Scorpion, a new interview with production designer Tadayuki Kuwana
- Original Theatrical Trailer and Teaser
Written By Matt Reifschneider