The Scorpion Strikes Back
The Female Prisoner Scorpion films are visceral critiques of misogyny, the prison system, and police brutality
WARNING: This essay discusses sexual assault
SPOILER ALERT: Plot details for the Female Prisoner films are discussed
“There has always been a tendency to regard those women who have been publicly punished by the state for their misbehaviors as significantly more aberrant and far more threatening to society than their male counterparts.”
- Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?
The opening shot of the first Female Prisoner Scorpion film is of the Japanese flag. It is being raised to celebrate the efforts of the police officers in charge of a women’s prison. The flag recurs twice more in the film. The second time is when we see Nami Matsushima, played by Meiko Kaji, lose her virginity to the detective that will betray her. We see a small circle of blood expand on a white cloth, briefly resembling the Japanese flag before the red completely overtakes the white. The last time we see it is when Nami, now the “Scorpion”, stabs to death the object of her revenge. The dying detective throws her knife up at the Japanese flag. While the explicit use of the flag isn’t as present in the later films of the series, the theme remains the same. That the nation’s pride in law enforcement is little more than a facade.
Based off of the 1970 manga by Toru Shinohara, the Female Prisoner Scorpion films (1972–1973) were Japanese exploitation movies that mixed the “women-in-prison” genre with the “rape-revenge” genre. The first three films were directed by the masterful Shunya Ito and the fourth by Yasuharu Hasebe, who had earlier helped propel Kaji’s acting career with the Stray Cat Rock series.
Though these films have their share of gratuitous sex and violence, they are also explosive works of art. The rich cinematography and creative sets sometimes resemble a kabuki stage play. The films also went above the sleazy expectations of their genre, and made you think about societal problems in the present day. These films are not only very relevant, but are also quite cathartic.
Outside of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, there is a banner which reads: “The Soul and Harmony of a Beautiful Japan.” If that is what the police represent to Japan, then the impetus of these films is to interrogate that “soul” and scrutinize what passes for “harmony”; to see if such a Japan is truly “beautiful.”
While the police in the manga can be harsh, they are cherubs compared to the sadists in these films. I can’t recall there being any good cops in the series. The first of these many villains is Nami’s boyfriend, Detective Sugimi. In the first film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, he allows Nami to get gang-raped by drug smugglers he had been pursuing so he can arrest them on a rape charge. He provoked a crime to apprehend the criminals. Nami first went to jail for her attempt to murder him.
The best villain is the series, by far, is Warden Goda, played with quiet intimidation by Fumio Watanabe. In the manga, he starts off as one-eyed, but in the first film, he loses that eye indirectly due to Nami. This, in addition to her constant flouting of the rules, makes her the object of his obsession. The second film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, is dominated by his desire to “break” Nami’s image as the “Scorpion”, who has become a symbol of defiance for too many prisoners. He sets police out to torture her in various ways, by beating her, hosing her down, and raping her. For many officers, the prison is a space for them to act out their most bestial desires with little to no consequence.
The fourth film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song, is the most political. Storywise, it’s the weakest of the four, but its politics are intriguing. The main antagonist, Detective Hirose, is played with a calm but icy demeanor by Hiroshi Tsukata. He is determined, not only to catch Nami, but to also see her executed. Hirose also has a history with Nami’s new lover, Kudo, who was tortured by the detective for his student protests. The torture was so terrible that Kudo still has scars on his chest and penis no longer functions as well as it once did. This experience has put Kudo on his own path of vengeance against the police and now he can only be intimate with Nami, who shares trauma that is similar to his.
When Hirose finally gets Nami back into prison, he is concerned by one of the female guards, who treats the prisoners a little too decently. She genuinely believes in rehabilitation and rarely indulges in torture. This makes her an anomaly. She is the closest we get to a “good cop” in the series, but even that mask doesn’t last for too long. She eventually finds herself smacking Nami out of anger. It just goes to show how easily a good person like her can give in to cruelty within the confines of the prison system. Hirose decides that the best way to toughen her up is to have his male officers gang-rape her. As they strip off her clothes, she expresses disbelief that the police could do things like this. This breaks her long-held view that the police are more righteous than the average citizen.
In fact, the police are often just as bad, if not worse, than the very criminals they put away. It gets to the point where making a distinction between the two almost feels superfluous.
Nami finds herself in and out of prison throughout the course of these movies. As a result, the audience is often made to see the prison system through the eyes of the imprisoned. The point of the prison is to rehabilitate criminals, but the audience may start to question if the system, as it currently exists, can do even that.
The opening of the first film is like something out of Marquis de Sade, rows of naked women being inspected upon entry into the prison, with the male guards lecherously looking on. The prisoners are also made to do back-breaking labor, such as digging deep holes in the ground only to fill them up again.
The guards exert control over the prisoners by setting them against one another. In the first film, there are privileged female prisoners in orange whose job it is to discipline the underlings. This encourages the prisoners to behave like the police, engaging in their own sadism. There’s one such woman in the first film, who’s job it is to feed Nami while she languishes in her cell. She spills the slop onto the floor, expecting Nami to lap it up like a dog.
The female prison guard from Grudge Song has an unshakable belief in the system to reform prisoners. She points to a convicted murderer who spends all of her time reciting the Buddhist sutras. The guard believes that when she informs this reformed murderer of her eventual hanging, that she will meet it calmly. This murderer, however, is under the belief that all this performative penance will spare her the noose. When Nami tells the murderer of her execution, this religious mask falls away. She is dragged to the gallows hysterical and afraid. This signals to us that the prison’s reformation process is insincere.
Of course, this film doesn’t romanticize prisoners, either. Most of them, in fact, are downright terrible. It doesn’t take much for a prison mob to go from respecting one person to hating them with the flip of a coin. This is Nami’s position in the first two films. In one moment she is adored by the prisoners and in the next she is reviled. All the while, Nami has to keep her cool and composure.
It is this attitude which separates Nami from many of the other female prisoners, who seem to have reverted to a more bestial nature. There’s a scene in the first film where they riot and take control over one of the warehouses, dragging three male hostages with them. Some of the women, who had long been sexually frustrated, shamelessly force themselves onto the men. While the scene is played for laughs, it’s meant to show just how desperate the prison system has made them.
Furthermore, in Jailhouse 41, Nami escapes with a group of female prisoners. When one of their own dies after being raped by three men from a tour bus, the prisoners take revenge by hijacking the bus. Initially, the women exact their vengeance on the rapists, but their violence soon extends to everyone else. We get a brief scene of a jury declaring the women guilty. From this, we are to understand that the women are attacking the society who sent them to prison in this first place. The film is indicting us for our complicity. That said, the way in which these women treat tourists is rather sadistic, to say the least. Nami does not engage in any of the torture and seems disturbed by much of what she sees. She is watching society reap the benefits of its prisons.
Male-dominated society is the root of all evil in these films. Even though these movies do indulge in the male gaze, from the numerous topless women to the lesbian sex scenes, there remains a strong feminist tone. At its heart, it is about a woman taking revenge against the men who have wronged her. Consider, for a moment, that there are no good men in this series. Even the most sympathetic of them are still very unlikable. Yuki’s mentally disabled brother, for instance, still sexually assaults her every night, later impregnating her with his child. Even poor Kudo, who shares Nami’s disdain for the police, eventually sells her out under torture.
This general distrust of men is laid bare in the theme song of the series “Urami Bushi” (literally “Grudge Melody” or “Grudge Blues”) which is often translated as “Song of Vengeance.” It is sung by Kaji herself, who, aside from acting, was one of the finest Japanese musicians of the 1970’s, producing classics such as Kyou no Wagami Wa (“Today’s Me Is…”). One lyric in the “Song of Vengeance” goes like this:
“You’re a flower, you’re beautiful, and he praises you,
But when you bloom, you are shown off, and then scattered away,
The Foolish, the foolish, the foolish woman’s
Song of vengeance.”
Rape is the crime of choice for many men in the series. Some audiences may object to the graphic rape scenes, which were common to the genre, specifically the close-ups on the rapist’s faces. These films aren’t for everyone, but the rape scenes don’t simply exist for shock value. The filmmakers want the audience to see the crime in all its brutality, almost as if to say: “This is what a man is reduced to when he violates a woman.”
Sexual violence in these films does not simply serve to satisfy the twisted desires of the predator. It is also used as an exercise of power. In Jailhouse 41, Nami is gang-raped by guards in a prison as a means for the warden to exert his authority over her. In the third film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, the prostitute Yuki is penetrated with a golf club by a female yakuza boss to intimidate her. In Grudge Song, a female prison guard is gang-raped by police to ensure that she sticks to their strict rules. Sexual violence is as much about control over women’s bodies as it is about lust.
In fact, Jailhouse 41 makes an explicit connection sexual violence in the war and sexual violence at home. On a bus of tourists, a veteran of World War II boasts of how easy it was for him to satisfy his lust, because the military allowed him to rape Chinese girls. The trio of young men listening to him are getting very excited, so much so that they’re already fondling the female tour guide. These men later gang-rape one of the female prisoners, who soon dies from her wounds. I can’t help but think that through this scene, Ito was trying to make Japanese audiences think about what many of their soldiers did in Manchuria. The scene is all the more shocking in retrospect, when you consider that the director later made a film romanticizing Hideki Tojo. Maybe men really can’t be trusted.
In Beast Stable, the yakuza exert control over the prostitutes who work for them by forcibly aborting their pregnancies. The forced abortion scene of one prostitute is about as disturbing as you may expect from a exploitation film. The doctor even cartoonishly takes a swig of alcohol before the surgery begins. It is this surgery, however, which motivates the still-pregnant Yuki to escape from the yakuza.
For as bad as the men are, though, the women are hardly any better. Women can still have authority within a patriarchy, so long as they are willing to carry out its orders. The cruelest women in this series are often sell-outs who try to capture or kill Nami; the greatest threat to the patriarchal order. These women always get their comeuppance in the end, though. For such is the fate of those who betray their sisters. That said, Jailhouse 41 makes the point that many female prisoners are driven to violent crime by the sexual abuses of men.
In Jailhouse 41, the best film of the four, Nami’s character of the “Scorpion” takes on messianic, even Christ-like dimensions. Unlike the first film, where Nami only sought to free herself to take revenge against Sugumi, she now has taken on the burden of liberating all womankind. The Christ metaphor is made explicit in one scene, when she has a literal tree tied to her back. Even though the way the prisoners feel about Nami can fluctuate, she remains ever loyal to them.
Also, while Nami may be an action heroine, she is far from invincible. There are many times when she is vulnerable and defeated. One scene which is seared into my mind is when one of the prisoners torture her by pressing a hot lamp against her vagina. Nami though, endures this trial, and eventually burns this torturer alive. I would argue that Nami endures such great pain because she is a symbol for the suffering of women as a whole. Her true strength is in her endurance, her refusal to bend before authoritarian abuse. The best scene which captures this is when she is tied up at the floor of a lonely cell. She has only a spoon tight between her teeth, but after much patience, she carves it into a shiv.
There is also a theme of sisterhood in these films. While Nami may be despised by many, she always finds one or two women who are willing to help her out. There’s an intimate scene in Beast Stable, where Nami is hiding in the sewers and Yuki searches for her by throwing fiery matches down the manholes and calling out her name. There’s also a great scene in Jailhouse 41, where an old woman mumbles this mantra of killing those who had wronged her, clutching a knife all the while. She soon dies, but Nami inherits the knife from her, and more symbolically, she inherits the spirit of vengeance from women who cannot fight for themselves.
These aren’t the sort of movies for people who want policy solutions to these problems. For women like Nami, there are no solutions. When the law engages in the same behavior as criminals, what other choice is there for the oppressed but the knife? These films allow women a level of catharsis against misogyny that they might never receive in real life. I am reminded of the moment when Nami finally kills Warden Gota. She laughs for the first time in the movie and runs freely through the streets of Tokyo with hundreds of other female prisoners. A freedom which, to this day, remains elusive around the world.
Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, April 2003. 66.