|Meiko Kaji is a Japanese star notable for becoming a worldwide celebrity, in some quarters at least, for staying at home and never succumbing to the allure of Hollywood. Although her heyday was probably the early to mid-nineteen-seventies, such was the impression she made in a series of violent exploitation movies that she commands a following to this day thanks to her work becoming more widely available. She was associated with two franchises in that era, the Stray Cat Rock girl gang pictures, and the first four of the Female Prisoner Scorpion manga adaptations, possibly her most famous efforts after her Lady Snowblood pair of back-to-back swordplay adventures she led.
In the first women in prison item, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion from 1972, the template for the genre was adhered to fairly faithfully with such features as the climactic riot, the shower scenes, the girlfights, the lesbianism, the sadistic guard, and so forth all combined into a melange of saleable elements. It succeeded, and Meiko Kaji was now a star as her character Nami Matsushima was unjustly landed in prison because the cop she had given her virginity to betrayed her and sold her out to corporate gangsters. When she took her revenge on him, her vow to murder this cop failed and she was jailed, though as she knows too much she is an easy target for the gangs and guards inside.
Well, maybe not so easy, as we can tell by her possession of a glare that can melt stone, Matsu is not to be trifled with. Director Shun'ya Ito made no secret of being torn between the arthouse crowd and the down and dirty exploitation mob, as he would veer wildly from brutal bloodshed and sexual kicks to starkly stylised sets and cinematography, serving up a W.I.P. flick like few others. Kaji was the riveting glue that held this together, if she had not been so convincing as a woman out to get her own back, not merely on the cop but on a whole society that routinely denigrates and abuses women, then the film, and indeed the franchise, would have fallen apart, but her cold, steely performance carried it.
So cold was she in the sequel, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, that she didn't speak at all for the greater part of her role, instead relying on a hard stare that would put Paddington to shame to convey Matsu's determination and indomitability. In fact, aside from the first quarter of an hour or so, none of this took place in the titular jailhouse at all, preferring to follow the protagonist on one of her escape attempts. Initially the cruel warden (is there any other kind in films like these?) tries to put Matsu in her place by making an example of her: she is brutally gangraped by what looks like four monks in stocking masks, but although she bites a nose of one of them, she cannot prevent it.
Her fellow prisoners look on with the disdain the warden anticipated, regarding her as a weakling to have gotten into this situation, but we know better, and her stoic demeanour still carries the sting of her nickname, Scorpion. So it is that we get to the main course of the storyline, where she organises a breakout from a prison van transporting her and some other jailbirds that sees the guards dead: she is adept at getting others to do her dirty work for her, at times without them fully realising how they are following her desires. Now out in the countryside, she compels the unofficial gang forward to first find shelter, where she sets a booby trap for the guard dogs sniffing them out to break their necks.
But it would not be a Matsu movie without male chauvinist pigs getting their comeuppance, and by and by a group of tourist businessmen on a bus trip who long for the days when they could assault Chinese women in the war and indeed maul at the tour guide with their hands, are about to cross paths with the escapees. Director Shun'ya Ito was back too, applying his pulp sensibility and adding a curious poetry to some sequences - the sum up of the gang's past crimes, the waterfalls running crimson when one of them is raped and murdered by the businessmen. But there's a scorched earth policy to the atonement, as not only are the chauvinists attacked, but the innocent tourists too, all under Matsu's command.
This talent for manipulation continues in part three of the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, from the following year 1973, one of two entries in months. This time we catch up with Nami after she has been free for some time, but as we witness in the opening sequence, she remains much sought after by the law, one of whom makes the mistake of handcuffing himself to her on a subway train. The result? She traps his arm in the closing automatic doors and proceeds to hack off the limb with her blade, running off with it dangling from her wrist through the Tokyo pedestrians as they turn to look on, aghast. But there was another character who she shared the film with now.
She was Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), a prostitute who has to use the oldest profession to get by, as she supports her brother who was left mentally defective in an industrial accident at work. This has the unfortunate effect of making him sexually insatiable, which may have you wondering how this made him different from every non-guard male in the series, though he does have a psychiatric excuse for his perversion. Yuki does her best to calm him, which basically means allowing him to have sex with her, and now she is pregnant; she meets Matsu in a graveyard where they make friends, well, kind of, but she does invite the con back to her modest home where the brother predictably attacks our heroine.
She can handle herself, however, but there's another villain apart from the now-one-armed detective to make life difficult for her, and she is a gangster who victimises the prostitutes under her banner to the extent she forces an abortion on one when she is six months pregnant (!) because she is bad for business. This lack of solidarity with the sisterhood in general - she also has Yuki attacked because she is not making any money from her - makes her an obvious target, especially when Matsu falls under her unforgiving gaze, but nobody returns a look more frighteningly than Nami. This would be the last in the franchise to be directed by Shun'ya Ito, and he went out on some spectacular setpieces: the inferno in the sewers a highlight.
Kaji's final outing in the role was in the same year's Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701's Grudge Song, where despite the promise in the previous instalment that she was never heard of again, there was a change in director to Yasuharu Hasebe and prompted her to return, marking the official end to the series. There were other follow-ups, but fans consider them superfluous without the leading lady who made the quartet so memorable, though this fourth is not universally embraced as a fitting end, and indeed it does leave her with a conclusion of sorts, but predictably with an opportunity to return if she wanted to. In fact, she continued acting well into the twenty-first century, as it turned out.
Just not in the Scorpion movies; here she found romance with a strip club engineer, Kudo (Masakazu Tamura) who thanks to the brutality of the police during the days of the student riots at the end of the sixties, has ended up scarred and impotent. If anything, the cops were more revolting than ever in this one, going as far as gangraping a female prison warden who has displeased them in the film's most infamous scene, aside from those involving Nami: it was clear there was a lot of resentment in Japanese society about the authorities, and that made itself plain in the plotting of pinky violence efforts like this. Such subversion found a place to prosper in the work of Kaji, and she became a poster girl for it.
It is Nami's lot in life to be betrayed, and although she cures Kudo's impotence for a while in a tender love scene quite apart from the way sex is depicted throughout the other pictures, the cops are too influential with their strongarm tactics and he gives her away, leaving her to spend the second half back in prison. Well, it wouldn't be a women in prison movie without that institution featuring, though for at least three of this franchise you would be surprised how little time was spent with the heroine as an actual convict. The scummy detective behind her persecution is determined to see her hang, and that develops into a finale that is both absurd and fitting, though as ever she is left very much alone in a hostile world. Always on Matsu's side, and that of the oppressed, particularly women in that situation, these were weirdly feminist items no matter the amount of sexploitation they included. Meiko Kaji made her name with these, an unstoppable icon of action cinema.
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