The films of the Female Prisoner Scorpion series tell the tale of Nami Matsushima (the perfect Meiko Kaji also known for Lady Snowblood & Blind Womans Curse) aka Scorpion, a normal woman sentenced to prison after being betrayed by her police detective lover. This event sets in a motion a seemingly endless orgy of misogyny, rape, blood, severed limbs, but most importantly empowerment. Exploitation cinema pumps through the veins of every episode Female Prisoner Scorpion offers, and it is taken to fantastic heights with some gorgeous cinematography and some classy arthouse touches throughout. What makes the experience of these films even more enjoyable is that each one offers it’s own unique vision, and they all feel very different to each other while still featuring the same classless subject matter. Many films from this era and genre get bogged down in a feeling of sameness and going through the motions to shock and hit all the exploitation beats. Female Prisoner Scorpion avoids this with a unique story for each film and by offering precision film making, care, and genuine craft throughout that puts some western counterparts to shame.
The inaugural title and by far the most visceral, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion will let you know right off the bat if this is a series you’ll want to do more than dip your toes into. With sexual assault and bloody violence on display in equal measure Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion does little to let go of your jugular after it’s opening moments. The origins of Scorpion herself are told in a series of psychedelic infused flashbacks presented almost like stage play complete with rotating sets. Going back and forth between these flashback scenes early on and the torture endured by not just her but all the women in the prison keeps the pace of the film moving while still allowing the film to feel like it is telling a much bigger story than it’s concept should really allow.
The bigger picture of the film shows Nami Matsushima’s transformation into Scorpion, the undaunted leader of the rebellious women prisoners who want revenge for their treatment at the hands of guards and even other inmates. It is a colorful tale featuring over the top characters, twists, turns, whiplash inducing snap zooms in all the right places, plenty of violence to satisfy the rabid and enough breasts to fill a tube site front page. All presented in some of the most beautiful cinematography you could ask for with a filled color palette and moody lighting throughout, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is so much fun to look at.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, while bleak, does feel like a complete story, so for some this may be all they need to feel that they’ve experienced Female Prisoner Scorpion. If single editions of the films are released like the recent Battles Without Honors and Humanity films I highly recommend this one to anyone even just curious about these movies but doesn’t want to bite on the collection. For me though, watching the final shot of the film and knowing I had 3 more to go filled my body with glee. I was hooked on the violence and the exploitative misogyny because I’m a terrible person but more importantly I was hooked on the heroism presented in Scorpion and just how much fun it is watching her get that sweet, sweet comeuppance.
Jumping right back into the story immediately where the first film left off, Jailhouse 41 keeps the sex and violence of the first film intact while raising the stakes and crafting an almost dreamlike world for the characters to play in. Unfortunately Jailhouse 41 falls a bit short compared to the rest of the series with a plot that, while starting fairly strong, sort of devolves into not much of anything by the film’s end. Still being subjected to the tortures shown in the first film, Scorpion manages an escape from prison for herself and 6 other female convicts. The setting of Jailhouse 41 is presented in an almost post-apocalyptic manner, with Scorpion leading this ragtag group of women dressed in rugged shawls across a seemingly barren wasteland.
With the only other people surrounding Scorpion being the cavalry of police in pursuit who we learned to hate in the first film, other despicable men in the outside world who only seem to care about rape, and some particularly wretched convicts she helped escape, Jailhouse 41 is a movie filled with loath-able characters. These putrid characters are a detriment to the film. Even with Jailhouse 41 being far and away the most surreal of all 4 films amplifying the psychedelic style of the first film with more colorful flashbacks and stage play style lighting, it’s in service of people you have a really hard time gaining empathy for like you did Scorpion in Female Prisoner #701. It also doesn’t help that there is no set endgame for the escaped prisoners of Jailhouse 41, aimlessly wandering an empty landscape to escape the law just doesn’t make for a very compelling experience.
Following the back and forth struggles of Female Prisoner #701, Jailhouse 41 more or less makes Scorpion feel like an annoyed bystander. Between the constant arguments of the group and the police always being a couple steps behind (because its not too hard to chase a party of 7), Scorpion seems to be wishing she had just escaped alone. This comes as a shift from the rebellious leader she was in the first film who wants to avenge the injustices of the prison. These aspects are still there, but are just too overshadowed by unbearable characters and an overly drudging plot compared to the first film. Jailhouse 41 has enough going for it to keep your attention and move you into the next chapter of the series, but for me it was the low point of 4 films I otherwise loved. Perhaps a re-watch of Jailhouse 41 will make me appreciate it more as it still has some great scenes with Scorpion and some exciting action that never made the film seem like a chore.
Beast Stable takes us from the barren wastes seen in Jailhouse 41 to the seedy underbelly of the city as an on the run Scorpion continues to evade law enforcement and a world filled with terrible men. Kicking off with Scorpion severing the arm of a plainclothes cop to avoid arrest, Beast Stable wastes little time jumping right back into the sex and violence that has become a staple of the series. Taking a step back from the surreal imagery and flashbacks of the first two films, Beast Stable starts a shift in direction for the rest of the series.
Feeling like a much more straightforward film, Beast Stable finds Scorpion not only attempting to avoid the law that is ever present on her heels but also becoming caught up in a plot against her due to someone from Scorpion’s past that’s held a grudge of their own. Unfortunately, Scorpion takes refuge with an innocent woman, and it is only a matter of time before these malevolent forces catch up and bring their worlds crashing down. Beast Stable plays out almost like one long chase scene that takes pit stops for eccentric characters, vicious sex crimes, and horrifying violence; essentially the same structure as Jailhouse 41 but more enjoyable for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the brisk pace combined with a more interesting story make this the pick me up you need after Jailhouse 41. What makes Beast Stable work even better is that it re-directs the focus of the films back to Scorpion and not those around her. Beast Stable also succeeds in it’s setting as well, with the seedy underworld of the city being much more interesting than the desolate landscapes of Jailhouse 41. Beast Stable moves quickly and is an easy watch that will hook you back into the series if you lost any faith because of Jailhouse 41; it is effective even if a bit simple and as with all these films it is certainly beautiful to look at.
Being the first film not to be directed by Shunya Ito, #701’s Grudge Song is the grand finale to Female Prisoner Scorpion that takes us back to where it all began. Scorpion, after suffering so much at the hands of men, finally allows herself to love again. This time she falls for Kudo, an ex-radical with a penchant for eating lemons, now working in a strip club who also has a history of violence at the hands of police. Scorpion, now being pursued by an ego driven police detective hellbent on seeing her suffer for her crimes, together with Kudo decides taking revenge on the pursuing detective is the best course of action, leading them down a bloody road of death, tragedy, and betrayal where there can be no happy endings.
#701’s Grudge Song, while not a stronger film than the original Female Prisoner #70,1 is easily my personal favorite of the collection. It has the easiest plot of the series to follow and really presents itself as the most accessible of all four films, combining elements of all previous entries while still telling the most cohesive story. Unfortunately, to achieve this it does lack the eccentric characters of part 3 (aside from the pursuing detective who is just enamored by Scorpion’s suffering) and most of the surreal aspects from parts 1 & 2. Thankfully, this does not make the film any less enjoyable, as it is still oozing with style in support of its sleaze and violence filled substance. As far as finales go you can’t ask for much better than #701’s Grudge Song; it is a bleak but satisfying and fitting conclusion to the Meiko Kaji era of the series.
Female Prison Scorpion as a whole is a must watch collection of cinema for a genre or exploitation fan. With so much passion in the filmmaking, gorgeous cinematography, a terrifying yet subtle performance from Meiko Kaji throughout, and enough sex and violence to satisfy the most rabid of film fans, Female Prisoner Scorpion is one of the pinnacles of what exploitation cinema can be. It is not going to be for everyone (and nothing Arrow Video releases ever is), but simply put it is sleaze at the very, very top of it’s game. You’ll love the hell out of it or want a shower afterward (quite possibly both).
What quickly became the most controversial aspect of this release from Arrow Video was the picture quality, with much criticism going to the overall blue tint which seems to be consistent throughout the films. Going into this series blind for the very first time I personally thought all four of the films looked great. These are movies I’d have been glad to watch on VHS, so what Arrow Video has provided here is more than satisfactory, especially considering what these films are and where they came from. Yes, the blue tint is present throughout all four movies, but overall it never detracts from the viewing experience.
Arrow Video has commented on the blue/cyan images, even putting the same statements in the booklet provided with this collection. Basically, this was present throughout the materials provided for the restorations, and this is as close as they could get to the original film presentation. The first film, Female Prisoner #701, looks the best by far. It comes with the most crisp image and is the least affected by any blue tinting. Jailhouse 41 can be pointed at as the biggest blue tint offender, but even so, when the film allows the color palette to open up for certain scenes it looks wonderful with all colors popping off the screen. Beast Stable & #701s Grudge Song are about equal in picture quality both looking fairly natural with gorgeous splashes of color throughout.
There’s a good bit of film grain throughout (especially in the 3 sequel films), but this only added to the experience for me. Overall, I was extremely happy with Arrow Video’s presentation of all 4 of the films provided here. It’s not perfect, but Arrow Video have some gorgeous transfers under their belt, so as an outsider enjoying this series for the first time I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt. Either way, this is most likely the best these films will ever look on the Blu-ray, so it is hard to really complain, especially considering the love and care that seems to ooze from every aspect of this package.
All four films had the mono soundtracks transferred from the original 35mm optical sound negatives for restoration. While clearly a mono soundtrack isn’t something to show off your fancy system, there is nothing offensive about the sound presented here. The films sound wonderful, with audio levels never needing adjusting, and that wonderful soundtrack blending perfectly with dialogue and other sound effects. The sound itself is fun and rightfully cheesy at times, with goofy groans, grunts, and slashing sound effects during the action scenes. I’m no audiophile, but I don’t think there is much to gripe about here considering the style of films being reviewed.
Arrow Video more and more have become known for their genuinely perfect packaging, and once again they do not disappoint here, boxing up four dual-disc clear slim Blu-ray cases, a 56 page hardback booklet, and a double-sided reversible fold out poster in a hard slipbox. Each separate film and the slipbox itself feature some rather striking newly commissioned art for the complete collection, and each film also has a reversible sleeve with the original artwork. This is a boxset presentation challenged only by a few others, and it is one collectors will need to have on their shelves.
The discs themselves, while not only containing the complete Female Prisoner Scorpion saga, are filled to the brim with special features dedicated to each film. Newly filmed appreciations for the flicks from critics and filmmakers are present, including Gareth Evans (director of The Raid) shedding light on just how influential these films have become over the years. Multiple archive interviews with the director of the first 3 films, Shunya Ito, detail his filmmaking process and what it was like working with the gorgeous Meiko Kaji. Multiple interviews with different Japanese film critics about the far reach these films had plus two new visual essays from film historian Tom Mes on the career of Meiko Kaji and the Female Prisoner Scorpion series itself round out this release nicely, and it is all presented in a package that just screams love for these films.
The only thing missing on any of the films is a commentary of any sort, but it is easily forgivable when you start diving into all the content they’ve provided here. With insights from both directors, the assistant director, production designers, critics, historians, and filmmakers who were inspired by the films, it is a plethora of goodies to indulge in that will give you a crash course on this type of cinema.
New 2K digital restoration presented in 2.35:1 1080p
Japanese mono track restored from original 35mm optical sound negative
4 Region A Blu-ray
4 Region 1 DVD
Easily a contender for release of the year, Arrow Video continues to set the gold standard with Female Prisoner Scorpion, providing us with a bloody revenge saga that will make genre and exploitation fans squeal with joy. Picture quality controversy aside, Arrow Video has knocked it out of the park with this release, and it is a must have for any film collector. Every facet of this package is top shelf and shows the very best of what a Blu-ray release can offer. The Female Prisoner Scorpion Complete Collection is a must own piece of cinema that I can easily give a full recommendation to, some of the absolute best that exploitation cinema has to offer presented in a platinum style package that Arrow Video has become known for.