On the day of my graduation they sorted us into two separate groups based on gender. This was something they always used to do, even if it felt archaic. It was our school’s own way of keeping things segregated and uniform. Our school was big on that word: uniformity. If you didn’t fit a certain degree of wealth, skin pigmentation or overall presentation you were mostly left to your own devices. That’s how I got to my own graduation day, despite not really having the grades or the work ethic to have earned that diploma. I was smart, that much was sure, but I couldn’t have accounted for just how badly things would turn at around my thirteenth birthday.
When transgender people discuss their first puberty they say things like “it hit me like a ton of bricks” or “something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it”, but those diagnoses didn’t really fit what happened to me. Puberty didn’t hit me like a tidal wave or any other exaggerated environmental descriptor to metaphorically mean “unwanted erections” or something else that was just as sinister. No, puberty didn’t really hit me at all, and that was the central problem. I went through life looking like a large twelve-year old with a featureless face and enough accumulated weight to hide the fact that I didn’t have curves or muscles. It was my body’s own way of shielding me from any concrete gender designation. I hardly felt real at all. Part of that was my own doing, but in truth it was a coping mechanism to deal with the issues I was having in my absent adolescence. I needed a girlhood, but what I grew up with couldn’t rightly be given that word and all that comes with it. What I experienced was something more akin to stasis where I waited on my body’s systems to finally come alive and turn me into the woman I knew that I was. It’d be years before this happened, but I already knew what was wrong with me. I was transgender, but I couldn’t transition in that environment.
Spending each morning vomiting or making up excuses to miss school, due to the anxiety of having to present as male and being horrified of how other boys would react to your own latent femininity isn’t much of a childhood. As the years went on and everyone began to consider me an adult, despite the image of my own body, I became more distraught at my complete lack of a future, and this all came to a head on the day of my high-school graduation.
Sliding a green gown over the shape of my body felt wrong. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just accept what gender was given to me in life. Pushing an objective fact like “you are a woman” to the back of your mind in hopes of stamping it out entirely doesn’t really work when something as mammoth as gender comes into play. It effects everything. How you’re seen, how people react to you, and what kind of life you’d live. Our society is built upon these very ideas, and they haven’t changed much with wave after wave of feminism begetting worse men and elected officials. As badly as we’d like things to change assholes keep making things difficult. So if everything is effected by gender and people expect you to live as someone that isn’t who you are it damages every single facet of your life. I knew this when I stood in that church waiting to celebrate with all my classmates. Most were happy, others unsure, but only I was quiet.
I walked upstairs and sat in am empty pew, resentful of god, but still willing to pray for help. Before I could get much further than “Dear god” a teacher of mine sat down beside me, and said, “you’ve always been a little bit of a loner haven’t you?”. I could have cried if my body would have let me. Maybe this was God’s own way of speaking to me, because she did calm me down enough to keep me from having a panic attack. She said, “whatever the future holds. It will be yours”. I still think about those words to this day.
When I walked downstairs it didn’t take long for me to start spiraling again. Most of the other boys were talking about potential military service or going off to Junior College to play football. Someone asked me what I was going to do after high school, and I told them I was going to be a writer, but I wanted to say I was going to become a woman. In rural Kentucky, there’s not much worse a teenage boy could want to be, and you especially don’t say these things in a church. It wouldn’t be long before the actual ceremony took place, and I sat there without talking to anyone, stewing in my own mind, standing at a cross-roads looking for an answer that was obvious, but one I was too afraid to reach out and grasp.
Miserable would be an understatement when I saw every girl in my graduating class lined up alongside me in white gowns. I remember looking down at the definition of my own perceived maleness, stained in emerald. This is how the world saw you. This is the childhood they gave you. This is everything wrong with your life, illuminated in the colour of a gown that isn’t white. I thought of everything I lost that I’d never have in my own hesitation to state my own girlhood. I wanted nothing more than to be on the other side of the aisle. A daughter to be proud of. Someone with a future. A woman. Instead, I was an obituary waiting to happen, we all are, but mine was going to come too soon for reasons never stated. As I grabbed my diploma, adorned in gold with a name I had long ago forsaken, I had this feeling of utter failure cascading around me. I’d never get these years back or these chances at being myself. They don’t make movies about teenagers who refuse to live, and they don’t write songs about teenagers who barely exist. They won’t remember you if you fade into the background. It’ll be like you were never there.
I didn’t throw my graduation cap up in the air. I didn’t see the point of it. I didn’t see the point in much of anything those days, except obsessive thoughts of longing over a person I wanted to be, and grieving over her non-existence. The image of me, sitting hunched over, wearing the colours of my own assumed funeral as the optimism of everyone else tumbled around me, must have been a striking image. Everyone moved forward. I sat still. Caps fell to the ground like rain. Except this one person who wore it like a cross to bear. I’ll never heal from what I lost in my absent girlhood growing up. A quiet reminder that you cannot build a house without a foundation.
Today, I rarely ever wear the colour green. My best friend frequently tells me that I look great in that shade, but I’m not quite ready to reclaim that colour for myself.
I do wear white.
I’d give anything for that to have always been true.
Confessions of a Female Badass is an ongoing column at Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I discuss women in genre cinema.
Kimber Lee is a ballerina, a bartender, an American, and an artist, but at heart she’s a wrestler. There’s a defiance in the title of this documentary that pushes back at preconceived notions of what a woman can be when she steps inside the ring. She’s a wrestler. Not eye candy, not a prop, not a model or a valet. She’s here to kick-ass and tell a story, just like all of the men who enter into this sport of gonzo theatrics and ineffable heart.
Kimber Lee states that she’s always had to prove herself, because she’s a woman. Wrestling is still held back by lecherous ideas of the extent of what a woman can do in the sphere of the sport, and this documentary centers that understanding through narrative and framing. In the opening frames Kimber is seen as a solitary figure backstage- a lone woman in a sea of men. The images used here speak volumes of the disparity in gender in wrestling. Kimber is outnumbered in all possible frames, and director Kenny Johnson focuses on this attitude by using wide shots to truly capture the environment. Large, bulky men tower over Kimber, but she’s resolute in what she does, and she hopes to foster change and prove that women can hang with men inside the ring and out. Wrestling hit its zenith in popularity in the late 1990s where it wasn’t uncommon to see women, frequently playboy models, “compete” in lingerie pillow fight matches and even more degrading examples like mud wrestling and bra and panties matches. Wrestling earned a reputation that at the time was deserved of being barbaric, offensive, and trashy. The World Wrestling Federation plunged to the depths of good taste to compete against rival company World Championship Wrestling and in doing so saved their company and made wrestling reach a level of popularity it has not seen since again, but in doing so they severely damaged the possibilities of women who wanted to be wrestlers. Today, wrestling has dropped the easy, gutter-trash programming (mostly) in favor of competitive theater, but women in wrestling, and wrestling in general are still fighting to be seen as respectable.
Kimber Lee’s mom forbid her from watching during the late 90s, and no one can really blame her, but nonetheless Kimber fell in love, and after her career as a ballerina closed she decided it was time to become what she admired to be so much when she was younger. It’s telling that even in standing beside men who dwarf her in size Kimber looks like she belongs. In wrestling acting is paramount and Kimber’s body language is of utmost confidence. She stands right in the face of her competitors and knows she can take their best shot and give it back to them tenfold. Kimber is an independent wrestler and sometimes competes in matches against men, called Intergender Wrestling. As Wrestling is theater and predetermined it can skirt a lot of the more troublesome implications of seeing a man hit another woman. In wrestling equality can be found through combat, and women can fight back and win. Intergender wrestling is complicated, because it so frequently can falter and merely reaffirms gendered notions of men and women, but when it is merely treated as wrestling and the competitors are equal it can be divine.
She’s a Wrestler utilizes implications made famous in the television drama Friday Night Lights. Wrestling is made special by showing it as a gathering. Fans are seen climbing into seats, the lights are being set up, the wrestlers linger around stretching and later putting on their gear. It’s a production, but it has the vibe of a small town bonding over sports. The Independent wrestling scene offers something unique in the ability to showcase what younger fans see as superheroes with a real chance to feel them up close. Not fifteen or twenty feet away you can see Kimber’s determination, her pain, her grace and her strength as she fights back. She’s wrestling for herself, but every other little girl (or little boy) who needs to see someone be strong in the face of bullying or aggression.
The film eventually eschews its ground-level filming of the action and the vibe of the independent wrestling show in favor of documentary techniques like talking heads, but Kimber’s words inform the strength behind these original images and give them more context. Kimber distinctly understands that she’s more than just a wrestler, but also an activist. There is no untangling the political from women’s wrestling and she knows that she’s on the front-lines of an evolving business as not just an independent wrestler, but a figure for little girls everywhere to enact change within an industry so dominated by men that it isn’t rare to see independent shows hold one women’s wrestling match for every six or seven by men.
There is one final image that brings together the thesis of why Kimber wrestles and it is Kimber signing a balloon in front of a girl who attended the show. In voice-over Kimber states “I’m this girl who just stood up to this guy, and she thinks “oh my gosh I can do this too”. I’ve always said, like, if I have one little girl somewhere, or little boy, I don’t care, that says “I want to be like Kimber Lee”. If I inspire somebody I’ve really done my job.” She’s a Wrestler.
When I was growing up I was yearning for a figure like Wonder Woman to come by and sweep me off my feet and give me something resembling confidence and strength to make it through day to day life. But Wonder Woman wasn’t around. I was forced to try and understand Batman and Robin or the Power Rangers and that feeling of identification was never present in my childhood until I found Sailor Moon. I thought I was over finding strength through characters when I was in my twenties, but something curious happened when I found professional wrestling. I started watching Shimmer Women Athletes right around the time when I came out as a transgender woman, and here were these women who were so profoundly strong and confident and they were all different from one another. I realized that my body type wasn’t all that different and I could be whoever the fuck I wanted to be with conviction. I found my own Wonder Woman in Sara Del Rey, but the great thing about wrestling, and the great thing about Kimber Lee is that she’s making it so that you don’t have to be in your twenties to see that you can be strong. It’s for kids and adults, and in her own small way she’s making it okay for little girls and even young women to say I want to be a wrestler. I want to be like Kimber Lee. I can do this. I can do anything.
Confessions of a Female Badass is an ongoing column at Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I discuss women in genre cinema.
[TW: Discussions of Rape, Rape Revenge Movies, Incest and Rape Culture]
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable would not be the implied conception of Themyscria at the close of Jailhouse 41. Instead of investing in the images of free women who are a collective force when brought together Best Stable opens with a metaphorical image that Scorpion (Meiko Kaji) would always carry her past and she’d continually be chased by the dogs of patriarchy. Over a brief sequence on a subway Scorpion is seen sitting alone before a group of police officers chase her out of the underground vehicle. One of those men is Detective Kondo (Mikio Narita), the man in charge of finding her. He manages to handcuff himself to the wanted criminal, but not before the subway doors are shut. This would leave Scorpion with just enough space to hack off his arm in a bloody heap. She runs through the station and the city with an arm trailing behind her. This image is in direct opposition to the image that closed Jailhouse 41. Scorpion is still running, but her pursuit towards freedom or safety is singular and she’s still dragging with her the men who long to see her punished for her crimes of murder. There is no wish-fulfillment in the land of beasts and the rabid tone of fiery vengeance in the previous two films is replaced almost entirely by an all encompassing, rain soaked melancholy. It’s an ironic choice to present the freedom of Scorpion as something ultimately doomed compared to the relative optimism in the predictability of her prison stay, but it’s a masterstroke in giving director Shunya Ito’s final Scorpion picture a heavy dose of reality and resets the stakes so that Scorpion has something to say beyond her vengeance. What Beast Stable marvelously accomplishes is setting up a secondary truth. We are not Scorpion, and some of us suffer regardless of some hope that we won’t.
Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) is the figure with which that idea of suffering with no reprisal is presented. Yuki is an inherently tragic character beautifully acted by Yayoi Watanabe in what would be one of her only performances on film. Yuki is introduced by way of incestual rape. One of Shunya Ito’s greatest strengths as a director in this series has been his ability to clearly define the central figure of any given scene through blocking and camera work. This becomes especially important when you’re trying to shoot sequences of rape where it is incredibly difficult to retain point of view and intention. The Female Scorpion films in the hands of Ito have consistently given us a window into the horror of the act while still grounding us with the person this is happening to, and frequently these acts are part of a larger picture and not framed as the whole reasoning for revenge. In the previous film Jailhouse 41 none of the women featured were in jail for instances of revenge against rapists except Scorpion. By giving them a larger backstory they are rounded out in ways that make for interesting characterization. Oba (Kayoko Shirashi) in particular is one of the greatest characters in these movies, because she isn’t a saint, but you can see how she becomes who she is through both Scorpion’s eyes and her own. In Beast Stable Yuki is a great character, but it is with the assertion that rape has always been a part of her existence and she bares the scars of something that was never her fault. Yuki’s rape sequence is handled far differently than the other sequences in the Scorpion films; gone is the outlandish demonic faces of the abusers and the pained expression of a woman at their hands. Instead there is silence, darkness and a loss of expressiveness. There is no music to amplify the horror or frenzied camerawork to show struggle, but there is a calm acceptance of what is happening that is deafening in the blank face of Yuki. Ito shoots the scene with a few simple shots built around a couple of cuts to relay the language of the scene. There is an establishing shot of the landscape which looks like something out of Nagisa Oshima’s The Sun’s Burial and then an overhead shot of Yuki and her brother naked in a dark room. A close-up of Yuki’s face is then employed and it’s clear that she’s dissociated from the actions going on in her bedroom. These few shots are crisp, concise and introduce the audience to the central problem of incest for Yuki in a way that is not typical of exploitation’s usual tool-chest of sleazy over-statements and gratuitous nudity.
I am struck by the way Yayoi Watanabe approaches the role of Yuki as an insular person and how the camera always understands her own space through distance and estrangement. Yuki is characterized by sunken shoulders, recoiling posture and keeping her head down at all times. All of these actions present a person who doesn’t want to be touched, looked at or interacted with, and it is only considerate that the camera comply through medium and long shots. Even in the company of the city Yuki is framed in a way that presents her isolation by finding areas of quiet like an abandoned bridge, an alleyway or a graveyard. Through isolation Yuki can have some semblance of control over her body. She can shield herself from interactions, contact and conversation with other people and simply rest inside herself. She’s a loner by circumstance and survival. She comes home to her rapist so to find her own peace she has to find a nothingness in architecture where her safety is attainable. It’s reminiscent of what Sheryl Lee would do with body language so masterfully in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In that movie Laura collapsed inside of her own hell, and Sheryl played the role like someone grasping for a hand on the edge of darkness. When she was touched she reacted like a bundle of exposed nerves jolting into a reactionary refusal of interaction. David Lynch presented much of this through her already severely damaged headspace due to her own dealings with incestual rape. A lot of Laura Palmer’s eventual crumble is shown rather than implied differing her from Yuki’s situation, but where they share similarities is in the process of untangling themselves from reality to find peace in a solitary space that could be their own. For Laura Palmer that had to be achieved through death, but in Yuki’s case it is in the graveyard of her own mind, away, locked inside herself.
Yuki only finds Scorpion while strolling through the city trying to find a spot to hide her client and herself (Yuki’s a sex worker, another similarity with Laura Palmer). Scorpion is trying to untangle herself from the arm she chopped off in the opening scene of the movie. At first glance it looks like she’s gnawing at the arm until it relinquishes itself from the handcuffs, but she is merely dragging the cuffs across a headstone (a call back to her scraping knife in Jailhouse 41). Yuki is frightened by what she sees, but she and Scorpion have an understanding. They lock eyes and there is a cut to Scorpion free from the handcuffs sleeping at Yuki’s house. During this scene Scorpion meets Yuki’s rapist, and it turns out to be her brother who has brain damage from a working incident and cannot control his actions. This does not absolve him of his crimes, but Ito asks audiences to have empathy for the man in two images. One of which is achieved by placing the eye of the camera through his perspective when he attempts to rape Scorpion. This is the first time this has happened in these movies. The camera holds on his hands as they shake over Scorpion’s sleeping body, and it is a horrifying image, but also one of unsureness and skepticism. It is almost as if part of him knows this is wrong, and due to the knowledge of his damaged brain, it becomes a tragic scene. Scorpion fights back and the scene moves between their point of view until she grabs a knife and cuts Yuki’s brother. Before Scorpion can kill him Yuki walks in and she’s infuriated that her brother attempted to rape her new friend. She punches him and screams “Don’t I give you all the sex you could ask for? How could you?”. There’s a close-up of Scorpion’s face after this line of dialogue and Meiko Kaji’s acting here is noteworthy, because she lowers her guard and with her facial expressions she shifts the scene from anger to empathy, and her perspective is usually the one we follow. Yuki keeps her brother locked up in their house for fear that he may rape another woman. She carries a cross for the other women of this city she’s protecting by metaphorically taking bullets for them by absorbing the sexual assault of her brother. The greatest test of Scorpion’s ability as an avatar of Women everywhere (an idea presented in the second movie) is when she sees a woman like Yuki. Yuki obviously deserves to be free of her brother, but she is also the only person keeping him out of trouble and away from the streets. Yuki is a sacrificial lamb and Scorpion is a slaughterer, but when Scorpion sees the pain in Yuki’s face as they lock eyes she understands that Yuki doesn’t need revenge, she needs someone to understand, and as an audience we are supposed to as well.
This short scene is the most complex and daring in the entire Scorpion series because it asks us to understand the mindset of someone who is being raped by someone that they love. This scene is here to give Yuki more depth and place us even further into her world, a world she can barely control. It is here that the Scorpion series becomes more about Yuki than the iconic, titular character we’ve come to love. There is plenty of vengeance in the movie, but the emotional core of Beast Stable is in the face of a girl who can barely keep herself grounded on Earth. Yuki is a figure whose heart is pure, but has dealt with the most vile act and still comes out of it hoping for a brighter day. This is not to say that she doesn’t have her moments where she wishes her brother was dead, and there is a scene where she begs for that to happen, but she never acts on that desire. It is something I can’t possibly grasp, and it complicates Beast Stable because audiences are hardly asked to grapple with these questions. In the Jack Garfein film Something Wild (1961) a similar circumstance happens where after battling with post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of being raped Mary Ann Robinson (Carroll Baker) ends up with another abuser only to live a life of domesticity. She is not persecuted for her actions in that film and Yuki isn’t persecuted here, but instead these films ask tough questions about the mindset of Women who have dealt with sexual assault. It is important to note that these movies contain a dense interior related to the physical self. They are burrowed in and so totally inside the body. They also don’t come up with any definitive answers on how to overcome the problem of having been raped, because there is no easy fix for survivors of sexual abuse. These movies instead let these Women decide what to do next and how to move forward if moving forward is even possible. It’s important that movies like Something Wild, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable remember the Women at the heart of their stories and never let the act of rape become something trivialized to a plot point or something secondary in these characters lives. When a movie is about rape it must wrangle with what this means and how this effects their characters in ways significant and minor. It cannot merely be background noise. In Female Prisoner Scorpion it is the catalyst for the suffering of Women everywhere. This movie understands it is about sexual power dynamics and the onus is unfairly on the Women to stop this action from happening which reflects the real world where we’re told to watch how much we drink at parties, not to walk down the wrong street or make sure our skirt isn’t too short.
The following day Yuki picks Scorpion up from her new job where she works as a seamstress, but something is amiss. Yuki greets Scorpion with a jubilant smile, but it almost instantly vanishes a second later, as if breaking her emotional consistency with happiness would undo her own sense of safety. She turns her back to Scorpion and there is a following close-up on the new friend’s face that reads as concerned. The tranquility of their near silent friendship is broken up by the feeling that Yuki is about to unleash a torrent of emotions, and that she is at her breaking point. Ito holds his camera on the two as they move through the city always making sure that the blocking is keeping in key with Yuki’s reluctance for intimacy and Scorpion’s distant compassion. Yuki always follows Scorpion and not the other way around, and when they sit and watch the sunset over a train station with a soda in hand a scene of possible dialogue becomes a moment of reflection. Scorpion is almost begging Yuki to open up through her glances and gestures towards compatibility, but her new friend is uncomfortable. When the two later end up at Scorpion’s apartment Yuki sits in the dark with her head down and she finally breaks the silence. “I’m not going home to my brother tonight. Let him starve for all I care”, but Scorpion isn’t buying her anger and tends to the groceries she just bought. Yuki then accelerates things and asks Scorpion to kill her brother, but bursts into tears seconds later. The final twist in the scene is that Yuki vomits after this reveal. She runs over to the sink to wash her mouth out before admitting that she’s pregnant. Her voice is heightened by her emotional upheaval and her strength in her own stoicism is ruptured by a pregnancy she doesn’t know how to process. A magical thing happens in the final frames of this scene. Scorpion gently rests her hand on Yuki’s back and out of Scorpion’s mouth she delicately says one word “Yuki”. It’s a gesture of pure intimacy that Yuki is not familiar with and we haven’t seen in the movie up to this point. Shunya Ito is consistently aware of what he’s doing with blocking and where his actors are in frame and in the case of Yuki she hasn’t been touched by anyone except for her brother up until this point. In the earlier scene where Yuki saves her brother from Scorpion’s blade there is an overhead shot of Yuki crouching beside her brother with a shadow splitting the image in half with Scorpion on the other side of the room. That image speaks multitudes of how her relationship to the world works. Yuki is essentially trapped by this unseeable barrier that makes her life one of near complete isolation. This is coupled in the fact that Yuki and Scorpion were always previously framed with space in mind on their walk back to her apartment. With this one single hand on Yuki’s back Scorpion shatters a wall and realizes Yuki’s potential to feel the touch of another human being again without it being rigid, painful and horrific.
Yuki is unfamiliar with that level of affection and sprints out of the apartment to get away from something she isn’t yet ready to embrace. On her way out a box of matches falls out of her purse that are slung into Scorpion’s chest by a man who crosses her off as she tries to catch up with Yuki. He’s not a man of subtlety and he removes his ridiculous sunglasses and licks his lips at the mere sight of Scorpion. What is revealed later is that this man works as security for the prostitution ring that later harms Yuki when she starts to work in their territory without permission. He slings the matches into Scorpion’s chest and walks away, but his body language and his intentions are clear in that he is using his power as a man to take possession and ownership of Scorpion’s body with a sexual advance and the severity with which he threw the matches back at Scorpion. The matches become a consistent theme throughout this movie as a symbol of the relationship between Yuki and Scorpion. The first of these images comes moments later in Scorpion’s apartment when she’s flicking the matches one by one and this is edited together with a scene of Yuki putting on lipstick for her job. This split POV enhances their relationship and makes the film feel symbiotic between the two women. The most striking moment occurs when Scorpion flicks a match and through that brief lighting of the flame a tear is visibly running down her cheek. Her face is otherwise emotionless, but this one moment of emotional significance from Kaji speaks volumes for her ability to convey with gestures both minimal and maximal. In the Arrow Video set Shunya Ito consistently compared her to Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name character from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, but she is much more complex than Eastwood’s iconic gruffness and infinite cool. She is instead a towering figure of empathy, motherhood, and warmth funneled through a psychedelica that owes debts to Seijun Suzuki, Nagisa Oshima and an emotional wellspring that is closer to Maria Falconetti in her ability to convey a total facial performance
The previous two films in the Female Scorpion franchise had to deal with genre expectations that bridged the gap between genres such as horror, rape-revenge, women in prison and women on the run. These movies had a duty to cross off certain elements on a checklist in order to be made, and for the most part these movies succeed at taking these genre limitations and turning them into strengths. For Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable those expectations are gone in favour of a freedom that gave Shunya Ito and company the permission to run wild with what they wanted to portray to an extent. However, with the diminishing need for genre fulfillment there was a new one for sequel expectations that handcuffs Scorpion slightly. Ironically the thing that gets in the way of what Beast Stable wants to accomplish is the actual act of vengeance, which was the core of the previous two movies. The vengeance in Beast Stable is closer to a digression, but like the previous two films this obligation becomes a strength, because they didn’t sleepwalk through this part of the filmmaking process or anything else.
The vengeance that must be fulfilled in Beast Stable is tied together through a few coincidences that link the characters of Yuki, Scorpion and a third woman who isn’t named. This final woman is introduced shortly after Scorpion’s run in with the man in her apartment complex and like Yuki she is a sex worker and she is pregnant. She’s hiding the pregnancy from her bosses, but eventually begins to show. Katsu (Reisen Lee) runs the show in this side of town controlling the sex work game and her many security officers find out about this woman’s pregnancy and bring her to Katsu. Katsu is a figure of exaggeration with garish make-up closer to the styles of 70s drag queens and she lives with a flock of crows who hold no significance other than to paint her as an elaborate creature of strange taste. Around the same time the man who threatened Scorpion in the hotel dies, but not from her hand instead it’s from another woman, but Scorpion is assumed to have killed the security officer. The men who work for Katsu capture Scorpion at the same time they are punishing this third woman. They see her pregnancy as a loss of finance and force her to have an abortion. Yuki plays into these narrative threads through her own interaction with Katsu which ended in torture for having worked in her area without permission, and with her own pregnancy.
These rather cumbersome plot coincidences are handled with some level of grace through expert filmmaking and two scenes which are elegant, extreme and emotionally thunderous. The first of which is the forced abortion which is cut parallel with Yuki’s which was of her own free will. The forced abortion is one of total horror. It is a scene of annihilation. The room is sheathed in white with curtains, tables and walls all projecting this perceived cleanliness, but what is happening to this woman is anything but and her blood ruptures the paleness of the room. Her voice is like an alarm, heaving and moaning with guttural intonations that reckon with the complete sorrow of a motherhood lost. The sort of camerawork that was used in 701 and Jailhouse to convey rape is used as well, and it makes sense that these techniques that worked so well in those previous two movies would work well here, because both scenes are used to show someone taking something from another person. There’s a close-up of her face that elicits such total pain it would be easy to miss that she grips a scalpel, but this too is in frame and leads into the single most powerful image in the whole of the Scorpion series.
In an interview with Arrow Video Shunya Ito stated that Luis Bunuel was one of his favourite directors and the recurring blade across the eyes image is an homage to Un Chien Andalou. In Jailhouse 41 Scorpion witnesses the death of an old woman who in her final moments gives Scorpion a knife. After she is given that weapon the old woman dies and is buried underneath the autumn leaves after a deep gust of wind and then vanishes. Upon seeing this Scorpion takes that blade and runs it across her eyes and in that moment she became mystical and endowed with an assumed power to complete her tasks of vengeance at all costs due to the spirits of Women scorned. Beast Stable uses this image too, but Scorpion’s possession is given so much more weight due to what we’ve seen happen to the woman who gives her the scalpel. After her abortion the unnamed woman is brought back to Katsu’s lair to die, but inches away from her is Scorpion being held captive for her assumed murder of one of their security guards. Scorpion notices the woman edging closer and closer so she dangles her arm out of the cage and they touch. Scorpion’s gesture gives this dying woman a last moment of assurance that what she has experienced will not go unpunished. With that outstretched arm Scorpion unfurls finger by finger the scalpel she grasped when they took what would be her child. Scorpion’s hands shake and she pulls the scalpel out of her hand. In an extreme close-up reminiscent of what Jonathan Demme would popularize years later in The Silence of the Lambs she takes that scalpel and drags it across her eyes. Meiko Kaji’s eyes are the window to the soul of these movies and an audience surrogate. Her eyes are bleary, bloodshot and about to burst with tears for what she has seen. She slowly pulls the blade across and the tears start to roll out, and it is in the intensity of her stare and the sorrow of the previous scene that makes this moment of action have context the previous usage of this image did not. Here, Scorpion becomes a reaper in a way that doesn’t ring as abstract or showy, but simply through the tools of cinema that have been apparent since the silent age, an image, a face and a reaction.
Yuki’s own abortion runs in syncopation with the unknown woman’s and gives an added dose of fuel to the revenge that Scorpion proceeds to unleash after she becomes possessed with the spirit of the dead mother. The idea of the inserted vengeance narrative inside of Beast Stable comes out of an analysis of how motherhood is perceived in the world in which they live. The narrative logs that form the bridge here are that rape can lead to unwanted pregnancy and how does abortion tie into this story? We never learn the unnamed Woman’s backstory, but it is assumed she is happy with her pregnancy, unlike Yuki, and they represent the opposite spectrum of how pregnancy is presented. On one hand Yuki’s fetus is the product of incest and she struggles with the notion of keeping or terminating the pregnancy, and she eventually decides to abort. The other woman is faced with the horror of not deciding what to do with her body, and her decision is made for her. This implies that Beast Stable is a pro-choice movie, and this perception is achieved through the simple parallel editing of how their abortions are performed.The Scorpion films ask these questions of what constitutes having a female body at its worst, and the growth in these movies is that this feeling has shifted slowly from an external idea of what femininity looks like to something internal and true due to the faces, body language and sheer presence of Meiko Kaji, Yayoi Watanabe and Kayoko Shiraishi.
Upon killing the men who forced the woman to have an abortion Scorpion says she’s possessed with the spirit of the dead girl, and what was assumed to be implied regarding Scorpion’s powers is confirmed, but her powers only give her so much, and she soon finds herself retreating from Detective Kondo and his men who want to see her die. Scorpion crawls into a sewer to hide, and what started in a damp hell would end there. In Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion she was sent to live in a dungeon of the prison where the floor was wet, cold and there was no light to creep through the darkness. In Beast Stable Yuki provides the light by dropping matches down the sewer and calling her name.
To call Scorpion’s name is to bring her to life, and the magic of watching the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies is in the belief that she’d appear. The idea of Scorpion is one of both justice and freedom that a woman isn’t alone and her heart can sing even when hell surrounds her. Meiko Kaji brought Scorpion to life through her steely gaze and her empathetic trust in the fruitfulness of women through her cinematic actions, both violent and affectionate. She created a figure of light and darkness that could take up a sword for the damaged or offer a healing hand when necessary. Kaji sings the theme song that plays throughout these movies and the lyrics say “A Woman’s life is her song” and my song is one of survival. Upon finishing Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable I came clean with a secret that I had harbored inside of me for a very long time. I sobbed on my husband’s shoulder and told him that my father raped me on a semi-regular basis while I was growing up. The experience of actually vocalizing my history with sexual abuse was a moment of healing, because I could finally begin to understand that I did nothing wrong, and I didn’t bring this on myself. Watching the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies has been a cathartic experience for my soul and having been open about my past I feel like I am able to move forward with my future. I saw something of myself in Yuki and I felt attached to her as she dropped matches down into the sewer calling her saviours name, and I knew that I had something of a saviour in Scorpion. The very idea of her was with me and even in knowing I’ll always drag my past around, she has given me the strength to pick up the pieces of my own life in some small way.
My childhood was destroyed and turned into something that damaged me by a patriarchal societal upbringing that intersected with transphobic views that smothered my reality and my possibility to find myself in a haze of physical, psychological and emotional abuse from parents and others. I never had a childhood for these reasons, much less a girlhood, but I’m relearning that it’s not too late to reconfigure and claim my own girlhood and define my childhood on my own terms.
My own sense of self had been muted for so long that my only outlet for expressing how I felt was through the vicarious nature of art, and specifically television, movies and music. Little tremors of power coursed through me in the images of Sailor Scouts because they stood up for themselves, which wasn’t something I had the voice or know how to do against a father who routinely made sure I evaded all things feminine or face his wrath in the form of a beating. My father thought he was beating femininity out of me and masculinity into me, but what he was doing was completely eliminating my sense of self and setting me up for later bouts of depression, submissiveness and PTSD.
I recently viewed childhood favourite Labyrinth in a cinema, and while I was always struck by how much I saw myself in the lead character Sarah one scene had slipped out of my mind, but came flooding back in torrents during this viewing. I was already crying a good deal throughout, because fellow gender weirdo David Bowie had passed away recently (he’d mean something to me much later in life), but one line of dialogue made a memory come back to me that I had forgotten. The memory was that of a young version of myself re-enacting Labyrinth in my backyard saying “You have no power over me” over and over again. Those words are a deliberate statement of reclamation. I wish I had the strength to say those words to my father when I was that young, but I never began to put those words into sentences until almost twenty years later. “You have no power over me”.
Fast-forward about ten years from that childhood memory and I’m listening to Bikini Kill, and finding a saviour in the words of Kathleen Hanna. I’m scribbling the words “Feels Blind” in bathroom stalls in the high-school I dreaded going to every day and on my bedroom wall as a kind of motto of my own sense of self. The bridge of the song features Kathleen singing her fucking lungs out, screaming the words “Women are well acquainted with thirst, How does it feel? It feels blind”. The muted nature of my life in my teenage years was an endpoint that I thought at the time would end in suicide, but getting into Bikini Kill was like a curtain being pulled down, and I finally had a voice of my own to speak and scream that I wasn’t satisfied. Kathleen’s voice was like a flurry, a kick, a shot of confidence. Bikini Kill pulled me down a rabbit-hole that got me into feminism and queercore bands like Team Dresch along with other all girl rock bands like Sleater-Kinney.. The all-girl part was really important to me, because I didn’t need a masculine voice to comfort me.. I needed reconciliation and support in knowing that I wouldn’t be alone in feeling the way I did from another woman, and Kathleen was that person for the longest time. Today, I have “Feels Blind” tattooed on my wrist, because I wouldn’t be alive without Bikini Kill.
When I finally moved away from my parents in the Summer of 2014 I told them I was going to Philadelphia to make movies. They knew I had contacts in Philadelphia who were making films of their own so I told them a lie to free myself. I went to Target after a 14 hour drive up the country (soundtracked by various Riot Grrrl acts) and bought some tops and jeans I could be comfortable in. I shed the oversized, masculine clothing on my body, and stepped into my own skin for the first time in my life. That was truly the first step in redefining my own girlhood, but I still lacked the language or the know how to get by on my own as a woman. I wasn’t socialized to know these things. I was an on-looker with all my best girlfriends while growing up, but now it was my time to learn what I wanted to, and what kind of person I would be. I’d be carving out my own journey and figuring out my own sense of self.
I’ve been struggling for a very long time trying to reconcile why my childhood turned out the way that it did, but the short answer to the question is that it’s the default considering how violent our society is towards transgender people. Today, I’m making a statement to free myself again from the burden of a broken childhood and the absence of my own girlhood while growing up. I am a girl, and I’m finding things out about myself every day. I’m turning into myself. I had a neglected girlhood, but I know it was present, because I could feel it, and I had a reckoning when I lived vicariously through other girls I looked up to in art. That my own girlhood was attempted to be stamped out by my own father’s ideas of patriarchal upbringing doesn’t matter anymore. I’m going to take the moments I can remember and cherish them, even if they were just in movies, and I’m going to hold onto them. They were the moments that eventually sculpted me into the woman I am today. My girlhood was observation. Looking into a window of a house I always wanted to enter. I’m finally here, and everything I ever wanted is now in practice. Everything I do makes me the woman that I am. That is my girlhood. That is my truth.
My Dad was not a good man. He ruled our house with a dedication to control that veered into threats that were both verbal and physical. I still have the emotional bruises that came with growing up with a man who came from a line of men who were taught to be respected was to be loved, and to be respected one had to be taught to obey through violence. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) talks about regrets. She saw a little girl being drug along a store by the arm much too hard by a father, and how she couldn’t do anything to stop it. The girl fell. Michelle said she knew girls like that because she was one. I was one too.
In Chantal Akerman’s previous short film La Chambre she experimented with big ideas on the nature of cinema and what constitutes as narrative in spaces. She takes that idea to its logical endpoint in Hotel Monterey. Monterey is a film made up mostly of static observational shots on the people who reside in a run down hotel in New York City. Hotel Monterey is rigorous to say the least, but there are these pockets of narrative surrounding the residents and the all encompassing oppressive look of the hotel is very deliberate in creating a specific feeling of dread. In my previous review for Hotel Monterey I likened the film to a thesis on the idea of a home, and how hotels are inherently these soulless institutions, because they are rarely the home of anyone. They exist only to be a substitute of the warmth that comes from having a home so Akerman’s filmmaking feels ghostly and cold. I still think that’s very present in Hotel Monterey as my ideas on what hotels represent hasn’t changed in the last year, but what has changed is my understanding of why exactly this film connects with me so deeply.
On a more basic level Hotel Monterey is simply about documentation, but the word simple never really conveys the maximal qualities of Chantal Akerman. This hotel is seemingly falling apart, the hallways look like they’ve been beaten down, white paint has turned yellow over the years, and rooms have garish furniture, but Akerman uses these tools to create a portrait. Her documentaries in this mode (Monterey, D’est, South) are in some way or another about the people who wander into her lens, but they are just as much about the rooms they occupy, and the images they end up creating in those rooms. One such image is that of a woman sitting in solitude with her back to the camera. It could be an image from any one of her movies, but this is the first time Chantal Akerman has used that picture. She is interested in how women, especially, occupy space over time. She brought this idea to perfection in Jeanne Dielman, but the women of Chantal Akerman’s films could star in any of her movies with little changes in substitution. Chantal Akerman makes Chantal Akerman movies and her movies feel like something primal in my very soul.
There is one image (it is the first screencap in this post) that I had forgotten about, but upon seeing it again brought out an internal pang of loneliness inside of my body. The pregnant woman in clear view who shines in perfection through the grime of the hallway walls. The door and the angular framing position her as a focal point and bring an image of deep blues and whites to contrast with her humanity. She seems so very far away though, there is no close-up, Akerman would hardly ever move the camera in this film so this is the only image we get. The only glimpse of her narrative and her life is this hallway, and her body piercing the frame and so clearly it ruptured the entire film for me on an emotional level. This image came along on the recent news that scientists believe trans women may be able to get pregnant within the next five years. I latch onto that glimmer of hope, and see this idea of who I want to be, and what I want my future to look like and Akerman’s cinema gives me an image of a pregnant woman within reach. Akerman’s cinema has always felt as if it has evolved around my mental state whenever I decide to watch one of her films, and that one example has left me in a state of bittersweet devastation upon coming into contact.
However, there is a deep irony in that image of the pregnant woman as it contrasts so severely with the rest of the picture. While the pregnant woman represents a semblance of life or a future the majority of the images in Hotel Monterey show a barren existence. Akerman spends the majority of time on the emptiness. There’s no sound, no life, just a bit of reflected light bouncing off the walls and showing these blank dead doors and the lack of a subject within. Even when people are front and centre to the camera, like in the elevator sequence at the beginning of the picture, they’ll often move out of the way of the frame as to not get in the way of whatever it is Akerman was shooting. This assumption that whatever it is Akerman was filming was more interesting than that person is unsettling, because even when Akerman was pointing the camera into dead space the people of Hotel Monterey would resist the camera and the idea of becoming the subject of her movie. In that way the humans of this hotel more closely resemble ghosts slipping in and out of frame and hardly effecting it in one way or another. The only people in the film who remain corporeal are the pregnant woman, the woman in the chair and the singular man, who we know almost nothing about. His face is eerie, and in some ways he could also be a ghost.
When Akerman finally does move the camera it is after nearly forty minutes of immobility, but it’s so slow and unsure of movement that it more closely resembles being sucked into the hotel itself at first. It is another simple camera movement, like the reverse of direction in La Chambre, that emphasizes her great attention to detail over time. When she shifted her mode of storytelling she began to more visibly move upward through the hotel rather than linger on the walls. It is in these final moments when she reaches the rooftops that she finally reaches New York City, the skyline is pearl, the city is just waking up, and the traffic is already building, it seems peaceful. It seems like at once an afterlife and a home. A new dawn brings light through the dreary hotel and maybe it’s residents will call this city their home. For Chantal Akerman she found a hotel, her first of many.
An apocalyptic pall hangs over an unnamed land and one girl lurches forward in the shadows. Her spaghetti hair is knotted and overtakes her frail body, tattered oversized clothing covers her alabaster flesh, and she’s hiding something. An oval of adoration. A piece of life in a land that has none. A future in a world devoid of such things. She continuously walks, seemingly reaching towards some sort of peace, cradling a singular egg that could be the only thing worth fighting for left in this world of overbearing darkness.
Mamoru Oshii’s Angel’s Egg is coloured by tragedy, and exists as a post World War II picture in the lens of Japan. The setting is never explicitly named, but something has been taken from wherever this ragged fairy tale is set. Elaborately painted backgrounds convey a world on the edge of total destruction. All that is left are fragments of nature and ghosts of buildings that once stood tall. Cracked ceramics and broken childhood toys are furniture. This sense of loss is so exquisitely manufactured through landscape imagery that as purely a reaction to the devastation caused by the atomic bombs this would be an undeniable example of anti-war cinema, but there is more present here than that. A maternal cinema that captures a primal need within some to give birth, in this case metaphorically, to a new world.
The Christian imagery is everywhere in this movie, and perhaps the strongest of these images is the idea of the virgin mother. Our lead character represents this idea, but a stronger idea is present in the simplicity of carrying a child and the potential for what this child could bring by existing. The unbound questions of possibilities of pregnancy or in this case bringing this egg to hatch. She adores this egg with everything in her, and it’s her only hope in a world that has torn itself apart with war and hatred. She is the only light that shines in this visual painting. Occasionally the reflection of her hair creates a halo effect. She is a mother, She is love, and she is god overseeing the last of humanity.
Is every mother a god in the sense that she gives life? Oshii’s film positions the girl as that figure. A bringer of life in a world that only sees a void. The machines and creations of men have killed the world so the purity of a girl as a representative figure of hope is evocative. A forward moving, abstract narrative calls upon a journey as she tries to keep this egg safe. She oversees the wreckage of the world, and she only grows closer to what it is that she’s carrying. The tragedy of Angel’s Egg is that everything passes, and men, even in worlds that don’t fully represent our own, will shatter everything that is beautiful.
She screams at the grave of the earth, and the tragedy that has been wrought. A mothers child is lost. A god weeps over her planet.
There is a devastating moment of clarity within my own personal cinema when she cradles her now flat stomach. That image is of pure grief, and perfectly illustrates in direct blunt imagery the hollowness of losing a potential child. In my own case, it is theoretical. Grieving over something never afforded to my body, with the lingering empty feeling of knowing this is for you, but not for you. I’ll never give birth. I am infertile. Viewing cinema within the personal creates an ache in my body when that image is presented in front of me. It is a mirror of my own need and desire for pregnancy, and ultimately grasping at nothing but loose cloth and things that will only exist in dream.
I still remember everything about arriving in St. Johns by airplane in September last year. I was on the way to finally live with the person whom I had been in a relationship with for years, and I distinctly recall the the feeling of purity that seemed to fill up my entire body. I’d check the time and know that with every passing minute I was another mile closer to the person that I loved, and reaching towards a place I could finally call home. For some reason I remember the chill on the windows of the aircraft and the fog that had crept over the city the most, and as it became darker and darker it felt like I was entering into a black hole, but when I came out on the other side I knew I’d be in paradise. The headphones that I had snuggly around my messy, blonde hair were feeding to me sounds of warmth, even if I was heading into an area more commonly associated with brutal cold. My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” swept over me in wave after wave of sonic distortion making my ears feel like pillows, and my body feel like mush in the airline seat. Still, I kept looking out the window knowing I’d soon be in a place where feelings of easiness, serenity, pleasure, and safety were boundless and the constrictions of growing up transgender in the American South would finally be unshackled from my subconscious. More importantly though, I’d feel his arms around me for the first time in my life. We skyped as often as we could, often drifting into a haze-y area of sleep as we watched each other through computer screens knowing someday this would all become physical. It would be the single greatest moment of my life. I built it up that way, and I knew it wasn’t going to disappoint me. I just had to get there. Cocteau Twins was next, and then something shimmered in the distance of the window through the impossible density of the fog, a tiny light, a slight burst of angel’s breath through the darkness telling me I was here. I couldn’t contain myself. The cliche of losing control of one’s body is not something I believed in until that moment when I started giggling to myself, and the smile didn’t seem to end on my face, but instead wrapped me up like a blanket. I still think back to this day of that music selection I had at the time, and the dissonance of feeling absolute warmth and stepping off the plane into a land of bitter cold. But I never felt the cold, because he was here. I was here. And his arms were as good as I thought they would be.
A funny thing happened the other night. I felt the shockwaves of that initial arrival once more, but it came with the images of a music video and a song that felt like a spiritual successor to the band I was listening to upon arrival in Newfoundland, and again I couldn’t push down the joy that seemed to be seeping out of my body. I felt that effervescent billowing of purity that I had only experienced once in my life. This music video triggered those feelings, and Claire Boucher’s stunning love letter to her fans in Asia is a testament to kindness and sincerity within art that felt connected to the type of love I was inundated with since arriving in Canada. REALiTi was never supposed to see the light of day, and this music video is mostly made up of shots Claire captured throughout her tour. It’s a scrapbook, but it’s also a statement to love, home, and people.
REALiTi is autumnal music. The kind of song that would play in a movie as two people desperately in love, clinging onto each other in this world finish their day and walk home. This is the essence of a hand outreaching for another or getting your hair pushed back long enough for a lover to bend in for a kiss. The anticipation of moments like that is REALiTi’s core structure musicially. Those hazing synths just eek out of the fibre of the song and Claire’s layered voice push everything up into the sky. Her voice is not one you can decipher lyrics from upon first listen, but words like scared, beautiful, love and home are enunciated and elevated for importance, and all those words connect to romance. Those words along with the icy, tenderness of the music paint REALiTi as something stunning. Claire never finished the song. She lost the original file so mixing and mastering never took place. It’s rough around the edges, and the chorus feels incomplete, but isn’t a pause important to the uncertainty of emotion? It only makes the song feel even more reflexive of humanity. And then there’s the video, a testament to colour, tone and architecture.
The bombast of the video’s colour palette in digital handheld cinematography is nothing short of extraordinary. Claire stands on a ledge at the beginning of the video only to be surrounded by lavish purples and golden street lights, her orange hair announces itself in the midst of all of the colour. As if it were her soul brightening in the face of all the mistiness surrounding her. There’s an abstract quality to her simply standing and existing within frame due to the offsetting colour of her hair and the decisions of her placement within the video. In another frame she stands with her back against a kimono painting that seems to swirl into her body that recalls the abstract. The most striking function of all the images throughout though is the relationship between nature and architecture. Grimes is shown dancing through jungle at some points, standing with the ocean to her back at others, and bathed in neon concert halls only moments later or shown moving up escalators into towering buildings. The beauty of what we have created and what we live in is not lost either way. Claire extends a level of interest in all of her subject matter and imagery finding them all equal of her lens as well as her body. Everything is worthy of being a dancehall or being shot on film with an eye for love, because this is our home, and she feels comfortable here among people with whom she’s never even met. That spark of humanity runs throughout the video, especially in the closing moments where specification on Grimes as a performer turns into Grimes as a uniter of people as they dance in the rotating yellow lights of a concert venue and join together in a singular moment of shared enjoyment.
There’s a moment in the video when everything begins to feel overwhelming where I get to the point where I’m about to cry and it’s closer to the end in the repeated lines “I go back alone” which sounds like “I go back home”. At this point Grimes is just dancing, moving her body to the music, and the video cuts to skyscrapers and fan reaction shots. Her music is her home, and the connection she has with these fans is the place where everything becomes perfect. I’m reminded of figuring out my place as well when watching this video. Since arriving in Newfoundland I’ve walked the streets, I’ve loved the people, and I found my place. My humanity was always locked up in this island rock of ice, because the person I feel truly connected to is located here. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a place separate from earth, like I lurched into some other existence that day, that I transcended my past life and was reborn into something different, because my heart’s full of love these days, and I had never felt that before. I want art that reflects the love I have for existence, and the warmth and joy we should have for the earth, each other, and the work we create right now, and Claire Boucher’s music video for REALiTi is informed by all of those things.