Confessions of a Female Badass: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable

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.

Confessions of a Female Badass: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

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 and Rape Culture]

Exploitation cinema addresses difficult subject material with a directness not usually gifted to mainstream filmmaking. At its best these kinds of movies ask questions of viewers and unsettle their cultural ideas of sex, race, gender and class. Rape is not a stranger to cinema, but it is uncommon that this topic is handled with immediacy, concern and grace. Rape-revenge movies must have an understanding of the psyche of the abused, and facilitate this through camerawork and character depth. The person’s (almost always a woman) fight for justice needs to be paramount, and their agency within the narrative has to be a concern. The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies don’t always understand how to go about balancing their exploitation duties to pinku cinema, and rape-revenge to their righteous women’s anger, but frequently they find a balance of expressiveness and strength at the centre with the help of Meiko Kaji (Scorpion). Kaji (Scorpion) is a performer whose eyes emote more than dialogue ever could and her stoicism, determination and weathered life experiences gift the Scorpion films a character who viewers can identify with and follow, even when scenes are hard to bear. It is in her eyes that the Scorpion films find their power as vengeance pictures, and in Jailhouse 41 Scorpion evolves into a figure whose acts of reprisal become mystical. What is only hinted at in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion becomes gospel as Scorpion becomes the blade for all women.

Director Shunya Ito understands that this is Scorpion’s movie and nearly always has her point of view in mind. In the first moments of Jailhouse 41 Scorpion is hog tied once again in the pits of the prison in what I described as “dank hell” in my first piece on these movies. Scorpion is seen dragging a spoon across the rock floors and refashioning it into a primitive knife. She does this knowing it might be her one way to escape or to strike back at the warden who captured her and sent her back to prison at the close of the first movie. In these scenes the camera is looking up, just as Scorpion would be and the image is of the Warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) and his men standing above Scorpion. When it is announced that Scorpion would be taken outside along with the other women to meet a dignitary from the state who is coming to check up on the prison she is “cleaned” with a fire hose. Her face breaks in these moments and she shows vulnerability. The cracks in Scorpion’s armor are important to make her a relatable figure instead of a superhero and amplify the anger audiences are supposed to feel with the cruelty of the warden and his men. Ito smartly frames the hose sequence no different than Scorpion’s introduction and the lens is filled with splashes from the water. The camera takes the place of her body.

The effect of Scorpion’s previous escape from prison has made her a legend in the eyes of the women alongside her. Tales of the revolt that came at the hands of her unwillingness to break in the face of the steepest of punishment have spread and they speak of her in hushed tones like a god waiting to be unleashed from her shackles and roam free again. She represents the possibility of being free and unburdened with the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of the men who oversee them in jail. She is a perceived god of possibility and an arbiter of their future. Scorpion is a slippery figure who seems to find her way wriggling to freedom when given an inch of room to run, and the women inmates know this fact about their fellow incarcerated sister. When they see her emerge their faces are of shock, jubilation and excitement. Already Scorpion is becoming a leader among women, but there is one woman named Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi) who remains unimpressed with Scorpion. She carries a scowl on her face and contorts herself into broad theatrical expressions throughout the movie. A natural rival to both Kaiji and Scorpion.

After a failed murder attempt on the warden with the knife she carved during the opening credits Scorpion and the other women are sent to a biblical punishment of dragging rocks tied to their backs and in Scorpion’s case carrying crosses. The blocking in the punishment sequences is always fascinating, because it carries the sense of space and the hierarchy of the inmates versus the guards. Notice in the first screencap the men are all standing high above the women with guns held high in standard police uniform. They’re perfectly coiffed and untarnished by the dirt, dust and clay of the rock field. The women, in contrast are hunched off, caked in filth and below the men. The scorpion films use blocking to investigate hierarchy and these are most striking in large spaces. In the first film Scorpion is asked to dig a hole until she drops and like this scene with the rocks she is literally underneath the feet of her oppressors.

Scorpion’s cross-carrying is no small coincidence either. Her presence as a saviour to the masses is well known and this alignment with Christ gives her iconography that is known worldwide. Scorpion, however, is not a martyr or a saint. She’s a murderess with a justified hand. But even the punishment of Christ is not enough in the eyes of Chief Warden Goda. Goda insists that Scorpion must be broken, and a punishment not befitting of her will only turn Scorpion into an idol. Goda orders his men to publicly gang rape Scorpion in front of the other women.

Scorpion’s gang rape is the most difficult scene to witness in the movie, but it gives fire to her later actions. It is made more cruel and vile, by Goda’s decision to force the other women to watch Scorpion be publicly raped. One woman, who is unnamed, falls at the sight of this, because it’s too much to bear. Ito treats the sequence for the horror that it is by never shying away from the vileness of the act. The woman who breaks is key to understanding how much of a struggle it is to watch scenes like this as a female viewer. It’s a meta-decision that informs the women who view this film that Ito understands this is despicable to view, and it also works as a plot mechanism because it undoes Scorpion’s hero status in the eyes of the women, because she is brought down to their level through the gang rape. Formally, the rape is shot similarly to rapes in the first film with a focus on Scorpion’s face and the continued usage of the camera as a point of view tool. The rapists are never given control over the image and whenever they do appear in frame their faces are demonic, crushed under pantyhose and sniveling. They show no human characteristics. There is also never a clear frame of penetration in this scene, but in the sunglasses of the warden four figures are seen moving around Scorpion. The mind makes the scene far worse, because of the implied nature of the act. By suggesting the violence of the rape Ito sidesteps sexualizing it leaving it up to viewers to think about what’s happening and question our ideas of what rape looks like and what rape is, which is a far more complex shot than bluntly showing the act of sexual violence. It is also a smart usage of the camera to artfully sidestep what is expected of the genre expectations of the film. At the close of the scene in slow zooms and cuts Scorpion locks eyes with the warden and as is her carrying card she marks him for utter vengeance. The act of extreme close-up gives Scorpion some level of agency in a scene where all agency is taken. Her eyes signal a foreshadowing that this scene will not go unpunished.

To fully break the girls spirit warden Goda tells two of his men to kill Scorpion while they’re headed back to the prison, but she thwarts their attempts and Scorpion’s rival Oba kills the second guard. Preceding their escape there is a difficult scene of the other women attacking Scorpion. With their faith in Scorpion’s ability to lead them to safety they kick her repeatedly. The camera spins around their attacks quickly, blurring the image, and their screams and frustrations are heard. This isn’t a direct attack on Scorpion, but an attack on their patriarchal situation. This is an assault of failed hope and dashed dreams, and Scorpion’s relationship with these women is flawed from this assault. The Female Prisoner Scorpion films address infighting between women, but do so by framing it as a product of men stoking the flames of their relationships. Men have access to the power in these movies, and represent an abusive, evil, patriarchy and the women in these movies fight for what little amount of privilege is granted. The women are prone to hierarchy and judgment and when confined within a closed space such as a prison fighting is natural.

Before the women flee they make a scene of one of the guards who tried to kill Scorpion. They maul his body, disrobe him and with legs splayed they plant a giant plank of wood directly into his genitals. It’s a graphic image, and perhaps the bloodiest in the series. It’s an image of specific meaning due to the camera’s lingering presence. It’s lit in a way that makes it clear blood is gushing up from his wound and we see the full extent of his mangled body. In the Female Prisoner Scorpion films when women are raped the camera rejects the sexualization of the subject by never showing the full extent of the act of rape, but instead uses reaction shots and close-ups. Those scenes are made disturbing by the power of the actors faces, and that is a clear rejection of typical filmmaking techniques for rape that focus on the female body. This image of a defiled man is made powerful by contrast in the the destruction of his body in a physical, visible way. It’s angry, violent, impure, but radical in context of the rape-revenge movie and in how Scorpion functions as a series of movies in this genre.

Unlike in the previous Scorpion film the surrounding characters of Scorpion are given a backstory. In Jailhouse 41 this is accomplished through a psychedelic fantasy sequence that utilizes traditional Japanese theatrical techniques and beautiful high-contrast colours. The seven escaped prisoners come upon an old woman in their journey and when they fall asleep later that night she narrates their story. Each woman has been sent to prison due to a crime associated with men. Some of the justification for these crimes hasn’t aged as well, especially the one regarding jealousy, but all of these stories fall in line with the universe of Scorpion where men do women wrong. Oba gets the the densest of these revelations as she murdered her children when she caught her husband cheating and couldn’t bear to know she brought something of his into the world. Oba’s narrative is the most complicated, and her later actions make her evil in a way that requires a true test of empathy from Scorpion. She too has been wronged, but she has done some wrongdoing herself. For Scorpion to be an avenger of all women she has to be an avenger of a woman like Oba as well.

When the old woman eventually dies the next day she gives Scorpion a blade that endows her with mystical ability. Scorpion takes the blade and rakes it across her eyes in a fluid motion (Ito’s homage to his own favourite director Luis Buñuel), and this image would be her rallying cry for movies to come. Scorpion’s hair rises and she’s lit in a flame scorched orange silhouette, but unlike the scene from the Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion this scene signals her mystical powers as a vengeful reaper of all women, and not merely a tool for her own vengeance. The balance of Scorpion’s heroism and vulnerability tips over in this sequence. From this point forward Scorpion would be less of a Woman and more of a symbol. It’s a bold choice for the complicated people she must fight for, and the reliance on her earlier vulnerability makes her a hero who deserves power. She is an underdog who has risen into a force.

The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies have a deft eye for critical evaluation of their audience. Being in the pinku genre Ito knows the audience who would go to this movie and casually inserts an image of an offended woman overhearing men discussing sex with women who had just escaped form prison. Her look of disgust is the moral heart of these movies. At their centre the Scorpion films pay notice to the women characters and how they interact with men. Not to let the men see her reaction she quickly reaches for a smile to diffuse any possible negative outcome, which is something women are trained to do in the company of unbecoming men when we grow up.

Oba is perhaps a character who exists as criticism of the women in the audience who view Scorpion as a hero. Oba is the likely scenario of how offended men would view Scorpion in the first place so her more brazenly evil tactics are a focus. Oba works as a counter-point to Scorpion’s righteousness. She is more coarse and complicated in her hatred of not only men, but human beings. Oba strips women, steps on men and uses hostages as target practice in their lengthy escape. She’s an individual who is beyond damaged and throws Scorpion to the police to save her own ass later in the movie. It is perfect that Oba and Scorpion would stand together in the end as Scorpion learns to have compassion for someone who hated her guts.

Scorpion’s compassion for Oba is beautifully rendered in their final moments. Before Oba dies she relives the moment that sent her to prison. Her face is less severe and she carries a deep grief in her expression as she plunges a knife into her womb aborting her unborn fetus. In a striking image of abortion stigma a net is thrown over her and people prod her with sticks as she bleeds out. When Oba comes to Scorpion catches her and for a second Oba drops her defenses and rests in Scorpion’s arms. Finally, she lets down her armor and breathes, because she knows her torment is nigh over. Scorpion stares at her and their eyes meet. Scorpion didn’t have to catch Oba, but she did, and despite all of the vicious things Oba had done in the past she helped a woman in need. In her great empathy Scorpion carries Oba until she expires. She closes her eyes and lets her move onto the next world and Scorpion weeps. The message of unity among women crystallizes in this moment, because everyone has a backstory and moments that cause their own problems. It’s our duty to try to understand why.

The blade from the old woman was always ours to share, and the blood of our peace washes us clean. Scorpion sprints in the final moments of Jailhouse 41 with an army of women behind her. Her evolution into feminist totem carries weight in this moment, because she isn’t seen as a solitary figure reckoning with her own personal needs, but the needs of many. When the blade passes hands it’s a symbol of not only our collective spirit towards a common goal, but that we cannot do this alone. It would take all of us. It’s an empowering fruitful image to end a movie on and an undeniably feminist one in the context of the world this movie exists within.

Confessions of a Female Badass: Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion

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 and Rape Culture]

What is it like to be a Woman?” 

Genre cinema frequently asks this question of viewers. In genre it is used as an empathizing technique to ask audiences to identify with a victim and her eventual conflict. By getting viewers to see themselves as the women of these movies filmmakers create a funnel that cycles into tension, horror, action and eventual catharsis through resolution, but what of female audience members? Women already know what it’s like to be a woman. We know the feeling of being followed down a side walk for an uncomfortable amount of time. We understand the jeers of men who make comments about our bodies, because this isn’t something we go to the cinema to feel, but it’s something innate in our own experiences. Rape-revenge cinema takes this question to it’s natural endpoint, and these films at their best emphatically strike back at cultural norms, but far too often they merely reinforce rape and the gendered power dynamics therein. When mixed with the sensationalism of exploitation cinema these movies can tread on shaky ground that sexualize the act of rape, which is a purely evil act in cinematic terms. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion avoids many of these pitfalls through formal complexity and an understanding that rape is not something to be taken lightly, but instead a problem so paramount in female experiences that an angel of death had to be made for women scorned everywhere. A woman who existed as a blade in the hand of every woman who was ever been sexually taken advantage of by a man. That Woman was named Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji), and she was known as the Scorpion.

Scoprion is introduced barreling down a field of susuki grass with her friend Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) as they try to escape the prison. The guards (all men) are hot on their trail with rifles in hand and attack dogs ready to maul. Scorpion and Yuki are thwarted, but in this opening scene Scorpion’s revenge is foretold in her gaze. Meiko Kaji decided to act using only her face and play the role in near silence, a minimalist choice that would prove gravely important to the tone and feeling of director Shunya Ito’s more extravagant set pieces. Kaji’s face grounds every scene, and in close-up her eyes foretell death. There are two images that are created through dissolve in the opening minutes that speak to the films understanding of female P.O.V. in the rape-revenge film. These two images understand whose gaze is violent through objectification and whose gaze is just. In both images Scorpion is leering with determination of her goal of vengeance, but along with her gaze there is the image of nude women prisoners straddling over a bar, and in the other image the bloodshot eye of a lustful man. The first of these images is a rape metaphor. To complete the task of moving over the bar women have to spread their legs and glide over the object. The eye belongs to the man standing directly underneath these women watching them display their bodies as part of a punishment administered by the guards to assert control over their bodies. To control women you take possession of our bodies. This is the power dynamic of rape. Scorpion’s gaze reflects a universal female point of view that ranges from the women in the world of the movie to the women who are merely watching the film. Scorpion is a biblical figure whose vengeance is not only for herself, but for women everywhere. She is a totem, and the movie makes this clear in these early images. Kaiji’s glare is in some small way a statement that our bodies remain our own.

In a 2016 interview with Arrow Video Production Designer Tadayuki Kuwana he stated that he “wanted to create a sense of hell surrounding the prison. I took inspiration from prison camps in World War II for the look of the world surrounding and inhabiting the prison where Scorpion resides”. Kuwana wanted to create depth by using higher ceilings so Scorpion would feel smaller in her surroundings, and this is used to great effect in the first scene following her capture. Scorpion has been locked away in what can only be described as an underground box where the earth bleeds onto her through constant precipitation. She has been hog tied and left there for an undisclosed amount of time, but she hasn’t lost her sense of determination surrounding her vengeance. Her gaze is constant. Ito accompanies Scorpion by having the camera take her eye. When a fellow female prisoner (who has gained some level of privilege in the ranks by selling out other women) arrives to bring her supper the camera stays with Scorpion’s point of view. Ito uses perspective to make us feel like we are in Scorpion’s shoes. The camera looks up at the visitor and then a dutch angle is employed to convey our sense of confinement. Scorpion can’t move to get a better view so the viewer doesn’t either. The understanding that Scorpion is the lead character not just in title, but in form is key to the film’s place as a movie about rape. When movies about rape as a catalyst for revenge stray from the perspective of the abused there is danger in the possible loss of that voice through the mundane trappings of the overworked genre. Films that do travel down that road become less about the consequences and damage of rape and more about violence begetting violence. Where the Scorpion films succeed is in the centralizing of Scorpion as a figure not through narrative, but with the camera as well. The adept image choices and camera movements place us inside Scorpion, and we travel with her rather than at a distance. The viewer is not merely watching, they are being at the same time. 

Scorpion’s backstory finds her in prison due to the betrayal of a man. In the deep, comforting blues of an empty space Scorpion has sex with a man she had fallen in love with, and he asks her a favour. The depiction of sex here is in direct contrast with every other sexual encounter in the movie to give a clear view of what is rape and what isn’t. In this earlier scene the camera moves in a dream-like manner of tilted framing and slow-motion with a focus on faces. Scorpion is unwrapped from a blanket to reveal her entire body to her lover and they make love passionately. Like earlier scenes this is shot from her perspective.  It was a defining moment in her life, but the man was only using her for his own means. In the first three Female Convict Scorpion movies men are monsters whose sole passions for women only go as far as their usage for their bodies or their skills. Scorpion agrees to do the favour. She infiltrates a den of Marijuana dealers and is subsequently raped. This scene is painful to watch, not in its realism, but in its intentions to break Scorpion. Shunya Ito and Tadayuki Kawana use theatrical techniques to inform the emotional complexity of the scene. Scorpion’s rape is shot from the floor up through a mirror with a focus on her back and tilted, pained face. The faces of her rapists are also visible, contorted and monstrous, with no discernible human qualities. Like exaggerated Clowns with demonic expressions. The scene quickly fades to black and Scorpion’s lover bursts through to arrest the Marijuana dealers for the drug charges as well as a rape charge, but not before he makes a deal with the leader of their drug ring nullifying everything. In a literal heel turn the set uses a revolving door to reveal his dirty deal, and Scorpion’s face is one of utter heartbreak. These scenes are shot from the ground always keeping her face in frame and in focus. Her emotional response is key and Meiko Kaji’s expressive face gives us all we need to know about how hurt she is, and how used up and damaged she felt. This is the moment where Scorpion truly sought after the justice that was owed her. She was used and cast aside after giving away her entire body to this man who had no use for her. She lays on her back and the flames of hell light up underneath her possessing her with the power to take back what was hers. Scorpion finds herself in jail after a failed assassination attempt hours later. 

Scorpion’s prison guards are malevolent and spiteful towards her continued disruption of the status quo. They punish Scorpion with solitary confinement in the dank hell, but when she strikes back at her abusers she’s met with more abuse. For Scorpion and the other women in the jailhouse the body isn’t just confined, but lost. The second rape of our lead character occurs less than ten minutes after the flashback sequence of her original betrayal. Like the other scene Scorpion’s point of view is taken into consideration. The camera lies on its back and stares into the eyes of prideful, powerful, evil men. Unlike the first scene this sequence lingers on the act of rape itself showing two gruesome images of penetration with a police baton. The second rape sequence is intended to be the fuel for the viewer’s hatred as well as Scorpion’s. She cracks for the first time in the face of her male oppressors and shows pain in her face, but she ultimately doesn’t lose her gaze or her goal of slaughtering the men of the prison who have taken her life away. The camera finds the right balance of torture, horror, and surrealism with a final twirling image circling her head and finally resting on her eyes. This scene doesn’t sugarcoat the act of rape or sexualize it, but reacts to the bluntness of the act with respect to the victim’s body. Rape is not merely a plot-device in the Scorpion films, but an interrogation on the act and how it specifically relates to women, and the female body. Being a woman watching this film is to be in the trenches of your worst possible nightmares of oppression. Our bodies, spirits and souls expunged in the name of male satisfaction. As Scorpion fights back we live vicariously through her, her blade is ours, and so is her vengeance. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a slow-release bomb towards blatantly criminal patriarchal figures who see women as nothing more than a body or a tool.

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion complicates itself in its debt to a genre which rarely rose above the gutter. The film lies in the intersection of the rape-revenge horror film and women in prison exploitation pictures. Scorpion is without a doubt exploitation, but exploitation has the ability to get dirty and address problems high-brow films often neglect or soften in favor of a larger audience. Female Prisoner’s greatest complications are when it must align itself to the genres that birthed the movie. For example in the shower scene the camera lingers for what is probably too long on the naked bodies of women, and there is a gratuitous sex scene between two women which isn’t here for much more than titillation. The movie rounds these potentially bankrupt sequences out with a conscious attention to the potential of depth for any scene. The shower sequence is bookended with an actual summoning of a Kwaidan. It’s a show-y sequence which doesn’t play into the films attention to the Woman Scorned Narrative, but distracts from the bodies of Women in the shower. The lesbian scene is followed by the presentation of the double-standard of how sex between men and women is perceived when she is immediately called a slut and beaten down by the prison warden. All of these more difficult scenes of violence against women, both sexual and non-sexual, inform the language of the movie in direct fashion, and because Ito and company paid attention to how things are framed, edited and perceived they never stray from what’s good and bad. The moral obligations of the Female Scorpion movies towards justified violence in the face of oppression stays true.

In what would be the the final punishment of the film Scorpion digs and digs until she drops. While she’s digging the great hole in the Earth her fellow inmates are told to toss dirt in on her, and they slowly grow to hate Scorpion for their own forced punishment of digging. The plot element of women hating each other in the Scorpion film complicates the movie in an interesting way, because the nature of their hatred for one another comes from an ulterior source. The Women only begin to quarrel when scraps of privilege are dangled above their heads by men in positions of power. Some Women look out for each other at all costs, but others buy into the systems of power in the prison system to make their sentences easier.

The duality of this female conflict is in the presentation of Yuki and Scorpion who are ride or die gals. Yuki and Scorpion were introduced in the opening minutes trying to escape the prison together, and their bond stays strong throughout the movie. In the dig,dig,dig sequence she is hesitant to throw dirt on her friend until Scorpion acknowledges her and asks her to, because to rebel would mean her punishment and she doesn’t want that for her friend. Ito captures their bond in slow-zoom close-ups and they relay all the information they need to through their faces. When the men try to torture Scorpion by reviving her to dig again once she’s fallen Yuki attacks and sacrifices everything for her friend. She kills a prison guard and brings on a thunderstorm as the women riot. 

Yuki’s ultimate sacrifice is captured with pure expressionism through set paintings. The sky is tinted orange with fury when the Women riot and shortly after she takes a bullet for Scorpion, the one woman who always looked out for her. After Yuki begins to drift away the sky begins to lose colour fading into a blue before a lightning bolt splits the sky signaling Yuki’s end. The Women do a death dance of joy as they exact their revenge on the men who tortured them for years. The image of the prison Women shaking and screaming, chanting and loosing control of their bodies is powerful in it’s pure unbridled nature. These are Women whose actions, emotions and feelings have been kept in check for god knows how long unleashing everything all at once. However, Scorpion’s vengeance is beyond the prison and for her to find the man who ruined her life she’d need to get to the streets. She escapes among the flames of her inmate sisters as the establishment begins to fall. 

She is dressed for a funeral. Her long black hat shrouds her face and she drifts among the neon lights with ease. She glides like a spectre for the men who wronged her, and they each taste her steel. They lock their expressions in surprised anguish with their shock that a Woman would dare to fight back. Their final faces are created by a Woman who would not take injustice anymore and she extinguished their very lives. Scorpion’s punishment is quick and breathless for all men, except one. She takes her time with the man who set her up and appears in an elevator stabbing him multiple times, but that wasn’t enough, and as he strides out onto the rooftop, covered in blood she stabs him again and again until he’s gone. She stares at him and watches him die. A close-up is used on Meiko Kaji’s face and with her eyes she gives him the same contemptuous look she’s carried throughout the entire film. 

When Rape-Revenge films are done well they can be a cathartic outlet for a population without much of an answer as to how to combat rape culture. They can be powerful in their depiction of overcoming a monster, and give those with lingering internal and external wounds a salve for a wound that society refuses to heal. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is the apex of the genre in its understanding of the seriousness of rape and the dynamics at play in how and why this act happens. Scorpion is the personification of our scorn, the anger in our hearts and the edge of our knife. She is an avenging reaper whose black wings flap and descend upon rapist men like an Angel of Death. Our Angel of Light.