Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion ★★★★½

In what starts as a romantic flashback, a deflowering is shown via an erotic parody of the Japanese flag, of the blood of a ruptured human staining a white bedsheet in a growing circle. Yet as the camera tilts up from the couple lying together on a blue soundstage, it reveals in the background a theatrical rendering of the nightclub where Matsu’s narc lover will send her as bait to lure out the yakuza he’s attempting to arrest. Just as quickly as the woman lost her virginity, she is gang-raped by the mobsters, but the worse trauma comes from the realization afterward that her boyfriend assumed that would happen and used her solely as a distraction to get the bust for his personal glory.

Close-ups and angular compositions create a constant sense of disorientation that is nothing compared to lurches into slo-mo or the way that the very ground around Matsu can change at any moment thanks to editing and wild production design. This plays off of Kaji’s hard-faced, taciturn performance, which trades in the strong, silent type typically reserved for male antiheroes and laces it with psychological scarring evident in her wide, ferocious eyes and all the visual stops that Ito pulls out to show what Matsu cannot or will not tell. The bursts of vision in this are as exciting as anything to come out of the Japanese New Wave, but most impressive is the way in which even factoring in its explicitness, the film always finds ways to evoke the patriarchal structures that literally and figuratively imprison the women. The use of mirrors during her flashback rape manage to capture both the leering faces of her violators and her own agony at the same time, and Ito uses similar framings in the prison to erase any meaningful distinction between yakuza and the prison guards who violate her and other inmates in so many ways. The early march of nude bodies up and down stairs for the pleasure of the men is as much an assault as the later scene of one guard penetrating Matsu with a baton.

The film also does not shy away from the complicity of some women in this system, some who tried to fit into its boundaries, others who simply will throw their peers down in the hopes they can pile up enough to reach the bottom rung of the ladder that dangles over all of them. Pointedly, one sequence shows how men will create these internecine conflicts where ones are not present, compounding Matsu’s punishment by making the other inmates throw all the dirt she digs out of a hole back in until the rest of the women begin to displace their exhaustion and pointless anger onto her in a misplacement of responsibility. But then, that rage is put to good use in sparking a riot that actually redirects anger back onto the true source of the women’s ills. The various abuses of power examined here complicate the language of exploitation and actually take the genre where it was meant to be taken, to a realm where the viewer’s identification with the protagonist illuminates instead of merely thrills in their quest for revenge.