Way down in the lower depths of Jailhouse 41 (it’s not actually called that in the movie), the eponymous Scorpion (aka Matsu, played by Meiko Kaji) lies chained, subject to the sadistic whims of the cycloptic warden Gorda (Fumio Watanabe). After enduring humiliations from both guards and fellow inmates alike, Matsu and six other prisoners make good their escape. But their flight to freedom will prove more harrowing than their stay in the penitentiary.
Meiko Kaji is one of those cultural icons revered more for their looks (i.e. the act of looking, not their physical traits, though she is also a striking beauty) than any thespian skills. This isn’t to say she can’t act, but from what I’ve see, she’s rarely called upon to do more than clench her jaw and glare. And she does both spectacularly well. Here in Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (the second entry in this influential series), the entirety of her performance is physical. She doesn’t speak at all until near the film’s end, and then it’s only two lines of dialogue. Nonetheless, we know exactly what’s going on in her head at all times (it helps a bit that this generally boils down to three emotions: hatred, suspicion, and pity). This is Matsu’s strength. She doesn’t mince words because there’s nothing left to be said. The ultimate pragmatist, Matsu sees the world for what it is – a merciless, misogynistic shit hole – and deals with it in the same way that it has dealt with her. All of this is reflected in her eyes.
Speaking of eyes and reflections, Jailhouse 41 is rife with them, and not only from Kaji. Gorda’s dead, false eye attempts to consume and violate Matsu’s soul. His eye, Matsu’s eyes, and Oba’s eyes (the contagonist or secondary antagonist, if you wish, played by Kayoko Shiraishi) all give off the same look throughout the film but with different meanings. Matsu’s deadpan stare is a retreat into herself, a fortification against the external world, and a coiled trap waiting to be sprung. Her fellow prisoners misread her limp inactivity as acquiescence and apathy, when, in fact, it is anything but. Gorda’s eye is a metaphoric monster and the ugliness inside the male psyche, the male id unleashed. He’s a lecher and a brute, not above using his status and his staff to destroy the women in his charge. When first we meet him, he’s one year into his attempt to drive Matsu insane (it can be argued that he’s wasting his time, because she already is, in a sense). The blacked-out lens of his glasses reveals for the audience the cruelty and alienation in the man, as we espy the horrors he subjects others to in it. His false eye, when it’s finally popped out of his head, presents not just a victory but also a portal to an alternate reality, a looking glass world where the events of the narrative never took place (and if you think about it, this shot is similar to the first shots of the film which focus on Matsu’s eyes, and the entire film can be seen as a pure dream/nightmare sequence from her perspective). Finally, Oba’s gaze is pure bestial fury (she’s even honest enough to admit this – “I know I’m a beast!”). She hates everyone and everything, a nihilist preferring the solitude of her rage to what sisterhood she may form with the other escapees. Everyone is an enemy, because they’re different from her, and she’s paranoid enough to believe that this matters (not without some reason). This comes through crystal clear in her baleful gaze (often cast from under her eyebrows).
These three viewpoints form a worldview of how these women (all seven of them, but, by extension, all women) are seen and treated. In one of several fantasy sequences, the crimes of the escapees are described. The women kneel, dressed in matching outfits (like their batik prison uniforms, this unifies them) before a field of blackness. The camera glides past each as a narrator (in, I’m guessing here, Noh Theatre style) sings of their sins. While they are all guilty of their individual crimes, it is stressed that all of these women were driven to commit them by men. This tableau is presided over by an old woman. She was found, alone and deranged and clutching a knife in a death grip, in an abandoned village. She, too, has been cast off by the world of men, and it has destroyed her. She is a portent of what will happen to all of the protagonists, but it’s Matsu who refuses to accept this fate. Later, we see a reenactment of Oba’s crime. In it, the local villagers surround her, net her, and beat her. Oba transforms into each of the escapees, tormented by the people who put she and them in this position. Again, it’s Matsu who stands up defiant, the ideal of feminine individuality in the film.
Jailhouse 41 is as gorgeous and carefully crafted as any film from Japan at this time (it does bear some stylistic clichés of the era, but they fit for the nightmare quality of the picture) while being as enthralling as any exploitation movie made. For as sleazy as it is, however, the tone is grim. This isn’t light fare, though it certainly has heightened moments. Its exploitation elements are more condemnatory than titillating. The film is designed to provoke some thought, not erections (or at least I found nothing sexy here). What I did find was excellent filmmaking for any level of budget or genre constraints.
This will likely be the only film from the Arrow bluray box set that I review. This is not because I don’t like the others in the series (they’re all fantastic in their own ways), but they do tend toward a certain formula (this one being the exception) which would make further reviews redundant. Then again, who knows? Maybe I’ll come back and want to dip my toes and pen in these waters somewhere down the road. Anyway, the set is outstanding, packed with the usual quality supplements in which Arrow excels. There has been talk about the color timing on these films, and I have to say that the level of blue in this film is noticeable, but I also feel that it adds to the atmosphere of the piece. I also know that Arrow stated that this coloring is due to the level of restoration they performed on the original materials, so if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
MVT: Ito displays a deft hand, stylishly and narratively.
Make or Break: The scene where the prisoners are punished for an attempted riot proves their breaking point, and it may be the viewer’s, as well.