Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned in first-time director Shunya Itô's superior Women In Prison film. Attempting a daring break in broad daylight, Matsu (Meiko Kaji) and Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) are brutally captured and sent right back to prison to endure such punishment as cold, wet blanket torture and hot miso soup to the breast torture. Whilst held captive in the leaky depths of the prison, Matsu has time to reflect on the wrongdoing which took her freedom away. In a nightmarishly creative flashback we see she was set up by the man she loved, betrayed and left to be raped by a gang of yakuza's. It is at this point that Matsu turns into the 'scorpion' of the title, a deadly lone assassin fuelled only by hate and on a mission to gain vengeance. Back in the present, Matsu’s fellow inmates are also being punished for her stubborn behaviour and a riot ensues, giving Matsu the chance to escape once more and wreak her revenge against those who have wronged her.
Itô's casting of the already iconic Kaji (Stray Cat Rock, The Blind Woman’s Curse) was spot-on for Matsu. A year before she cemented her role as a figure of female vengeance in Lady Snowblood (a film which, like Female Prisoner #701 was an influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill), she perfected Matsu's almost silent presence and cold gaze full of intent for this, one of her first features for the Toei studio after her move from Nikkatsu.
Not only is Female Prisoner #701 a highly impressive debut, but also an unusually decent entry into the Women In Prison genre. Though there are still plenty of the expected exploitative elements intact (nudity, sexual violence, lesbianism, sadistic wardens, gruelling punishments), Itô's film takes them to a more cinematic level. Fusing the revenge and W.I.P. genres together, Itô's confident direction sees surreal visuals incorporated for an unusually stylised treat, with the nightmarishly theatrical shower scene the most potent. Where Matsu is the embodiment of calm rage biding its time, Itô externalises this through the dramatic score and visuals almost akin to psychadelia.
Spot lighting and plenty of low angle shots add both an inspired and trashy element to this 'rise of the underdog' story. Feminist in its portrayal of rage against the confines of patriarchal rule, it also exemplifies the status quo of Japanese cinema where sexual and violent boundaries were pushed in order to regain identity. Female Prisoner #701 is typical of this now cult cinema, where iconic stars and high-end production values met with the sleazier, exploitative draw.
An astonishing debut from Shunya Itô mixes generic elements and bold visuals to make this a superior entry to the usual exploitative fare 8/10