Trigger Warning: Mention(s) of sexual assault
The Women in Prison film (commonly known as W.i.P) has never been fertile ground for much in the way of cinematic intelligence or subversive messages on power and control within the collective societies that they casually represent.
They are exploitation films in the most blunt realization of the word.
It’s impenetrable male gaze makes way for a fetishistic display of violence towards women and commonly profiling nudity in intimate spaces, more often that not the women of color prisoners are seen through a racist lens. The genre isn't entirely without merit, however, there's always a film that rewrites the definition of what a genre cinema can be despite its groundings in trashy or downright disgusting narrative tropes. In the case of the W.i.P subgenre, there's less to offer than normal. The genre finds its only path towards social and cinematic redemption through the work of Pam Grier in the United States and Meiko Kaji in Japan. Kaji, in particular, has an especially interesting history within her specific subgenre, returning to her character in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series four separate times. Through her gaze she not only broke free from the grip of bondage inherent in the movies of this genre, but she made an entire subgenre her home and stomping ground. She wrestled agency away from the stereotypical abusers in her films and unleashed hell upon them through her assertive counter gaze and overwhelming screen presence.
Scorpion is introduced barreling down a field of susuki grass with her friend Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) as they try to escape prison. The male dominated pack of guards 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 and in the Women in Prison picture. These two images understand whose gaze violently objectifies and whose gaze is righteous. In both images Scorpion is leering with the determination of vengeance, but alongside her gaze is the image of nude women prisoners straddling over a bar, and in other shot is 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, inmates have to spread their legs and glide over the object. The eye belongs to the man standing directly underneath these women watching them unwillingly display their bodies as part of a punishment administered by the guards to assert control over their bodies.
This is the power dynamic of rape.
In the case of the prison system, it is a loss of one’s bodily autonomy in the gears of authorial violence under the pretense of “rehabilitation.” Scorpion's gaze reflects a universal female point of view that encompasses both the women in the movie and those who are merely watching. Scorpion's point of view and Meiko Kaji's gaze are the obstruction within the system, the anti-virus within the body, to wash clear the grime of her unjust captors. It's her piercing eyes that break through and negate the stereotypical trappings of genre film and wrangle agency away from the tropes that demand her to be sexy, badass and fetishized by a male audience with a taste for sadism. Scorpion sees you, equipped with vitriol and bound by captivity, our protagonist looks.
Traditionally, the Women in Prison subgenre, or Pinku in Japan, was little more than softcore pornography masquerading as cinema. It was a genre which prided itself on the lingering close-ups of the breasts, asses and in some cases, genitalia of women in supposedly tantalizing showering sequences coupled with swift punishment (usually dished out by men) to keep these women in line but with a little Russ Meyer twist in that these women would be exploited, but they'd get the last laugh. Nonetheless, exploitation is exploitation. With cinema of this type, it's important to ask who is seeing the image and what are they looking at? The genre trappings conspire against anything resembling a feminist reading and usually the male gaze is present to simplify the women starring in the picture while synchronizing with a hypothetical male audience member who may or may not be aroused by what he is watching. The question to ask with the Women in Prison film(s) is if this preconception can be fought against and how can a woman gain agency within the genre? In the case of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, the titular character looks back, and director Shunya Ito's decision to capitalize on Kaji's silent, resonant anger amplifies Kaji's ability to acknowledge the men in her film and the male gaze itself and condemn it to a punishment of castration (similar to Laura Mulvey's conception of castration as a technique) and dismemberment.
The concept of looking back at the male gaze and becoming an image in conflict with the routine domination of the prison system and the male violence over women's bodies in movies of this genre, is most resonant in the first of the series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. In this film, Scorpion is presented as this angel of death whose karmic justice will be wrought by her own hand. She is constructed with similarities to the ghostly harbingers of Masaki Kobayashi’s moral horror anthology, Kwaidan. Scorpion could have been another common characterization of weak-willed badassery cloaking the rape-revenge film in female empowerment, when in reality the genre functions as a fulcrum in which rape fantasies can be palatable in the eyes of audiences. but Kaiji subverts expectations. Even with Kaji’s assertive performance and Shunya Ito’s understanding of framing power dynamics the movie occasionally stumbles (most notably in a lesbian scene which has no substance). There is a push and pull going on throughout that makes for uncomfortable viewing, where it is difficult to tell if the film is going to capsize in the treacherous waters of the less than kind expectations that are inherent within the W.i.P. subgenre. There rises a feeling of danger that makes the film exciting, honest and bare. As if Kaji is in a battle with the movie itself for her own space and agency in the confining bars of one of genre cinema’s most vile subgenres, but don’t women always find a way to create their own home in a world that’s less than kind to us? We do, and so does Meiko Kaji in the subgenre, and Scorpion in the film. With the deliberate intention of foregrounding an audience conduit through the eyes of Kaji, the camera amplifies her ability to break through the male gaze and create an environment of her own invention.
This reversal of gaze is further complicated by the abuse her character experiences at the hands of bad men and worse, the prison wardens. Scorpion's backstory finds her in prison due to the betrayal of her lover, Sugumi (Isao Natsuyagi). In the deep, comforting blues of an empty bedroom, Scorpion has sex with her lover. The depiction of sex here is in direct contrast with every other sexual encounter in the movie, providing a clear contrast between 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 an emphasis on close ups. Scorpion is unwrapped from a blanket to reveal her entire body to her lover and they passionately make love. Like earlier scenes, this is shot from her perspective. It was a defining moment in her life, but the man was ultimately only using her for his own means to gain favor with the yakuza.
When her lover asks a favor of her, she agrees out of the love she harbors for him. She goes on to infiltrate a marijuana drug den and is subsequently raped by the drug dealers Sugumi is trying to pin charges on. He’s a dirty cop, a liar, a backstabber and a cheat and he couldn’t care less about Scorpion’s well-being. The scene is painful to watch, not in its realism but in its intentions to break Scorpion. Ito and production designer Tadayuki Kawana use theatrical techniques which drive home the emotional brutality 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. In the first three Female Convict Scorpion movies, men are monsters whose sole interest in women are to lay claim of their bodies and to exploit their skills. This moment of visceral barbarism in the drug den is where Scorpion truly began to seek the justice that was owed her. She was used and cast aside after giving away her entire body to this man who had no real love 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. Her eyes open wide enough to cover the surface of her entire face. It's a different gaze than the initial one during the botched prison escape. This one is of terror and reckless anger of the soul, not the distilled jaded, vengeance of our first encounter with Kaji's eyes. No, this one was foreshadowing a moment where blood would reign from a lacerated sky.
Kaji's ability to so completely realize the emotional vitality and anger exclusively through the use of her eyes deeply resembles Maria Falconetti's performance as Joan of Arc. Both carry the complete image and narrative of the film through an ocular dexterity that crystallizes what audiences should be feeling. This is how Meiko Kaji disrupts the cinematic intentions typical of genre cinema while also elevating it to greater heights in form and emotional vitality.
The genre film in particular can access a wellspring of deeper cinematic truths about our own conceptions of humanity by plunging into the darkest areas of behavior. These films usually understand that violence is inherent and capable of destroying bodies, souls, and minds - capitalizing on viewers lust for sadism. There's an honesty in genre cinema that cannot be found in other areas of fussier cinematic considerations. There is of course the films that only exist for titillation, or your common teenage gore hounds, but there can be a complexity to these films within genre if they wish to truly grapple with how violence functions. For the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, it was the Prison–industrial complex, sexual assault, and how women deal with these particular problems. When Scorpion finally gets her revenge, the story doesn't stop. She's thrown back into prison, but now that her own vengeance has been sated the concept of her vengeance and her gaze expands. It becomes contextually feminist in a communal sense. These women captives, while remaining complicated and sometimes downright villainous, are ultimately bound together by a gendered understanding of how they are treated by the world. In the sequel, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Scorpion passes a blood stained knife to a woman and she in turn passes it on to someone else, like a family heirloom, embodying the power of sisterhood that W.i.P cinema can posses if wielded correctly. Due to the success of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, director Shunya Ito and star Meiko Kaji were given more freedom to explore what could be done within the genre of the women in prison movie with their production studio waving some of the restrictions imposed upon the Pinku genre film during production of the series sequels.
Meiko Kaji's determined glare and her castrating reaper made sure genre cinema would never be the same again. With the prowess of her mere sight, Kaji granted a space where women could control the image and push back at cinema's longstanding poisonous gaze.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Willow Maclay is a freelance film critic and writer living in St. John's, Newfoundland. She has written for outlets and publications such as The Village Voice, Ebert Voices, Cleo: A Journal of Film & Feminism, and The Film Stage. She runs her own film website, Curtsies and Hand Grenades, and is the co-author of the upcoming book "Corpses, Fools & Monsters: An Examination of Transgender Cinema".