J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Meiko Kaji at Japan Society: Female Prisoner Scorpion—Beast Stable

Even Tarantino will readily admit Kill Bill was transparently inspired by/ripped off from Meiko Kaji’s Lady Snowblood released thirty years early. However, Kaji’s signature series came right when all the women’s prison films starring Pam Grier just started to take off. By the time of the third film, Nami “the Scorpion” Matsushima has escaped from prison and she will not be recaptured cheaply, as Det. Kondo learns the hard way in the first five minutes (worth the price of admission right there) of Shunya Itō’s Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (trailer here), which screens as part of the Japan Society’s weekend retrospective, Cruel Beauty: A Romantic Weekend with Meiko Kaji.

If you plan to corner “Sasori,” the Scorpion on a subway car, you’d better bring back-up, plenty of ammunition, and maybe an extra arm. Needless to say, when Matsushima hacks her way free, it is a painful failure for Kondo, leaving him more embittered and obsessed than Inspector Javert. Matsushima heads underground, but she is hardly living a carefree life. Instead, she works in a backroom garment sweatshop and befriends Yuki, a freelance prostitute who must tend to her brain-damaged brother’s every need (including sexual).

Inevitably, Matsushima draws the attention of the lecherous yakuza in the flat beneath her. However, when she takes care of him, his gang comes calling for reparations. It turns out the boss’s lover is Katsu, an old prison rival of Matsushima, who has plenty of ideas how the Scorpion can work off her “debt.”

If you want lurid, Beast Stable is definitely your huckleberry. Even the Roger Corman chicks-behind-bars movies wouldn’t go where it goes. It also delivers the stone-cold payback in spades. The morale could not be more clear: do not screw with the Scorpion. However, one wonders how many so-called feminists could really handle this kind of empowerment. Forget “equal pay for equal work,” this is kill or be doped into sexual slavery (by a sister, no less).

As Matsushima, Kaji is all kinds of fierce. Yet, there is still something tragically human about her as she jealousy guards the freedoms she still has. Mikio Narita nearly matches her ferocity step-for-step as the driven Kondom which is saying something. Yayoi Watanabe is arrestingly open and vulnerable as the much-abused Yuki, while Reisen Lee is just eerily creepy as the Lady Gaga-looking Katsu.

This would be it for Kaji playing Sasori, but the franchise would continue and spawn multiple reboots. Frankly, it was a good way to hang up her wide-brimmed hat and scalpel, because it actually ends on a note that suggests closure, albeit after a deceptively surreal fever dream of an epilogue. All things considered, this one pretty much has it all, but it is most definitely for mature audiences. Keep in mind it is all based on a hit manga series, which shows how far ahead of the curve Japan was in treating comic art as a viable medium for grown-ups. Highly recommended for appreciative cult audiences, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable screens tonight (2/12) at the Japan Society, as part of their Meiko Kaji celebration.

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