Matsu (Meiko Kaji) falls in love with the wrong man, a dirty cop who uses her to help get him inside Yakuza operations. She gets found out by the gangsters and raped, while her boyfriend negotiates terms of payment from the Yakuza. It turns out he wasn’t interested in busting them at all, just getting some payola. He throws money at Matsu, laughing, to pay her for her “services.” Matsu naturally goes berserk and tries to knife him. He stops her and she gets sent to a particularly cruel prison, where she is tortured and beaten and worked nearly to death on a regular basis. She tries to escape but gets caught, making her life worse. All she wants is out so she can get her revenge. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, manipulates events from the outside, ordering her death through his Yakuza proxies. The guards push the inmates too far, and a prison riot ensues, with Matsu caught between the sadistic guards and her equally cruel fellow prisoners. Can she hatch another escape out of this chaos? Will she get her revenge?
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, is a fever dream of a film, a fable of Matsu and her endurance. Can she take all of this punishment? Will her desire for revenge keep her alive long enough to survive? There are some amazing moments of pure fantasy in this film, where backgrounds suddenly change colors, lighting gels activate, and surreal worlds bloom inside the decrepit prison. When characters commit violence, it is like they are possessed by demonic entities, as they glow red or green, and their makeup changes and their forms distort. This is a very dark fairy tale, about a princess who has been wronged and sent to Hell to suffer, who must endure the agonies to emerge cleansed and pure, to rise up to gain her revenge. For every real, physical moment of agony, there are metaphysical moments to match. This is a film as much about the journey of the soul as it is of the body. Matsu is a true hero, bearing pain and loss and catastrophic suffering, only to come through stronger than ever. She rises to every occasion, despite what the guards and inmates and outside forces throw at her.
This is a fantastic movie and I highly recommend it. Yes, there are scenes of rape and torture, and some of it is hideous (although it is never explicitly shown, more implied), so there’s that to consider. Kaji is absolutely fantastic as Matsu; she goes from waif to silent observer and sufferer of agonies, to a vengeful Angel of Death. The cinematography is gorgeous and the directing (Shun’ya Ito) is stellar. The film is part giallo, part horror, part crime, part Japanese supernatural, and more than just a sum of its parts. This is a highly stylized, surreal film, depicting the Hell that is existence and the redemption of the spirit if it can simply persevere. You can see here where Tarantino got some of his inspiration for the Kill Bill films. A fantastic Japanese exploitation classic. Streaming on Shudder, as well.