Horror may be the headline feature drawing people into Shudder, but the services accessibility allows users to stumble into genres they have little familiarity with. A prime example: Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a Japanese women in prison film, a subgenre of exploitation, that blends together the typical tropes of women in prison films with revenge cinema to create a feature that leaves you wanting more in good and bad ways.
After an assault at the hands of the Yakuza, thanks to a setup by her boyfriend Sugimi (Natsuyagi Isao), Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) attempts to kill her former lover. This lands her in a female prison run by abusive and sadistic guards. Sugimi forms a plan to have Matsu killed in order to ensure his corruption remains a secret, severely underestimating her desire for revenge in the process.
From the outside perspective Female Prisoner appears more action-oriented than it actually is. The pacing is a slow burn, content with having the audience wait for any payoff for our heroine. She is repeatedly beaten down both mentally and physically by the guards and her fellow convicts. This does the work necessary to endear us to Matsu and her plight, but it also sucks some of the joy out of the movie. The raw and casual nature in which her torment is presented is given an excessive amount of time to permeate the rest of the film, and this could leave some viewers feeling downtrodden by the time more stylized moments crop up.
Director Shun’ya Itô does imbue jolts of pizazz throughout the film, staging some scenes like a play complete with rotating walls, and when he crafts larger sequences in this fashion it’s a treat. In particular, he turns a group shower into something more akin to a murderous take on funhouse room. You really want to see these scenes play out longer and extend into larger arenas, but unfortunately they never do.
He also takes care of how he frames Matsu, shooting with intentionality in both the weak and strong moments. He finds a way to worm these images into your brain for a few days. In combination with a stellar performance by Kaji, you see how three more sequels arrived in rapid succession.
Kaji conveys plenty with very little action; it’s all in her gaze. She gives off an aura of mischief and you can tell that she’s constantly planning. Almost biding her time until just the right moment. It’s what keeps you invested and hopeful in the more torturous moments of the film. You want to see her get revenge, but you also want someone to get the best of her so you can watch her climb the mountain once more.
Sure Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion can be hit or miss, but in the ensuing days you’ll be wondering what Matsu is up to and seeking her out for another adventure. This first entry feels like a proof of concept, and successfully teases out the potential of this team and character. It’s as if the creators were holding back – goading you into asking for more. More style, more action, and of course more Matsu. Thankfully there are three more films already waiting to satisfy your appetite.