Finally saw this Japanese woman-in-prison film Scorpion thanks to Matthew Brady’s recommendation. It’s definitely interesting to watch it in comparison to the American Women in Prison movies from the same period. For one thing it’s a lot artier than any of them (with the possible exception of Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat.) One rape scene is basically shot from up through the floor; the climactic battle scene is shot sideways, with the protagonists staggering around as if they’re walking on a wall. Lots of creepy lighting of grotesque faces. It’s actually very nicely done; effectively creepy and nicely composed; it gives the whole thing a dreamlike aura, though a very grimy one.

Unlike many of the WIP films in America or Europe, this one has basically no feminist overtones…either positive or negative. There’s no sense of female solidarity as a possible source of empowerment, as in Caged Heat or Jack Hill’s movies. But there also isn’t the vicious misogyny of Jess Franco. The women prisoners are certainly violent and frightening and largely irredeemable, and there is at least one scene, in which a bunch of them rape a group of male guards, that at least nods towards Franco’s vision of fetishized, deplored Bacchanal. But overall, the women are actually much like the male guards; torturous scum mostly there as obstacles for the heroine, Nami. Men and women alike beat her, torture her, rape and humiliate her…and she bears it all with a deadly, steely glance that says that you’re going to get yours.

In fact, in a lot of ways this is more a rape-revenge film than a WIP one. In WIP movies, relationships between women, or women collectively, are usually thematically central; it’s one of the few exploitation genres which regularly, even obsessively, passes the Bechdel test/ Rape-revenge, films, on the other hand, tend to isolate the female protagonist; the whole point is to watch this physically unassuming, supposedly helpless women kill everybody by herself.

Scorpion makes some concessions to WIP tropes about female bonding: Nimi has three friends in prison, a weaker naif who she mothers; a tough older prisoner who, effectively, mothers her; and an undercover cop who tries to pump her for information, but who she instead ravishes so thoroughly that the straight cop falls in love with lesbian lovin’ in general and with her in particular. These relationships, though, all seem definitely secondary to the main issue, which is getting revenge on the copy boyfriend who set her up. The relationship with the guy was transformative; he robbed her of her innocence, turning her from a beautiful young lover into a killng machine. None of the female relationships are anywhere near that important.

I guess that, in fact, is the main thing that distinguishes this from any other WIP movie I can think of. It’s a very rare WIP movie which is based around the conceit that prison isn’t all that important. Everything that matters that happens to Nami (the whole rape-revenge plot) occurs outside the walls; prison is just a place for her to be stoic and show how much punishment she can take (the Rorschach prison experience.)

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I wonder if part of the issue is that rape-revenge makes more sense in Japan than regular WIP does. Our Helter Skelter roundtable made me suspect that Western-style feminism may be a hard sell in Japan. But everybody loves revenge.

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