Friday, January 14, 2011

REVIEW: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable

女囚さそり けもの部屋 (Joshuu Sasori - Kemono Beya)

Released: 1972

Shunya Ito

Meiko Kaji
Mikio Narita
Reisen Lee
Yayoi Watanabe
Koji Nanbara

Running time: 87 min.

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

"Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable", quickly sets the mood for this shocking woman in prison pink film, quickly establishing itself with quite possibly the best opening for any film in the series. Nami Matsushima aka Sasori aka Scorpion, sits on a busy subway, aiming to blend in. Unfortunately two plains clothes police officers spot her for whom she is, a dangerous female convict on the run from the law, and quickly try to detain her. One cop, Detective Kondo, manages to handcuff her, but not before she is able to slip out the subway car, the door closing on Kondo’s arm. Trapped, with no way to escape, Matsu is left with only one possibility: cut off the detectives arm! Then, we’re treated to a wonderfully demented credit sequence as Matsu runs through the streets of the nameless Japanese city, a bloody arm handcuffed to her wrist, the now classic "Urami Bushi" sung by Meiko Kaji herself charming our ears!

Shunya Ito made a name for not only for himself, but also for star Meiko Kaji, with his adaptation of Toru Shinohara’s "Sasori" manga into 3 live action films. If the first film laid the ground work for the series, with Matsu’s voice over uttering the simple phrase ‘to be deceived is a woman’s crime’, the common thread throughout all the films, the second,"Jailhouse 41", took it on an acid trip, stretching the manga origins to their limit. Injecting a theatrical ghost tale in the vein of "Jigoku", Shunya Ito fleshed out the psychotic reversal of Adam and Eve, as the old phantom lady tells us that all the woman convicted of crimes are there because of the men in their lives. And here, in "Beast Stable, he pushes the anti-patriarchal theme to the limit, giving us a barrage of incest, forced abortion, prostitution, police brutality and treacherous yakuza.

This film is filled with Ito’s trademark visual style, the wide frame always crammed with information, bold, sometimes oppressive foregrounds, often juxtaposed with deep focus background imagery, using a plethora of colourful lighting cues and some radical jump cutting to break up what would otherwise by a typical scene, but it doesn’t go quite as far as "Jailhouse 41". However, what it lacks in visual bravura, it makes up for with a far more disturbing and emotionally charged narrative. After Matsu escapes the cops, she quickly befriends a prostitute Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), a troubled woman, hard-pressed to find a street to turn tricks on without getting harassed by the local yakuza. She also happens to have a mentally challenged older brother whose only lust in life is sex, a lust Yuki, the sole provider and caregiver of, is forced to give, albeit with a great degree of emotional distance. When one of the Yakuza discovers that Matsu is staying with her, she quickly becomes embroiled with the mobsters, all the while the now one armed Detective Kondo (Mikio Narita) always on her trail, seeking revenge for his physical disability.

Meiko Kaji is terrific as always, again in almost entirely silent role, her eyes alone the sole device she uses to electrify us from scene to scene. She is physically one of the best actresses to grace the screen, her body language alone able to tell a thousand tales. You forget that she has barely uttered her word, her presence completely mesmerizing. If there’s one drawback to most of the films in the series, it’s that so few of the other actors are of the same caliber as she is.

So how does the film stack up with the others? It’s hard to say. "Jailhouse 41" is the most original, and constantly leaves you guessing what will happen next. And while "Beast Stable" is far more predictable, its outcomes often go far beyond what you would expect. Sure you know Sasori is going to exact her revenge, on the yakuza, on the cops, on the people responsible for doing unspeakable acts to woman and their bodies, but it still does it in such a off beat and breathtaking way, its hard to find fault with the proto-typical plot. It’s almost like comparing apples and oranges. "Jailhouse 41" is the bastard manga version, while "Beast Stable" is the more restrained yet emotionally volatile one, and balance between the first and second film. Which leads me to come to the conclusion: this is my favourite, but regardless, all three are pretty awesome.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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