Saturday, January 29, 2011

REVIEW: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song

女囚さそり 701号怨み節 (Joshū Sasori - 701 Gō Urami Bushi)

Released: 1973

Yasuharu Hasebe

Meiko Kaji
Masakazu Tamura
Yumi Kanei
Hiroshi Tsukata
Yayoi Watanabe

Running time: 89 min.

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

After directing the stellar "Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable", Shunya Ito decided to move onto bigger and better things. Maybe he’d grown board of the series, maybe he told all the tales of Sasori he could tell, regardless, he was out. Meiko Kaji, whose fame grown in stature due to the popularity of the series, whilst unhappy, stuck it out for one more film, this time under the reigns of "Black Tight Killers" director Yasuharu Hasebe. This would be Kaji’s last film in the series, although it would continue on without her.

From the opening sequence, its obvious that this is not the Sasori that Shunya Ito popularized. The film does briefly start with a sequence similar to that of "Jailhouse 41", mimicking the long zooms down the halls of the prison, here pushing into the cityscape, as echoing voices scream ‘Sasori’, but then we are delivered a title sequence that is pure pop-art, something Yasuharu excels at. Unfortunately its all downhill from there.

"Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song" picks up randomly at a wedding, where for no apparent reason Matsu is sewing wedding dresses? From there she’s quickly arrested, although before long she escapes, and runs into the arms of Kudo, who does lighting work at a strip joint. He helps hide her away from the police, although they quickly suspect that he’s doing so. The cop after Matsu also happens to be the same cop that years earlier severely assaulted Kudo, scarring him permanently, when he was a student protester, and soon enough, Matsu and Kudo team up, as they both wind up being hunted down by the same group of cops.

The film immediately feels wrong. Sure there are the usual Sasori tropes that Yasuharu sticks to, like Meiko Kaji’s penetrating gaze, her nearly silent performance and her preference with a blade, but this is the first film in the series where Matsu relies on the help of a man. Not only does he help her, but she immediately puts her trust in him, something completely out of character for Matsu. I mean, damn it, the song "Urami Bushi" is all about being betrayed by men, something she knows all too well. And while it doesn’t end up being all roses for Matsu and Kudo, that immediate leap of faith is something she would never do, or at least if she would, would need some kind of motivation. Here, there is none, but then again, most of this film just feels thrown together. It doesn’t gel like the others films, and where as the stereotypes and cliches of the genre were either ramped up, subverted or used to push the films in ways you couldn’t even fathom prior to this film, here they seem lazy. What happened to the attack on the patriarchy and a male dominated society? You get a sense that Kudo was at one point against something as he was a student protester, but beyond that, no more thought is given to it.

Which brings me to the cinematography and visuals. This is the director of "Black Tight Killers", which is a splendid piece of visual mayhem. You’d, I’d, we’d, expect something similar, but alas we get a largely bland visual canvas. Yes, there are a few, and I do mean a few, shots that have a little wind in their sails, most of it confined to the intercutting of Kudo’s flashbacks to when he was a student protester, but for the most part, this film pales in comparison to the previous films in the series. Where as Shunya Ito would push the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to wild realms, giving us abrasive foregrounds, cantilevered angles and spectacular framings with every inch filled with visual information, here we get shots that seem random and thrown together.

In the end, its obvious why Meiko Kaji walked after this film. This is a series that has always tried to push the genre in one way or another, and instead, it feels like its the one getting pushed around. Its a poor addition to the series, and doesn’t really follow in the mythos of Sasori. While the other films could be deemed exploitive by some, the at least sought to subvert your expectations and used there exploitive DNA to ask penetrating questions about patriarchy and its societal role, but here, it all feels like straight up exploitation. Boobs and blood, with no brains, and most definitely no emotional core, something that the other films had developed. Perhaps if it was a stand alone film without any relation to Sasori, it could be passable, but alas, it is not, and is therefore mediocre at best.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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