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The Trope of ‘Revenge’ in J-cinema

By Stewart Home.


While most women-in-prison flicks bore me, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1973) directed by Shunya Ito is a groove sensation. The plot is simple, Nami Matsushima AKA Matsu the Scorpion (Meiko Kaji) is betrayed by her bent cop boyfriend Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi), who sets her up to be raped by his gangster cohorts. After Matsu is jailed for attempting to murder Sugimi, her only aim in life is to escape in order to fully avenge herself. The story is told largely through visuals and partially in flashback, with lashings of torture, nudity, beatings and lesbianism. A shower room cat-fight and other staples of this genre spin off into surreal flights of fancy, and much of the action is colour-coded – red for hatred, green for revenge. This makes Female Prisoner reminiscent of Italian shockers of the 1970s; and despite the colour-coding, which immediately brings to mind Dario Argento, it is much closer to the work of Lucio Fulci, with his dissolution of linear time and taste for gory eye-gouging sequences.

Female Prisoner # 701: Scorpion boasts the production values of a Japanese studio film, but like the work of Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter, Branded To Kill etc.) it manages to transcend the formulaic limitations of production-line cinema. Nonetheless, the essential characteristics of Matsu the Scorpion will be familiar to anyone who has seen more than one ‘revenge’ film. There is no need for Matsu to exist as a fully formed ‘character’ because her motivation and superhuman strength are a product of her burning desire for revenge. She can endure any physical pain because she is consumed by a hatred that enables her to triumph over all adversities and adversaries.

Two notable Japanese films that took up the trope of ‘revenge’ as it was recast in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and developed it outside the women-in-prison genre are The Streetfighter (1974) starring Sonny Chiba, and Sex & Fury (1973) with Reiko Ike. Missing the revenge element, but sharing the psychedelic feel of Female Prisoner is Hanzo The Razor: Sword of Justice (1972) directed by Kenji Misumi. In Hanzo, lead actor Shintarô Katsu repeatedly whacks his prick with a big stick in order to toughen it, then masochistically pounds his throbbing member into a bag of rice. He does this to maintain his sexual prowess, which he deploys when interrogating female crime suspects, all of whom fall under the spell of his manly charms once he’s raped them. Straight down-the-line misogyny is only one of the factors that reveals Hanzo to be a far weaker film than Female Prisoner. While it is possible to ‘read’ all these movies as sexist, the way Meiko Kaji stares back at her ‘cinema’ audience in Female Prisoner problematises any pre-existing ideas we might have about voyeurism, and brings to my mind the work of Stephen Dwoskins. Dwoskins realises his ritualistic disemboweling of what is now falsely configured as ‘male gaze’ to best effect in Dyn Amo (1972). And like Ito’s work, Dwoskins’ films are very trippy.

Returning to the theme of revenge, it is hardly surprising it should provide such fertile material for film-makers, since many people in our (post)-modern world feel belittled and their resentment has also spawned a plethora of websites and publications devoted to this subject. Given that ‘revenge tactics’ such as ordering multiple pizza deliveries to a chosen victim are now so well-known they are unlikely to work (if they ever did), over the past few decades there has been an explosion of how-to-do tips on this ’subject’. I’d guess that most of those who read this largely redundant literature do so to make themselves feel less powerless, and that they are unlikely to utilise the ‘advice’ they’ve sought out. The following is a typical revenge scheme from 21st Century Revenge by Victor Santoro (Loompanics Unlimited, Port Townsend 1999):

If you know your target intends to fly by commercial carrier, and you have access to his carry-on luggage for a minute, you have another possibility. Even a briefcase will be enough for your purposes. If one of your preparations has been to pick up a handgun that cannot be traced to you, say bought at a garage sale, slip the gun into his carry-on bag when you have a moment alone with it. You might have to make your own luck here by being a nice guy and offering to help him carry his bags down to the car or taxi.

Anyone who thinks scams like this are worth trying out is either a cop or is looking at the world through a pair of X-Ray Spex, and a book of harassment tactics is not going to provide them with the life they so desperately need. The sense of resentment capitalism generates cannot be combated on a personal level, it requires collective action. The Female Prisoner series might give us a sense of this – especially when seen as originally intended in a cinema setting – through a collective identification with Matsu the Scorpion. On the other hand, books and websites dedicated to the style of revenge scheme propounded by the likes of Victor Santoro, are a very literal waste of time.

Stewart Home‘s archive at 3:AM can be found here, while his web presence is here, as is his blog.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 22nd, 2009.