Combustible Celluloid
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With: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi, Yukie Kagawa, Hiroko Isayama, Hosei Komatsu
Written by: Tooru Shinohara
Directed by: Shunya Ito
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 90
Date: 12/30/1972

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Of Thee I Sting

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's the glare. How many could withstand that glare on her face, striking out from behind a veil of silky black hair? She can seduce or kill any man in the place in the beat of a heart. I can picture even Chow Yun Fat falling prey to the glare. The glare is everything.

The glare belongs to Meiko Kaji, star of the 1972 Japanese B-movie Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, which opens today at the Roxie for a week's run. Kaji is so sinister, she utters fewer words than even Arnold Schwarznegger's Terminator.

Technically this is not a women-in-prison movie, which generally opens with a wrongly convicted innocent girl being thrown in jail. Kaji, nicknamed "Scorpion," is guilty as hell. The film opens with her in some dank underground solitary confinement cell. She's drenched with a firehose, then dragged out into the daylight, where a visiting dignitary is touring the prison. She lunges at the one-eyed warden, nearly taking out his other eye (she was responsible for the first). This act incites a riot, leading to Kaji's and six other prisoners' escape.

Once on the road, the septet encounter many obstacles, some real, some imagined. Upon finding shelter for the first time, our heroes find an old woman brandishing a knife who sings to them. We then experience a dream-type sequence in which the old woman's song tells us the women's stories except Kaji's. (One woman murdered her own children.) The next day, Kaji watches as the old woman dies, is covered in leaves, and disappears.

Next to strange, otherworldly sequences like those are hard-core action and violence scenes. The movie contains two brutal rape sequences (though there's no way to nicely show a rape scene). The first involves Kaji herself while in prison, and the next includes one of her comrades, raped and killed by three randy travelers from a tour bus. The rapists pay for their actions when the crew holds the bus hostage.

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 was the second in a series of six, and the Roxie is hoping to show more of them. By no means as elegant as Akira Kurosawa's movies, the film instead relies on the energy and low-budget invention of the B-picture (it's quite a bit more imaginative than the Sonny Chiba pictures from the same period). Director Ito uses burnt-out landscapes, rocks and sand, and even a huge colorful trash heap for his backgrounds. But it's the lovely, deadly Meiko Kaji's show. When she shows up at the end, decked out in a fancy black dress and hat, vying for revenge on the evil warden, we're locked in her clutches for good.

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