Saturday, October 9, 2010

New Female Prisoner Scorpion #701 (1976)

Original title: Shin joshuu sasori: 701-go

Nami Matsushima's (Ryoko Ema) older sister is working as the secretary of a man with a supposedly glorious future in the Japanese government. Somehow, sister acquires a tape proving her boss' entanglement in the sort of shady business that could destroy his career if it ever came to light. She plans to get out of the country as quickly as possible, but is kidnapped just before she can escape.

She had just been able to give the incriminating tape to Nami, but instead of giving it to the press, Nami and her fiancée try to exchange the tape for her sister. Their enemy isn't the sort of person who likes to make deals, though, and so Nami's sister ends up dead, with the blame for the murder put squarely on Nami, not without the help of her spineless fiancée who has no problem selling her out for a nice new rich fiancée and better career opportunities. Everybody is happy, except for Nami, who's put in prison.

But even there, the young woman isn't left in peace. Instead, her enemies sic the prison's warden on her who for his part hires his favourite girl boss prisoner to drive her to suicide or - if needed - simply murder our heroine.

Driven by hatred and the need for vengeance, Nami turns out to be tougher than anyone would have expected, taking every humiliation without breaking, and lashing out with frighteningly controlled violence when she needs it to survive.

After demonstrating enough of her brand of toughness, Nami leads the other prisoners in an attempted breakout.

It's not much of a surprise that Toei Studios wanted to continue the Sasori series beyond the first four successful films, even though neither their irreplaceable lead actress Meiko Kaji nor Shunya Ito, the director of the first three films of the series, were willing to take part in it further.

It's also not much of a surprise that New Female Prisoner Scorpion suffers terribly when you compare it directly with the other Sasori movies. This comparison is of course even more unavoidable with a film that plays out as a less brilliant remake of the very first Sasori movie. Although New Female Prisoner contains just as much of the nasty stuff and the technically excellent as its model and predecessor, it never manages to reach its intensity and intelligence.

Poor, beautiful Ryoko Ema is quite good as Nami, too, effectively projecting a toughness close to madness underneath her physical fragility, and I'd probably be all over her performance if I wouldn't have Meiko Kaji's reading of the same character to compare it with. It's like comparing a minor storm that knocked down a few trees in your backyard with a hurricane that has just flattened your city; although the former might be impressive in its own way, the latter is what you'll always remember.

Yutaka Kohira's direction basically suffers from the same problem. Everything on screen is up to the high standards of a Japanese exploitation movie of the 70s, the visual staging of scenes is way beyond what most directors in other parts of the world achieved at the same time working on comparable budgets, yet the shadow of Ito's original (not to speak of film two and three of the series) hangs so heavily over everything that Kohira's film can't help but disappoint. Especially problematic is how closely New Prisoner tries to stick to elements of the original films like the stylistic influence of no theatre without ever seeming to understand which role this elements had in them. How Kohira handles this is surely pretty to look at, but lacks the layers of meaning Ito brought to his work.

I suspect how much enjoyment one can derive from watching NFPS 701 depends on how much one is able to ignore the films that came before it. As a generic Japanese 70s exploitation movie, it's really a fine film; as the fifth film in the Sasori series, it's a disappointment.


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