Even though Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable was Shunya Itō’s intended conclusion for the series, Toei firmly wanted to do at least one more, so they brought in Nikkatsu filmmaker Yasuharu Hasebe, famed for the Stray Cat Rock films (also starring Meiko Kaji), to helm a fourth chapter in Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song.
Seeing as how the Scorpion movies are an inherently auteur series in contrast to many other pinku and Pinky Violence films, to me it’s unshakable that Beast Stable was the true final chapter of the series, and #701’s Grudge Song comes off as just an additional adventure that might not even necessarily take place after the previous entry, especially because this chapter downright ignores where Beast Stable leaves Nami Matsushima off and doesn’t really fit with it chronologically. So much so that, like I mentioned in my previous review, when I originally watched these movies I accidentally saw Grudge Song first and then Beast Stable, and I didn’t realize I had gotten the order wrong up until I looked them up, because in that sequence this entry fits just fine in the timeline. But even if feels more like an extra addition to the franchise rather than a proper final chapter, and even if it’s the most flawed of the series, Grudge Song still has its merits and is, at least, a solid film.
The first major weakness in this one, apart from the aforementioned lack of continuity sense with its predecessor, is just how unoriginal it comes across as. As the movie starts, we find Nami Matsushima on the run from the police, up until she collapses and gets harbored by a stranger – much like the beginning of Beast Stable. So we get the same basic plotline that ends up being developed in a different way, giving that this time the stranger is a man, and once again we story gives Nami a love interest – and in this one it relies a lot more on the “physical contact” aspect -, and although it does okay, for most of the time it doesn’t feel as earned or heartfelt as the relationship between Nami and Yuki in Beast Stable. On top of that, the romantic aspect is also an attempted throwback to the first movie and Nami’s original betrayal by Sugimi – seeing as how that character was a cop, and in Grudge Song song Nami falls for a former revolutionary who’s persecuted by cops. That is the strongest aspect of this romantic arc, but it’s still considerably hard to buy it. The film also brings back Yayoi Watanabe in a side role, but her character in this film doesn’t add up to any of the thematic implications of her previous roles as Yuki.
Hasebe – who wrote the film alongside franchise veterans Fumio Kōnami and Hirō Matsuda – also makes the questionable decision to approach that love interest character, the man called Kudo, as the protagonist for the first half of the film. Nami is mostly left on the sideline and isn’t very active as a character, while Kudo gets all of the action. This is likely an attempt to flesh out Kudo as much as possible and try to sell us why Nami would care about him, but in doing that Hasebe ends up making Nami uncharacteristically passive, as she’s usually just following the guy’s lead, instead of developing a mutually active dynamic between the both of them to better sell their relationship. Funnily, one year later Meiko Kaji starred in the extremely underground flick Jeans Blues: No Future, which is a Bonnie & Clyde-esque road film that pulls off this particular aspect of Grudge Song better than this movie did.
The “duty to family” theme is once again criticized in this picture by a very appalling decision Kudo makes, however the way the family aspect is brought in very late on the film feels gimmicky. It comes out of nowhere in a very Diabolus Ex Machina fashion, and for that it also detracts from the depth of its sociopolitical commentary. The anti-police discourse, however, is as strong as ever in Grudge Song; the cop characters in this are disturbingly evil – especially the main antagonist, Detective Hirose, who not only comes across as a cruel cop to Nami but also a vile oppressor of the marginalized working class towards Kudo -, and not only them, but government officials that pop up later on the film as well – at one point we find the story in a prison that’s run by women, but the film paints a very clear picture that these women themselves are heavily puppeteered by male cops and government men, in the most abusive, horrific ways. This particularly clever piece of commentary on police brutality and the systemic abuse of women is as close as Grudge Song ever gets to the genius sociopolitical undertones of its predecessors.
Once we hit the halfway mark and the movie shifts the protagonism back to Nami, that’s where it really starts picking up. She becomes a much more active character when the revenge plot truly kicks in, and with that the story is considerably elevated, as was my investment in it. I’m pretty sure she talks in this more than in any other film of the series, and the way her speech is employed is very clever, but like always, the strongest element of Meiko Kaji’s performance lies in her eyes. Even if the writing doesn’t do a great job at selling you why exactly Nami falls in love with Kudo, Meiko Kaji does an excellent one illustrating that – although when you put her performance here in contrast to Beast Stable, it also paints a clear picture that Nami doesn’t trust – or cares about – Kudo as much as she did Yuki, which is an important detail.
Visually speaking, Grudge Song is a truly stunning looking movie. In order not to compete with Shunya Itō’s visionary surrealism, Yasuharu Hasebe approaches this a more straight-up thriller and doesn’t attempt too much to replicate Itō’s unique visual sensibilities – apart from one very clever direct throwback at an iconic shot from the original film. That ends up costing this film the magical aura of Itō’s trilogy, but at the very least it also means it doesn’t try and fail to copy it; instead, Hasebe focuses his directorial efforts on what he knows best: exploitation. This entry has a fair amount of action in it, making for an entertaining ride even at its weakest spots, and stunning art direction and cinematography create striking and colorful visuals that both pop and emphasize the psychological states of the characters.
The soundtrack, this time composed by Hajime Kaburagi, is quite fun and catchy, at times delivering some beautiful melodies. It gives this film quite the 70’s exploitation film vibe that you’ll be familiarized with by Quentin Tarantino’s movies. It’s more upbeat than the usual tone of the Scorpion films up until this point, but it fits Hasebe’s style just fine, and doesn’t betray the musical identity of the series. The love theme composed for Nami and Kudo is quite beautiful and does a good job giving some more of an emotional charge to the flawed relationship. The use of the theme song, “Urami Bushi”, at the film’s closing moments is also fantastic and sends it off on a high note.
Grudge Song‘s final scene is its strongest one, to the point that it heightens some previous elements of the film that weren’t all that strong. Between Meiko Kaji’s highly cathartic and emotionally charged performance, the splendid visuals crafted by Hasebe and both his art and photography department, and the beautiful original score, the film comes to a conclusion in an iconic, gut-wrenching and rewarding scene that does justice to the Sasori character. It’s less about the action and more about the emotion of it, and if the film went through a bumpy ride to get there, this final scene certainly encompasses and executes to perfection everything that the rest of the movie set out to do.
The film’s closing moments even manage to imprint some of that sense of “franchise conclusion” – it’s not as strong as it is in Beast Stable, and that film remains the true final chapter of the series for me, but still this is a very nice and welcome touch since they did make another one. At the very least, Grudge Song wasn’t an attempt at restarting the series setting up any sequels that never came through, no, it’s simply a “one more time” story that comes to a perfectly well-rounded ending.
With this, we officially say goodbye to Nami Matsushima as my Sasori Retrospective comes to an end. The Scorpion lived on as the franchise was rebooted several times after the original series ended – most notably by Yutaka Kohira, who was an assistant director on the original film and Grudge Song, and went on to direct New Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and its sequel in 1976 and 77 – and aside from the 77 movie, I’ve watched most of the reboots, but unfortunately none of them manage to stand on their own, let alone compare to what the original series achieved. Still, the cinematic legacy of Sasori went to live on with films like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Sion Sono’s masterpiece Love Exposure, and let’s be honest, when a franchise is as iconic as this one, it’s only a matter of time before it’s revived again. Hopefully this retrospective sparked a little bit of your interest, for these films truly deserve to be seen!
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