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‘SASORI’ Retrospective – ‘FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: BEAST STABLE’ is a Beautiful, Heart-Wrenching Trilogy Finale

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Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable is designed as a trilogy conclusion. Shunya Itō said everything he wanted to say in these three films, and adamantly refused to return for a 4th instalment despite Toei repeatedly begging him to direct another one. Not compromising his artistic vision, Itō stood his ground and made Beast Stable his final movie. Of course, the franchise was so popular that Toei went on and made Grudge Song without him anyway – which we’ll get to in my next piece -, but as an auteur series, Scorpion comes to an end here. Itō intentionally makes this one with a sense of finality, both thematically and in narrative. Curiously enough, when I first watched these films I accidentally got the order wrong – Beast Stable and Grudge Song both came out in 1973 – and ended up seeing this one last, so that imprinted an even greater feeling of closure in me when it comes to this film. Thankfully, it’s a masterwork worthy of its predecessors, and one that thrives on taking a different, unexpectedly emotional and queer approach to Nami Matsushima’s story.

One of the biggest things that this one does somewhat different than the first two is that it rings more like an urban noir thriller. It’s largely set on a city’s lower district where glowing neon lights are a glossy façade for dirty Yakuza activity and prostitution – it’s considerably less magical than Jailhouse 41 from a superfluous perspective, but even if the surrealism is toned down, there’s still an inherent mythical element in the way Itō frames Beast Stable and the references he uses. For instance, one scene that is perhaps this film’s most iconic one and a huge fan favorite is its opening sequence, when Nami is recognized by two cops on a train and makes a run for it; before she can escape, the detective named Kondo (this film’s main antagonist) cuffs her arm to his – it does him no good, however, because Nami promptly severs the cop’s arm off with her knife. As the opening credits play out and Meiko Kaji sings “Urami Bushi”, Nami Matsushima runs across the city with a cop’s arm attached to her hand – a striking image that paints that no matter how much she runs, she never manages to escape the grasp of her pursuers.

I’m sure that at this point you’ve noticed a consistency in the series: the villains are always cops. Throughout the franchise, there is a recurring anti-cop discourse, from the betrayal of Nami’s corrupt cop boyfriend Sugimi in the original to the constant depiction of abusive prison guards, and this becomes especially evident in Beast Stable. The dismemberment of detective Kondo here is, as per stated by Shunya Itō himself, an allusion to a popular Japanese legend about the samurai Watanabe no Tsuna, who severs the arm of an Oni named Ibaraki-dōji while defending the Rashomon Gate in Kyōto from it. Itō intentionally frames the policeman as a vile demon and the fugitive woman as the heroic Samurai – and Watanabe no Tsuna was a real samurai, who went on to become a legend in Japanese folklore, much like Nami Matsushima is, in the film’s diegesis, a real person, who becomes a mythical figure as Sasori. The director, however, also makes a point of showcasing the possibility of Sasori herself becoming demonized – in a very ominous and eerie scene that feels like it belongs to a horror film, a prostitute encounters Nami in a cemetery as she’s trying to rid herself of the severed arm cuffed to hers, and what she sees is a truly scary sight as Meiko Kaji emanates an animal-esque aura, her character on the verge of becoming an Oni herself after everything she’s been through. The film that follows has her battling on the thin line between humanizing herself again or becoming a beast.

At the same time that it’s less action-oriented than the two first movies, Beast Stable is the most outrageous and brutal of the bunch. In its story, Nami tries to have somewhat of a normal life after having seemingly lost the police off of her trail, and in the process she befriends that very prostitute who helped her, later finding out the woman’s having an incestuous affair with her brain-damaged brother. Now, that took a turn, didn’t it? In concept alone, Beast Stable already is a film that mainstream American audiences would not be ready for, but it goes even beyond that beneath surface level. The counter-weight to the horrendous things that happen in this chapter is the moving relationship between Nami and Yuki – the aforementioned prostitute. To talk about that, however, I’ll need to get into one little spoiler for the first Female Prisoner Scorpion movie…

Along with the series, Nami doesn’t have a great many positive relationships with other characters, but the most emblematic one comes from the original film in the character of… Yuki, played by pinku cinema sensation Yayoi Watanabe. Yuki is the only person in that movie whom Nami has genuine affection for, and the two of them hold each other as safe havens in that dire, oppressive environment. Nothing is said about how they met or what the exact nature of their feelings is; that much is beautifully left for viewer interpretation, so each person can fill in that blank with however it is that this relationship strikes them as. Beware, here comes the spoiler for the first movie: a huge turning point for Nami’s character is when Yuki is killed during a riot, driving her severely forward in her path of vengeance, and she doesn’t have a real connection again up until Beast Stable, when she meets the idem named prostitute who is, shockingly, also played by Yayoi Watanabe.

Itō, however, doesn’t address this particular choice in any way in the movie – as a matter of fact, I don’t know that he’s ever addressed it outside of the film either. All he does is he makes it clear that this is not the same character nor is she a lost twin sister; it’s simply a new character, who bears the same name and the same face of Nami’s late friend. The filmmaker leaves it completely for you to interpret the connection as you will – and he’s confident that as unaddressed as it is, we will still see it because even if you forgot Watanabe’s face from the original and doesn’t immediately notice that it is her, he imprints an inherent sense of déjà vu when Nami calls for this Yuki’s name in the same tender tone she only ever called one other character: the original Yuki. This encounter strikes me as Nami and Yuki being star-crossed soulmates, destined to find each other through time, as if in the popular Asian myth of the red thread of fate, which is a hugely influential belief in Japanese romance.

And yes, I do read Nami and Yuki’s relationship as a romance. Everything from the glares they share, to how sensible their scenes are, to how much they find on each other the affection they couldn’t find in anyone else, to the whole “reincarnated love” element paints a very romantic aura on this plotline. They even have a beautifully tender love theme that plays in every scene they share something of more intimate moments. They don’t ever kiss, but anyone who’s ever consumed Japanese media knows that traditionally they hardly ever recur to kissing or physical contact to tell their love stories – which tends to make their approach to romance less gimmicky and more emotionally genuine. There’s not even a need to read any queer coding into Nami’s character because she is very openly queer ever since movie 1 – where there’s a scene in which she seeks sexual pleasuring with another girl -, and she’s had other female allies along with the series, but Beast Stable is the first and only film we ever see her smile. And it’s because of Yuki.

There also seems to be some subtle subtext relating to the perception of a homosexual relationship in a conservative Japanese society and the tabooing of sexual libertinity; there certainly was a very clear allusion to that in the original film, where the character who makes love to Nami is slut-shamed and beaten by the male prison guards for having done so, therefore the precedent is very clear, but Beast Stable recurs to some more underlying symbolism to approach that theme. At one point the Yuki character is ostracized for being cohorts with Nami, and she’s seen by nearly every other person as promiscuous for being a prostitute. The film, however, makes it a point to show that Yuki is an independent sex worker, with no ties to prostitution ring activities, which paints a contrast between her and a female pimp character by the name of Katsu, one of this film’s antagonists. Still, to the public’s eye, Yuki is no less dirty than Katsu or her women-trafficking associates. Simply being in the business of sex and associating with Nami automatically makes her be perceived as a monster by the film’s more nationalist characters. The only time in the movie where it brings up the title word “beast” (“kemono”) is when Yuki uses it to describe herself – only it isn’t because of her prostitution activities or her bond with Nami, but her relationship with her brother.

Throughout the film, Yuki’s biggest conflict comes down to her brother, who’s completely helpless as a person and seeks sexual pleasure from her. She feels trapped to him and her angst is very clearly depicted as deriving from a sense of duty to family – a hugely traditional Japanese theme. That value is subverted and presented here as something monstrous, being the source of Yuki’s pain and the very thing chaining her to an abusive environment – while everyone else assumes her bestiality comes from her being a sex worker or her relationship with Nami, in truth it comes from how she serves the familial values of conservative Japan. Beast Stable tackling those nationalist themes in those controversial lenses while being a sexploitation film is nothing if not genius, after all, sex is such a taboo in Japan that pornography as we know it is banned over there, and sex work so largely marginalized that it creates a hotbed for sex trafficking – something that features heavily in the film, and the criticized apathy towards the issue by Japanese officials is even shown here when detective Kondo approaches Katsu in her HQ, and doesn’t really do anything about her prostitution ring’s activities. There’s also a sense of irony in the fact that the pornography ban in Japan is precisely what led to the creation of the pinku eiga cinematic movement – before Adult Videos came around, pinku films such as this one were the Japanese’s biggest form of erotic media.

With thematic implications so dense running throughout the story, the relationship between Nami and Yuki remains the heart of the film. It’s what keeps them human, and their one last chance at some sort of a normal life. The element of fire is recurrently used to symbolically link them together – in particular a box of matches that’s presented as a memento for the couple, and later as a form for Yuki to comfort Nami. It becomes the totem of their hope to find each other, as one of the film’s most beautiful and magical moments come in the form of a rain of flames while Yuki’s voice calls for Sasori. The development of their arc is done with such unique sensibilities and is what ultimately makes Beast Stable one of a kind as a bittersweet love story unfolding in a dark, bleak world.

What about the revenge stuff? Because so far this sounds so weirdly off for this series, right? Fret not, because there’s a lot of “vengeancing” in Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable. And in this film, it’s done in some very interesting ways, as Sasori often orchestrates situations for her enemies to kill each other. The women she encounters in this chapter go through some of the most perverse abuse in the whole franchise – even if you managed to get through the previous two films, this one you might find hard to watch at times -, and a wrathful Sasori becomes possessed with their rage-filled wills, exacting violent, cathartic and mythical revenge upon all of their aggressors. And I know that after all of this you think that maybe you’ve figured out where the story goes; trust me, you haven’t. There’s a pretty big element and a whole thematic discourse I’m deliberately leaving unmentioned to keep this spoiler-free.

Meiko Kaji gives what might very well be her best performance in Beast Stable. Differently from Jailhouse 41, here Nami is not hiding her feelings nor her intentions, and we can once again comprehend everything about her character’s state of mind and of heart with her hardly ever needing to speak. Kaji’s eyes display an unparalleled range of emotion here, as does her voice in the rare occasion in which we hear it. She masters subtle micro-expressions acting, and this time she has in Yayoi Watanabe a co-star with which she interacts more directly, so we’re allowed to see Nami in a social situation we’ve never seen before. The two actresses work each other splendidly, and Yayoi herself also delivers a powerful, moving performance. Mikio Narita plays detective Kondo as one of the most purely evil antagonists in the series – he really looks and sounds like a demon -, and Reisen Ri doesn’t hold no bullets with her extravagant portrayal of Katsu.

Like I mentioned before, the surrealism is a bit toned down in this chapter, but Shunya Itō never fails to deliver awe-inspiring imagery, and his direction in Beast Stable is every bit as iconic as in his previous entries. From a bloodbath kill in a white room captured in overexposed photography, to the aforementioned rain of fire and a hyper-colored montage of a frame skipping single-shot sequence, the visuals crafted here are endlessly dazzling. The overall urban setting is beautifully photographed, between the moody blues of the evening and the neon lights of the night, cementing those neo-noir vibes – I wouldn’t dispute anyone who says Beast Stable is the best looking Scorpion movie; hell, I might actually agree.

The original score is definitely the best in the series. It brings a handful of new compositions beyond the themes we’re already familiar with – one of them being that love theme I spoke of earlier -, and just the overall execution and recording of the music feels considerably improved in this entry. The editing and how it incorporates the score is a work worthy of being commended, as is the production design. The sets are astonishing, and the locations used for shooting were picked flawlessly. The cemetery set is a particularly memorable one, giving off major ghost story vibes, similarly to Yuki’s more isolated, gloomy and claustrophobic little house, that feels more like a creepy shack.

And this was Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable. A bleak, twisted and somehow beautiful and heart-wrenching film that manages to tackle so many dense themes under one seemingly simple plot with plenty of idiosyncrasies. It’s a movie that demands multiple viewings, because every time I watch it, I get something different out of it. As a conclusion to Shunya Itō’s auteur trilogy, it handles the arc of Nami Matsushima’s conflict with humanity and morality with perfection, and as the film comes to a close, Meiko Kaji’s voice sings: “I cannot die before I fulfil my fate, driven only by my hate. Woman, woman, a woman’s life is her song… Her song of vengeance.”

Don’t forget to come by next week for my take on Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song, one additional chapter under the helm of a new director!

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable

10

Overall

10.0/10

A genre enjoyer. Obsessed with all kinds of films from mainstream blockbusters to weird art house cinema. I will enjoy the hell out of a movie you probably hate.

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