Confessions of a Female Badass is an ongoing column at Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I discuss women in genre cinema.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable would not be the implied conception of Themyscria at the close of Jailhouse 41. Instead of investing in the images of free women who are a collective force when brought together Best Stable opens with a metaphorical image that Scorpion (Meiko Kaji) would always carry her past and she'd continually be chased by the dogs of patriarchy. Over a brief sequence on a subway Scorpion is seen sitting alone before a group of police officers chase her out of the underground vehicle. One of those men is Detective Kondo (Mikio Narita), the man in charge of finding her. He manages to handcuff himself to the wanted criminal, but not before the subway doors are shut. This would leave Scorpion with just enough space to hack off his arm in a bloody heap. She runs through the station and the city with an arm trailing behind her. This image is in direct opposition to the image that closed Jailhouse 41. Scorpion is still running, but her pursuit towards freedom or safety is singular and she's still dragging with her the men who long to see her punished for her crimes of murder. There is no wish-fulfillment in the land of beasts and the rabid tone of fiery vengeance in the previous two films is replaced almost entirely by an all encompassing, rain soaked melancholy. It's an ironic choice to present the freedom of Scorpion as something ultimately doomed compared to the relative optimism in the predictability of her prison stay, but it's a masterstroke in giving director Shunya Ito's final Scorpion picture a heavy dose of reality and resets the stakes so that Scorpion has something to say beyond her vengeance. What Beast Stable marvelously accomplishes is setting up a secondary truth. We are not Scorpion, and some of us suffer regardless of some hope that we won't.
I am struck by the way Yayoi Watanabe approaches the role of Yuki as an insular person and how the camera always understands her own space through distance and estrangement. Yuki is characterized by sunken shoulders, recoiling posture and keeping her head down at all times. All of these actions present a person who doesn't want to be touched, looked at or interacted with, and it is only considerate that the camera comply through medium and long shots. Even in the company of the city Yuki is framed in a way that presents her isolation by finding areas of quiet like an abandoned bridge, an alleyway or a graveyard. Through isolation Yuki can have some semblance of control over her body. She can shield herself from interactions, contact and conversation with other people and simply rest inside herself. She's a loner by circumstance and survival. She comes home to her rapist so to find her own peace she has to find a nothingness in architecture where her safety is attainable. It's reminiscent of what Sheryl Lee would do with body language so masterfully in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In that movie Laura collapsed inside of her own hell, and Sheryl played the role like someone grasping for a hand on the edge of darkness. When she was touched she reacted like a bundle of exposed nerves jolting into a reactionary refusal of interaction. David Lynch presented much of this through her already severely damaged headspace due to her own dealings with incestual rape. A lot of Laura Palmer's eventual crumble is shown rather than implied differing her from Yuki's situation, but where they share similarities is in the process of untangling themselves from reality to find peace in a solitary space that could be their own. For Laura Palmer that had to be achieved through death, but in Yuki's case it is in the graveyard of her own mind, away, locked inside herself.
This short scene is the most complex and daring in the entire Scorpion series because it asks us to understand the mindset of someone who is being raped by someone that they love. This scene is here to give Yuki more depth and place us even further into her world, a world she can barely control. It is here that the Scorpion series becomes more about Yuki than the iconic, titular character we've come to love. There is plenty of vengeance in the movie, but the emotional core of Beast Stable is in the face of a girl who can barely keep herself grounded on Earth. Yuki is a figure whose heart is pure, but has dealt with the most vile act and still comes out of it hoping for a brighter day. This is not to say that she doesn't have her moments where she wishes her brother was dead, and there is a scene where she begs for that to happen, but she never acts on that desire. It is something I can't possibly grasp, and it complicates Beast Stable because audiences are hardly asked to grapple with these questions. In the Jack Garfein film Something Wild (1961) a similar circumstance happens where after battling with post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of being raped Mary Ann Robinson (Carroll Baker) ends up with another rapist only to live a life of domesticity. She is not persecuted for her actions in that film and Yuki isn't persecuted here, but instead these films ask tough questions about the mindset of Women who have dealt with sexual assault. It is important to note that these movies contain a dense interior related to the physical self. They are burrowed in and so totally inside the body. They also don't come up with any definitive answers on how to overcome the problem of having been raped, because there is no easy fix for survivors of sexual abuse. These movies instead let these Women decide what to do next and how to move forward if moving forward is even possible. It's important that movies like Something Wild, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable remember the Women at the heart of their stories and never let the act of rape become something trivialized to a plot point or something secondary in these characters lives. When a movie is about rape it must wrangle with what this means and how this effects their characters in ways significant and minor. It cannot merely be background noise. In Female Prisoner Scorpion it is the catalyst for the suffering of Women everywhere. This movie understands it is about sexual power dynamics and the onus is unfairly on the Women to stop this action from happening which reflects the real world where we're told to watch how much we drink at parties, not to walk down the wrong street and make sure our skirt isn't too short.
Yuki is unfamiliar with that level of affection and sprints out of the apartment to get away from something she isn't yet ready to embrace. On her way out a box of matches falls out of her purse that are slung into Scorpion's chest by a man who crosses her off as she tries to catch up with Yuki. He's not a man of subtlety and he removes his ridiculous sunglasses and licks his lips at the mere sight of Scorpion. What is revealed later is that this man works as security for the prostitution ring that later harms Yuki when she starts to work in their territory without permission. He slings the matches into Scorpion's chest and walks away, but his body language and his intentions are clear in that he is using his power as a man to take possession and ownership of Scorpion's body with a sexual advance and the severity with which he threw the matches back at Scorpion. The matches become a consistent theme throughout this movie as a symbol of the relationship between Yuki and Scorpion. The first of these images comes moments later in Scorpion's apartment when she's flicking the matches one by one and this is edited together with a scene of Yuki putting on lipstick for her job. This split POV enhances their relationship and makes the film feel symbiotic between the two women. The most striking moment occurs when Scorpion flicks a match and through that brief lighting of the flame a tear is visibly running down her cheek. Her face is otherwise emotionless, but this one moment of emotional significance from Kaji speaks volumes for her ability to convey with gestures both minimal and maximal. In the Arrow Video set Shunya Ito consistently compared her to Clint Eastwood's The Man with No Name character from Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, but she is much more complex than Eastwood's iconic gruffness and infinite cool. She is instead a towering figure of empathy, motherhood, and warmth funneled through a psychedelica that owes debts to Seijun Suzuki, Nagisa Oshima and an emotional wellspring that is closer to Maria Falconetti in her ability to convey a total facial performance
The vengeance that must be fulfilled in Beast Stable is tied together through a few coincidences that link the characters of Yuki, Scorpion and a third woman who isn't named. This final woman is introduced shortly after Scorpion's run in with the man in her apartment complex and like Yuki she is a sex worker and she is pregnant. She's hiding the pregnancy from her bosses, but eventually begins to show. Katsu (Reisen Lee) runs the show in this side of town controlling the sex work game and her many security officers find out about this woman's pregnancy and bring her to Katsu. Katsu is a figure of exaggeration with garish make-up closer to the styles of 70s drag queens and she lives with a flock of crows who hold no significance other than to paint her as an elaborate creature of strange taste. Around the same time the man who threatened Scorpion in the hotel dies, but not from her hand instead it's from another woman, but Scorpion is assumed to have killed the security officer. The men who work for Katsu capture Scorpion at the same time they are punishing this third woman. They see her pregnancy as a loss of finance and force her to have an abortion. Yuki plays into these narrative threads through her own interaction with Katsu which ended in torture for having worked in her area without permission, and with her own pregnancy.
In an interview with Arrow Video Shunya Ito stated that Luis Bunuel was one of his favourite directors and the recurring blade across the eyes image is an homage to Un Chien Andalou. In Jailhouse 41 Scorpion witnesses the death of an old woman who in her final moments gives Scorpion a knife. After she is given that weapon the old woman dies and is buried underneath the autumn leaves after a deep gust of wind and then vanishes. Upon seeing this Scorpion takes that blade and runs it across her eyes and in that moment she became mystical and endowed with an assumed power to complete her tasks of vengeance at all costs due to the spirits of Women scorned. Beast Stable uses this image too, but Scorpion's possession is given so much more weight due to what we've seen happen to the woman who gives her the scalpel. After her abortion the unnamed woman is brought back to Katsu's lair to die, but inches away from her is Scorpion being held captive for her assumed murder of one of their security guards. Scorpion notices the woman edging closer and closer so she dangles her arm out of the cage and they touch. Scorpion's gesture gives this dying woman a last moment of assurance that what she has experienced will not go unpunished. With that outstretched arm Scorpion unfurls finger by finger the scalpel she grasped when they took what would be her child. Scorpion's hands shake and she pulls the scalpel out of her hand. In an extreme close-up reminiscent of what Jonathan Demme would popularize years later in The Silence of the Lambs she takes that scalpel and drags it across her eyes. Meiko Kaji's eyes are the window to the soul of these movies and an audience surrogate. Her eyes are bleary, bloodshot and about to burst with tears for what she has seen. She slowly pulls the blade across and the tears start to roll out, and it is in the intensity of her stare and the sorrow of the previous scene that makes this moment of action have context the previous usage of this image did not. Here, Scorpion becomes a reaper in a way that doesn't ring as abstract or showy, but simply through the tools of cinema that have been apparent since the silent age, an image, a face and a reaction.
Upon killing the men who forced the woman to have an abortion Scorpion says she's possessed with the spirit of the dead girl, and what was assumed to be implied regarding Scorpion's powers is confirmed, but her powers only give her so much, and she soon finds herself retreating from Detective Kondo and his men who want to see her die. Scorpion crawls into a sewer to hide, and what started in a damp hell would end there. In Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion she was sent to live in a dungeon of the prison where the floor was wet, cold and there was no light to creep through the darkness. In Beast Stable Yuki provides the light by dropping matches down the sewer and calling her name.
To call Scorpion's name is to bring her to life, and the magic of watching the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies is in the belief that she'd appear. The idea of Scorpion is one of both justice and freedom that a woman isn't alone and her heart can sing even when hell surrounds her. Meiko Kaji brought Scorpion to life through her steely gaze and her empathetic trust in the fruitfulness of women through her cinematic actions, both violent and affectionate. She created a figure of light and darkness that could take up a sword for the damaged or offer a healing hand when necessary. Kaji sings the theme song that plays throughout these movies and the lyrics say "A Woman's life is her song" and my song is one of survival. Upon finishing Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable I came clean with a secret that I had harbored inside of me for a very long time. I sobbed on my husband's shoulder and told him that my father raped me on a semi-regular basis while I was growing up. The experience of actually vocalizing my history with sexual abuse was a moment of healing, because I could finally begin to understand that I did nothing wrong, and I didn't bring this on myself. Watching the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies has been a cathartic experience for my soul and having been open about my past I feel like I am able to move forward with my future. I saw something of myself in Yuki and I felt attached to her as she dropped matches down into the sewer calling her saviours name, and I knew that I had something of a saviour in Scorpion. The very idea of her was with me and even in knowing I'll always drag my past around, she has given me the strength to pick up the pieces of my own life in some small way.
Sunday, October 2, 2016
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
All the World's a Stage and Sexuality is All You Really Need: House of Little Deaths (Scout TaFoya, 2016)
In the opening scene a near static camera shows a woman named Victoria (Alexandra Maiorino) prepping herself for a night of work. She pulls at the lingerie and runs her skin through her fingers trying to make herself as presentable as possible for her (mostly) male customers. When interrupted by another woman the camera follows her and the rest of the women are seen doing the same. TaFoya focuses on these smaller internal moments of preparation to the film's benefit. It's a trick in the Chantal Akerman handbook to showcase time spent. These scenes don't have the length or the intention to truly reckon with Chantal, but they do give the audience a brief feeling of moments that are often too short or concise in other movies of this type. When TaFoya holds his camera on Victoria to show her using foundation, blush and mascara we ride with her through those tasks and it creates a sense of interiority that is beneficial to creating the closeness needed to ponder what actually goes into the job that makes it central to these women.
A newcomer to the job (Cassie played by Michelle Siracusa) frequently asks the other women for help in her appearance and act. During one scene she asks one of her co-workers for outfit tips and their conversation immediately begins to break down into girl talk. "What do you like?" "What do you like to wear?" and so on. It's a nice moment where the wall of the job comes down and they can just be, but it becomes more complex when thinking about the task of picking those clothes they're discussing, because they aren't necessarily dressing for themselves but others. Their need to both find themselves in their dress while also compromising for their job is their moment of artistic control over their work. There is a perceived uniform, but you can make it your own. They wear the clothes and the make-up, but it's done by their hand. That too ties into the process of theater and cinema and the question of ownership in art.
Mustang, but where House of Little Deaths fumbles is in the simplification of the image through reconciliation. It's an image that can only have one meaning, and that is acceptance of her pregnancy. It's a crowd pleasing note to cap off on in a movie that usually requires more of the audience, but even with missteps in the final act House of Little Deaths features a lot of engaged filmmaking and TaFoya is someone to keep an eye on.
You can support House of Little Deaths here by becoming a fan of the film.
Monday, September 12, 2016
Exploitation cinema addresses difficult subject material with a directness not usually gifted to mainstream filmmaking. At its best these kinds of movies ask questions of viewers and unsettle their cultural ideas of sex, race, gender and class. Rape is not a stranger to cinema, but it is uncommon that this topic is handled with immediacy, concern and grace. Rape-revenge movies must have an understanding of the psyche of the abused, and facilitate this through camerawork and character depth. The person's (almost always a woman) fight for justice needs to be paramount, and their agency within the narrative has to be a concern. The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies don't always understand how to go about balancing their exploitation duties to pinku cinema, and rape-revenge to their righteous women's anger, but frequently they find a balance of expressiveness and strength at the centre with the help of Meiko Kaji (Scorpion). Kaji (Scorpion) is a performer whose eyes emote more than dialogue ever could and her stoicism, determination and weathered life experiences gift the Scorpion films a character who viewers can identify with and follow, even when scenes are hard to bear. It is in her eyes that the Scorpion films find their power as vengeance pictures, and in Jailhouse 41 Scorpion evolves into a figure whose acts of reprisal become mystical. What is only hinted at in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion becomes gospel as Scorpion becomes the blade for all women.
first piece on these movies. Scorpion is seen dragging a spoon across the rock floors and refashioning it into a primitive knife. She does this knowing it might be her one way to escape or to strike back at the warden who captured her and sent her back to prison at the close of the first movie. In these scenes the camera is looking up, just as Scorpion would be and the image is of the Warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) and his men standing above Scorpion. When it is announced that Scorpion would be taken outside along with the other women to meet a dignitary from the state who is coming to check up on the prison she is "cleaned" with a fire hose. Her face breaks in these moments and she shows vulnerability. The cracks in Scorpion's armor are important to make her a relatable figure instead of a superhero and amplify the anger audiences are supposed to feel with the cruelty of the warden and his men. Ito smartly frames the hose sequence no different than Scorpion's introduction and the lens is filled with splashes from the water. The camera takes the place of her body.
Scorpion's cross-carrying is no small coincidence either. Her presence as a saviour to the masses is well known and this alignment with Christ gives her iconography that is known worldwide. Scorpion, however, is not a martyr or a saint. She's a murderess with a justified hand. But even the punishment of Christ is not enough in the eyes of Chief Warden Goda. Goda insists that Scorpion must be broken, and a punishment not befitting of her will only turn Scorpion into an idol. Goda orders his men to publicly gang rape Scorpion in front of the other women.
Before the women flee they make a scene of one of the guards who tried to kill Scorpion. They maul his body, disrobe him and with legs splayed they plant a giant plank of wood directly into his genitals. It's a graphic image, and perhaps the bloodiest in the series. It's an image of specific meaning due to the camera's lingering presence. It's lit in a way that makes it clear blood is gushing up from his wound and we see the full extent of his mangled body. In the Female Prisoner Scorpion films when women are raped the camera rejects the sexualization of the subject by never showing the full extent of the act of rape, but instead uses reaction shots and close-ups. Those scenes are made disturbing by the power of the actors faces, and that is a clear rejection of typical filmmaking techniques for rape that focus on the female body. This image of a defiled man is made powerful by contrast in the the destruction of his body in a physical, visible way. It's angry, violent, impure, but radical in context of the rape-revenge movie and in how Scorpion functions as a series of movies in this genre.
The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies have a deft eye for critical evaluation of their audience. Being in the pinku genre Ito knows the audience who would go to this movie and casually inserts an image of an offended woman overhearing men discussing sex with women who had just escaped form prison. Her look of disgust is the moral heart of these movies. At their centre the Scorpion films pay notice to the women characters and how they interact with men. Not to let the men see her reaction she quickly reaches for a smile to diffuse any possible negative outcome, which is something women are trained to do in the company of unbecoming men when we grow up.
Oba is perhaps a character who exists as criticism of the women in the audience who view Scorpion as a hero. Oba is the likely scenario of how offended men would view Scorpion in the first place so her more brazenly evil tactics are a focus. Oba works as a counter-point to Scorpion's righteousness. She is more coarse and complicated in her hatred of not only men, but human beings. Oba strips women, steps on men and uses hostages as target practice in their lengthy escape. She's an individual who is beyond damaged and throws Scorpion to the police to save her own ass later in the movie. It is perfect that Oba and Scorpion would stand together in the end as Scorpion learns to have compassion for someone who hated her guts.
Scorpion's compassion for Oba is beautifully rendered in their final moments. Before Oba dies she relives the moment that sent her to prison. Her face is less severe and she carries a deep grief in her expression as she plunges a knife into her womb aborting her unborn fetus. In a striking image of abortion stigma a net is thrown over her and people prod her with sticks as she bleeds out. When Oba comes to Scorpion catches her and for a second Oba drops her defenses and rests in Scorpion's arms. Finally, she lets down her armor and breathes, because she knows her torment is nigh over. Scorpion stares at her and their eyes meet. Scorpion didn't have to catch Oba, but she did, and despite all of the vicious things Oba had done in the past she helped a woman in need. In her great empathy Scorpion carries Oba until she expires. She closes her eyes and lets her move onto the next world and Scorpion weeps. The message of unity among women crystallizes in this moment, because everyone has a backstory and moments that cause their own problems. It's our duty to try to understand why.