"Women in prison" films is a subgenre with a nasty reputation and a devoted fanbase. Usually it's nudity and cruelty galore with a plot barely thin enough to veil the only reason to watch the film is to see the sadist and lesbian (or possibly the lesbian sadist) scenes. It's true that there are a few good prison films, but most of them are only in it for the exploitation. Which is not necessarily a bad point: after all, most blockbusters are only in it for the explosions.
I didn't know anything about Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 when I bought it. I was a little hesitant at first as the DVD was quite expensive, but what finally convinced me that this movie was released in the French Cinéma de Quartier series (which also released Incubus, Dead of Night and a Mario Bava film).
To my disappointment the movie turned out to be a sequel, the second film in a series of four starring the ravishing Meiko Kaji as Prisoner 701. One year later Kaji would star as Lady Snowblood in the eponymous films that influenced Tarantino quite a lot whilst shooting Kill Bill. The Female Prisoner tune "Urami Bushi", written by the director and sung by Kaji, was used in both Kill Bill volumes.
Shunya Ito, director of Female Prisoner 701, directed only 8 movies in 26 years, surprisingly few if compared to the output of other Japanese directors such as Koji Wakamatsu and Seijun Suzuki or if you look at the visual flair displayed in Ito's films. Three out of the eight movies were Female Convict Scorpion films.
I must confess that to this date I may own all four Female Convict Scorpion films starring Kaji (in 1976 and 1998 further installments were filmed, but as they lacked the presence of either director or star that made the series so worthwhile, I'm not really interested), but I've seen only the first two films and the trailers of part 3 and 4.
Still, it's not too early to recommend the series to you. If you haven't seen a W.I.P. (women in prison) film before or don't like the edgier films, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (the second one) is the one to go for. It's the most regular film of the series. That it was the sequel that made it to television (the Cinéma de Quartier series is also broadcast in France) is not that surprising: most of the sequel takes place out of the prison and follows a group of escaped convicts who try to stay away from the guards who're chasing them. It may still be an exploitation film, but it's not really a W.I.P. film. But never mind your difficulty to find a label for the film: just file it under 'good'.
Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion, the first film, is definitely an exploitation, though it must be said it's a classy exploitation film. Sure, the film may start with an escape attempt by Matsu (Kaji) and another prisoner, but one doesn't have to look further than the titles to see this is exploitation cinema: naked women running up and down stairs whilst being watched by guards.
Would this mean the first film would be a cheap exploitation film? No. Sure, there are a few traditional exploitation scenes and some of those are pretty nasty, but the film never gets tacky.
Take for instance the flashback, early in the film, where we watch how Matsu (Nami Matsushima's nickname throughout the series) was betrayed by a corrupt policeman. It lead (amongst other things) to her being raped by a bunch of crooks. That particular scene is filmed through a glass floor, so we can watch her lie on the floor with the men on top of her. It's visually strong and it adds to our identification with the protagonist. The rest of the scene is impressive too: Matsu keeps lying on the floor, but the decor is changed and we, together with Matsu, learn she's betrayed. Next the camera is top of her and Ito uses Kaji's hair and lights to express her mood.
Scenes like these show the Female Convict Scorpion series were based on a comic, but though you sometimes see something that's clearly not realistic, the film remains credible. Of course it helps that Ito and Kaji are very talented.
The scene where Matsu is chased by another convict shows the film at its best: it takes place in the showers (exploitation: check!), it's partially bloody (exploitation: still checking), the scene is visually very strong and though it's completely unrealistic, you don't get the feeling you're being tricked and are still able to believe the plot.
Visually a masterpiece, a strong lead, an excellent director, beautiful settings... this is one of the best exploitation films you'll get to see. If you are too afraid to venture into the dark waters of exploitation cinema, watch the sequel first. You won't know why Matsu is seen as such a threat to prison life or why she's imprisoned, but apart from these details you won't be deprived from an enjoyable ride and find yourself hungry to see the other three films. And if you dare, go straight to Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion.