Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Memory Lagoon - Female Convict 701 (Sasori) [1972]

The Memory Lagoon is a limited series involving second looks at previously reviewed works in hopes of attaining a more nuanced view, and perhaps..a little extra.

When Matsu(Meiko Kaji) is betrayed by corrupt cop, Sugimi(Isao Natsuyagi), the only man she ever loved, and locked in an oppressively run maximum security women's prison. From the opening scene, it is abundantly clear that the only two things surging through her tortured mind, are escape and violent revenge. It's only when Sugimi makes a pact with one of Matsu's inmates (Rie Yokoyama), when the already fevered tension between the innocent prisoner 701, and the horny, corrupt system of the prison, reaches an irrevocable bursting point. When considering the exploitation market, and what it is largely known for, one might be hard-pressed to ever consider the art level to even remotely be something to flirtatiously play with. But in the case of the first cinematic outing of Tohru Shinohara's long-haired heroine, director Shunya Ito takes an almost Seijun Suzuki route by making the world of Sasori into one of almost savage beauty. 

It is almost immediately that Ito's goal seems clear; that the film version of an already impressively violent comic was prime material for what many would eventually consider to be de rigueur for so-called "pinky violence" films of the early 1970s. And 701 lives up to this with a more impressive budget than many of its contemporaries, and with an almost hallucinatory style to cohabit the often lurid sexual violence that permeates Matsu's original adventure. The film's unique use of moody lighting, modular stages, and some truly original use of the widescreen format fuels the film to an almost point of panic. True to it's trashy roots, Matsu is subjected to all a manner of abuse, only to find that she possesses an almost superhuman endurance(a running theme in Shinohara's output). Not to mention a vicious streak that tends to incite often equally or worse violent reactions from those around.It is this element that rounds out the affair by granting it all a memorable freak factor to what could so easily have become another "women in prison" flick. It is almost as if Ito and company found themselves ready to prove their mettle regardless of the material on hand.

So when the Matsu trips up numerous attempts to destroy her within the walls of the prison in an "accident", the action finally escalates to a shocking and often jaw-dropping prison revolt.  It is within the sexual anarchy on display, that the film goes all out in search of ways to both trouble and possibly shake up certain gender predispositions. Matsu, caught between the warden and guards, and those determined to destroy her, is made into something that could possibly make even the "ironic" admirers of Riki-Oh blush. In many ways, it's hard to believe that this was made where and when it was lest readers forget the often radical politics happening on and around the streets of urban Japan during these years. It's a conservative's fiery worst nightmare that muscles beyond the confines of a the simple walls of a correctional facility, and ultimately ends on the streets of Tokyo in a memorable finale that feels lifted directly from the manga page.

Exploitation favorite, Meiko Kaji burns a deep impression as the titular heroine, a character so put-upon, so quietly simmering, that each of her victories seem incrementally huge regardless of their often questionable nature. Her performance, largely told in her eyes, is truly effective, while so many around her continue to fall victim to their own imagined stake in the game. The villains of the piece are often so over-the-top that it feels as if many are ready to burst from their own overworked blood pressures, while Kaji merely delivers a well-administered fatal push. Even as films of this ilk often engender an old world "women must be stoic" vibe, there is also a certain amount of playful humor, best encompassed by a scene involving a planted officer amongst prison ranks that backfires in a most comical fashion. For every other  "for the guys" decision of the film, there is often an equally absurd retort, which is uncharacteristically clever for the subgenre, and Kaji often makes for a singularly iconic hero that can dish out the worst with the best of the era's bushy-eyebrowed action avatars.

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