The Eyes Have It: The Vengeance Cinema of Kaji Meiko

Note: this feature presents Japanese names in the traditional fashion of family name first, followed by given name. Japanese language film titles and genres are presented in italics for ease of reading

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss, both discussed below, are currently available on BFI Player as part of the Japan 2020 season

An entire feature could be written on Kaji Meiko’s signature stare.

Expressing an ocean of fury and recrimination, that “look” is evident in the Japanese actress’ two most famous films, 1972’s Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and 1973’s Lady Snowblood.

But, there is more to Kaji Meiko than a glare so glacial it ices blood in the veins. She is that breed of movie star whose presence alone can elevate the material.

Despite finding fame in exploitation cinema, it is easy to picture her as a star of the silent screen. Famously reticent in the four-film Female Prisoner Scorpion series (by movie three, Beast Stable, she has a single word of dialogue), her expressive face and physicality are all that is required to understand character, emotion and motivation.

Ironically however, while you may not have heard of Kaji Meiko, you have probably heard her. An accomplished singer, two of her songs feature in Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies: Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion’s Urami-bushi” and Lady Snowblood’s “The Flower of Carnage”. In her own movies, songs act as internal monologue.

Born in 1947, Kaji made her debut in 1965’s romantic drama Aitsu to no bouken under her birth name of Masako Ota.Within three years of entering the industry she had appeared in 22 released films. By 1969 she had 34 credits.

She had also switched her screen name to Kaji Meiko on the advice of filmmaker Makino Masahiro, who directed her in an instalment of the Nihon Zankyoden film series.

As a point of comparison, similarly legendary cult film actress Pam Grier (Tarantino’s Jackie Brown) made 28 feature films in twenty years, plus TV movies and series. Industrious by most standards, but Japanese movie stars of the period would rack up huge filmographies. Even Mifune Toshiro, the De Niro to Kurosawa Akira’s Scorsese, averaged over three films a year during the 1960s.

The majority of Kaji’s movies did not see a Western release and are still without distribution outside Japan. Including, disappointingly, the film featuring her most critically acclaimed performance, Double Suicide at Sonezaki, by the fascinating director Masumura Yasuzo. Arrow Academy, if you’re reading…

Therefore, even with a not inconsiderable 16 of her movies reasonably easy to buy in stores or online with English subtitles, writing a rounded appreciation is difficult.

Kaji as Matsushima Nami, biding her time in Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

Forgive us then if we largely focus on her two most famous roles: Matsushima Nami in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series (1972-73) and Kashima Yuki in the two Lady Snowblood movies (1973-74).

These characters exemplify the ferocious magnetism Kaji brings to the screen. But, there is something timeless about her onscreen presence, even when garbed in kimono for a ninkyo eiga (“chivalry film”) or floppy hats and flares for the five-movie exploitation series Stray Cat Rock (1970-71).

Those Stray Cat Rock movies were made at Nikkatsu, a studio that specialised in mukokuseki akushun (“action without borders”) and would cast Kaji in films that helped define her image.

The series was a grab bag of influences, including American biker flicks such as 1966’s The Wild Angels or 1969’s Easy Rider, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, European New Wave cinema, then-popular Japanese “Bad Girl” films, plus counter-culture aesthetics, youth fashions and music. All five instalments pause the action for musical numbers from a then-hot band, typically performed in an achingly trendy club.

Kaji plays different characters in each film, but all are imbued with a tough resilience coupled with intoxicating beauty. Indeed, the series’ original star, singer Wada Akiko, was jettisoned after the first film when audiences responded more to Kaji.

Film no.3, the somewhat misleadingly sub-headed “Sex Hunter”, opens with Kaji glaring from beneath a wide-brimmed hat. This would become something of a signature move, and is borrowed from a shot of the actress that begins Ishii Teruo’s delirious 1970 horror ninkyo eiga Blind Woman’s Curse.

Kaji fans know the only thing better than her famous glare is revealing said glare in close-up from beneath a hat…

The climax of Wandering Ginza Butterfly (top) seems like a dry-run for Lady Snowblood (bottom)

In these films, Kaji’s characters typically battle male authority, be it law enforcement, the yakuza or lust-filled lotharios unaware their libidos are luring them into peril.

1972’s Wandering Ginza Butterfly is an updated ninkyo eiga, with Kaji a bar hostess protecting her colleagues from a land-grabbing gangster. Silly fun, it is most notable for a scene in which the kimono garbed actress lays waste to yakuza with a sword, a sequence that plays like a proof of concept test for Lady Snowblood. Furthering the connection, in the latter film the vengeful Snowblood’s white kimono is adorned with colourful butterflies.

Ironically, other studios would reap the benefits of the persona Kaji evolved. Nikkatsu had leaned heavily on sex and violence in the late 1960s and early 70s to woo the youth market and provide audiences what they couldn’t get on TV.

By 1971 the studio exclusively moved into sexploitation movies that blended sex, violence, S&M and a dash of romance. The decision to focus solely on these pinku eiga or “pink films” saw Nikkatsu haemorrhage talent in front of and behind the camera, including Kaji Meiko.

Therefore, in 1972 Toei were the studio to develop Female Prisoner Scorpion (although they too kept the lights on by making pinku eiga with their “Pinky Violence” line). In 1973, Lady Snowblood went to Toho, the home of Godzilla.


Kaji Meiko as Matsushima Nami in Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable

A mash-up of women-in-prison movies, bad girl flicks and rape-revenge grindhouse gruellers, Female Prisoner Scorpion is the end-of-the-world response to the knockabout bad behaviour of Stray Cat Rock.

Based on a long-running manga by Shinohara Toru, the four films are fuelled by pessimistic nihilism. In the first two instalments, director Ito Shunya directly invokes Japan’s fascist past in his depiction of the corrupt Ministry of Justice. The second and best film in the series, Jailhouse 41, is a rare Japanese movie that has a character admitting to a war crime (or more accurately, bragging about it).

In the series opener, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, Nami is raped as part of her detective boyfriend’s ploy to frame high-ranking gangsters, then assume their operations. The scene culminates in blood forming the image of the Japanese flag on a white sheet, the suggestion being, here is a nation built on violation.

This violation continues when Nami is imprisoned following a failed attempt to murder her treacherous beau.

In the world of Female Prisoner Scorpion, men are monstrous. At their best, they are weak and compromised, but typically they display the worst impulses and behaviour. As a result, sex is weaponised as a tool of oppression. Male corruption also infects female characters, who express scant sympathy for those brutalised.

This may make the films too strong for some audiences. But, despite the series’ exploitation label, sexual violence is not presented as titillation and the depictions of group cruelty seem to be a grim echo of Japan’s wartime actions. Ironically, in 1998 Ito would make Pride, a retelling of the war crimes trial of Tojo Hideki, Japan’s Prime Minister for most of World War 2, which whitewashed its depiction of the controversial leader.

Nami herself weaponises sex, turning a female prison guard planted in her cell into a bewitched love slave, useless to the sadistic Warden Goda (a supreme slice of ham from Watanabe Fumio). Nami’s revenge is based around symbolic sexual violence, gutting enemies with a phallic blade or castrating them.

In less talented hands, this could collapse into an unwatchable barrage of exploitation excess, even allowing for the political commentary.

But, director Ito (making his debut) deploys a range of hyperstylised techniques, transforming the film into a bizarre adults-only comic book movie. In many ways Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion resembles a superhero origin story, complete with a colourful gallery of grotesque villains.

And, keeping the film series vital almost fifty years after release is Kaji Meiko as Matsushima Nami, the titular female prisoner. Reluctantly cast by Ito, who thought her too lightweight after watching Wandering Ginza Butterfly, it is fitting Kaji delivers a matchless performance playing a woman defeating men determined to smother her potential.

The actress distills her performances in Wandering Ginza Butterfly, Blind Woman’s Curse and the Stray Cat Rock series into an embodiment of female rage, tempered by flashes of sorrow and compassion.

With scant dialogue, she lets her eyes and physical performance tell her story, alongside songs that vocalise her thoughts. The results are wild and theatrical, perfectly in synch with the films’ aims.

Adopting the wild-haired look of an onryo in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion & Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

Audiences today are likely to draw comparisons between Kaji’s Nami and the vengeful female wraiths from 1998’s Ring and 2002’s Ju-on. With good reason: like Ring’s Sadako and Ju-on’s Kayako, Nami resembles an onryo of Japanese folklore, a vengeful spirit who wreaks havoc upon the living.

A supernatural undercurrent pulses through the Female Prisoner Scorpion series. In the first film, we witness Nami becoming an onryo: after being raped her hair reforms into the wild style associated with the malevolent wraiths. This is one of multiple indicators that Nami actually died while being assaulted and must battle back from the netherworld to dispense justice.

Throughout the series prisons are presented as Dantean arenas of torture, populated by tormenting demons Nami must vanquish. She is typically kept underground in a dank, solitary cell and in the first film must dig a giant grave for herself, a penalty known as “The Devil’s Punishment”.

Horror conventions are fully embraced in Jailhouse 41, a dazzling tale of vengeance in which women become literal forces of nature.

After overpowering their guards and fleeing a prison bus transporting them, Nami and her fellow inmates embark on a surreal cross-country odyssey. They encounter a witch who coaxes out their terrible secrets before returning to the earth, transforming into leaves carried on the wind at the point of death.

When one of the inmates is raped, a nearby waterfall runs red with blood as if the land itself has been violated.

When Nami returns to Tokyo at the climax of the first two films, she demonstrates a supernatural ability to appear, unleash murderous rage on her male oppressors and vanish.

In the first film at these points, the colour scheme switches to a deathly green. An audacious sequence during the denouement of Jailhouse 41 has her motionless, yet inexorably closing in on her prey in a series of jump cuts that again foreshadows J-Horror frights.

Ito Shunya’s final film in the series, Beast Stable, is surprisingly traditional compared to the first two instalments (although wild compared to standard action movie fare). Again, infernal imagery dominates. Loose in the city, Nami is now feral, gnawing on the dismembered arm of a police detective who made the mistake of handcuffing himself to her.

She hooks up with Yuki, a character from the first film believed dead. Yuki keeps her mentally troubled brother docile through an incestuous relationship, sex again polluted in the series’ jaundiced world.  

A striking sequence has Nami trapped in sewers beneath Tokyo, which a merciless police force fill with gasoline before igniting. Once more the character is forced underground, and here the surrogate hellscape becomes even more infernal with the flames surrounding her.

But, Beast Stable plays like a standard thriller punctuated with flourishes of flamboyant eccentricity. At the close of Jailhouse 41, Nami seems to have transcended mortal bonds to become an existential arbiter of female justice. A little disappointing then to see her here domesticated after meeting Yuki, working a sewing machine and only activated into becoming “Sasori” (“Scorpion”) by local police discovering her whereabouts.

The film also implies Nami is possessed by the spirit of a girl wronged by the film’s yakuza, so not acting under her own agency. All this makes Beast Stable a step down from the first two movies, and it is no surprise Ito quit the series after this instalment.

Watanabe Fumio as the personification of male oppression in Female Prisoner Scorpion

#701’s Grudge Song, the fourth and final film in Kaji’s Female Prisoner Scorpion run, was directed by Hasebe Yasuharu. Hasebe had previously directed the actress in Nikkatsu’s 1968 yakuza thriller Retaliation and the three best Stray Cat Rock movies – Delinquent Girl Boss, Sex Hunter and Machine Animal (all 1970). He also stayed on at Nikkatsu to helm some of those pinku eiga…  

This fourth movie plays as an alternate end to the series, disregarding Beast Stable. Feeling as much Stray Cat Rock as Female Prisoner Scorpion, its style is looser, the Bonnie and Clyde lovers-on-the-run story familiar to that previous series. Similar too is the impotency plaguing the insane police detective gunning for Nami, recalling the villain in Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter. The film’s highlight is an extended second half prison segment, which plays as a riff on the first film’s battle of wits and satisfyingly wraps up the series.

A crucial factor in the character’s continued appeal is the costuming when Nami escapes to the city. Reportedly designed by Kaji Meiko herself, the combination of long coat and wide-brimmed hat is evergreen cool, passing the silhouette test required of all iconic characters.

Toei would continue the Female Prisoner Scorpion series over the decades. But, the various reboots following Kaji’s departure could not hope to match the invention and ferocity of that first run or match the inimitable star.


Kaji Meiko as Lady Snowblood

By the time Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song reached cinemas, Kaji Meiko’s other famous agent of vengeance had hit screens. 1973’s Lady Snowblood was directed by Fujita Toshiya, who had previously directed Kaji in the second and fifth Stray Cat Rock films, Wild Jumbo and Beat ’71. Little in those suggested a mere two years later he would make a jidaigeki (period film) this confident and accomplished.

Based on a two-year running manga by Lone Wolf and Cub creator Koike Kazuo, Lady Snowblood recounts the story of Kashima Yuki, a woman in the final years of the 19th century seeking revenge against the bandits who raped her mother and murdered her father.

Unlike Female Prisoner Scorpion, where Kaji had to fight for the part, the role of Yuki was written specifically for her. Easy to see why: Lady Snowblood shares similarities with that women-in-prison series.

The world here is also male-dominated and corrupt, with sex a tool of power and oppression. Both series are critical of Japanese nationalism. Yuki must constantly evade capture while pursuing her mission. Lady Snowblood even has the good grace to open in a prison. And the chief villain is making a play for legitimacy in the world of government.

Although afforded more dialogue than in the Female Prisoner Scorpion saga, Kaji still characterises Yuki largely through expression and movement. In white kimono with sword-concealing parasol, she is as visually arresting as Matsushima Nami. That parasol also serves the same function as those wide-brimmed hats, providing something from beneath which to glare before matters get bloody.

Lady Snowblood is the best known of Kaji’s movies in the West due to its direct influence on Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Quentin also lifted from Female Prisoner Scorpion, but there are marked similarities with Lady Snowblood: the chapter headings, flashback structure, harsh assassin training, the hunt for a gang of disbanded villains, plus O-Ren Ishii’s costuming and a climactic sword fight in the snow.

Even Kill Bill’s anime sequence has an analog in the serialised comic strip a sympathetic newspaper editor creates to smoke out the bandits-in-hiding.

One example of Lady Snowblood’s influence on Kill Bill

Director Fujita knows Kaji’s screen presence allows for something grander than a typical exploitation crime tale. As with Nami in Female Prisoner Scorpion, Yuki carries supernatural undertones, lifted from the manga.

The “shura” in the Japanese title Shurayuki-hime draws from “Asura”, a demonic demigod locked in patterns of vengeance. While in prison, Yuki’s mother takes any man in order to have a child to fulfil her thirst for revenge, so the titular Lady is born onto a predestined path of bloodshed.

The subheading, “Blizzard of the Netherworld”, reinforces the supernatural element to the storm of violence surrounding Yuki.

Lady Snowblood is a thrilling, outrageous and assured piece of polished exploitation centered around Kaji Meiko’s performance. The story’s twists would be aped by other films and its influence can be felt many a female vengeance movie, plus The Wolverine and The Raid 2. A Hong Kong remake came along in 1977 entitled Broken Oath, starring Angela Mao, another cult female action icon. A Japanese sci-fi remake, The Princess Blade, arrived in 2001.

But, Kaji only had two outings as Lady Snowblood, matching her number of Wandering Ginza Butterfly movies. In the manga, Yuki’s primary mission was interspersed with hits-for-hire that funded her quest. Fujita and scriptwriter Osada Norio condense the revenge plot into a single movie, making the 1974 sequel Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance a good yarn, but lacking the required momentum.

Here Yuki is offered a pardon for her crimes if she infiltrates and spies on political dissident Takanaga (Tampopo director Itami Juzo). But, she falls for him and joins his cause against the autocratic secret police.

The film is compelling, well-executed and Kaji sells Yuki’s conversion to political radical. But, with the character now merely a sword-for-hire it is easy to see why the series ended after one sequel.

Kaji Meiko is still working, chiefly in Japanese TV. In 2017 she appeared in a mini-series entitled Seven Women in Prison, which unfortunately does not seem to be a mash-up of Seven Samurai and Female Prisoner Scorpion.

Although offered parts in Western films, her lack of English is cited as the reason she turned them down; she did not want the language barrier to result in a bad performance. Ironic, as directors most likely would have kept dialogue to a minimum and traded on that silent rage vibe. Perhaps it is best she resisted the offers, preventing weak facsimiles of her Japanese movies tainting her achievements. Look at Jackie Chan’s early Hollywood movies for an example of how ignorant Tinseltown was of Asian talent in the 1970s and 80s.

Now, if those good folk at Arrow, Eureka, Criterion, etc. can continue releasing her back catalogue, all the better…

You may not have known the name, but watch Kaji’s films and see why her legacy endures.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
Podcast: The Movie Robcast

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