Directed by Shunya Ita, 1973, 87 mins. Starring Meiko Kaji, Mikio Narita, Reisen Lee and Yayoi Watanabe.
1973 was a good year for Meiko Kaji: not only did she appear in her seminal role as Lady Snowblood, but she also completed two Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion movies and had time for two other movies on the side. And, the question must be asked, has there ever been a single movie she hasn't been great in? OK, so here at Apple Towers we haven't seen anything she's made since, um, 1974, when we were 2, but I'm sure she was majestic even in the unknown episodes of that TV series Anata no tonari ni dare ka iru imdb.com says she was in in 2003.
At least, so long as she does the sexy, pouty, bad-ass strong woman thing. Let's face it, in the two Lady Snowblood movies she did that to the nth degree, mixing vulnerability with extreme violence and masterful swordplay. She was by far and away the best thing in the Stray Cat Rock series, although the movies themselves were technically fairly awful and the plots faintly risible. And, perhaps, her absolute apogee was in the (deep breath) Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion series, where in (ultimately) four movies she played an externally supremely unsympathetic murderess? Let's face it, you can see why her cult status was sealed by Quentin Tarantino basing much of Kill Bill 1 on Lady Snowblood as well as some of the Scorpion movies.
So let's have a look at Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion: Beast Stable, shall we? It perhaps epitomises the series – it's the third in the series and is generally regarded as being the best, though I'll state right here I haven't seen the other three movies. What Beast Stable gives you is a heady mix of murderess, Yakuza, prostitutes, brutal cops and some really, really sharp knives. Already you know it's going to be great...
Beast Stable begins brilliantly. It's perhaps the most fantastic opening sequence I've seen since Suicide Circle. A young woman sits in an underground train; two men approach her, and try to grab her: the assumption is they're cops. Instead of giving herself up, a HUGE knife appears out of nowhere and she slashes wildly, catching one in the neck before she sprints off. Just as she exits a carriage, cop #2 grabs her arm and whacks some handcuffs on her wrist, as the door closes between them. Rather than just stop, out comes the knife again and she hacks off his arm. As the titles roll, she runs through Tokyo, severed arm still hanging bloodily from her wrist, to the great shock of the general Tokyo populace. The sounds of Urami Bushi, featured in Kill Bill, waft underneath. Magic.
The young woman – who is, of course, played by Meiko Kaji – is on the run from prison for murder; she has a fearsome reputation, we find out later, and is nicknamed Sasori (Scorpion). As Sasori hides in a graveyard, desperately trying to hack off the handcuff so she can bury the severed arm, she encounters a hooker (Yayoi Watanabe) who lives with her brain-damaged brother and who, um, sees to his, um, every, um, need. Ewww. Anyway, somehow Sasori ends up living with them in their slum shack – even though this is set in the 1970s. Sasori is public enemy #1 right now (there's posters of her all over Tokyo), and, via a couple of rather obvious Macguffins, comes into contact with the local Yakuza who imprison her. Her revenge can only be brutal…
From then on there's a whole load of violence and/or shock tactics, depending on your point of view. Yes, this is trash cinema at its absolute zenith: lots of boobies. Gore by the bucketload. Cheap laughs. Dodgy Yakuza. Forced abortions. Yet more incest. Prison scenes. Police brutality. And the world's longest sewer chase. It's pretty much formula stuff, yet formulaic in a good way. Let's put it like this: would you want an exploitation movie without these elements? Beast Stable has absolutely no pretensions to being more than what it is, yet it transcends its genre (like Lady Snowblood) and is almost a textbook example of how to turn trash into art. There's some terrific cinematography, for example, and the movie seldom lags.
Sure, the performances are pretty one-dimensional, with the honourable exception of Meiko Kaji as Sasori, who lends a definite nobility and honour to what should be an extremely unlikeable character. There's a discernible stillness going on, hinting at an internal dialogue between the two parts of her character – you wonder how she became what she is, in many ways. There's a definite caring side to her personality, but you wouldn't ever want to mess with her. And, as such, it's as if she grabs the camera and never wants to let it go. It's simply impossible to take your eyes off the woman.
Yayoi Watanabe's tart-with-a-heart Yuki is pretty cloying and over-sweet, to be honest (just why does she feel she has to sleep with her brother?) and Mikio Narita as the tough-as-nails, dedicated yet ruthless cop Kondo is rather clichéd. Yet it doesn't matter. When there's a villain as pantomime as Reisen Lee's Katsu – who looks uncannily like an overwhelmingly unconvincing female impersonator, heavy make-up and all – it's easy to get behind the "good guys", despite their faults, and yearn for the predictable (and hopefully very bloody) demise of the bad guys.
Is Beast Stable as good as Lady Snowblood? In many ways, it's the same story – woman takes vengeance for events in her past – albeit in very different environs. And Meiko Kaji's character in both is basically identical, and she plays it the same. The thing is though, Beast Stable is perhaps too much of its time – by basing it in the Tokyo of 1973, thirty years on it's starting to show its age a little, while Lady Snowblood, with its aspirations of being a chambara costume drama, still stands up today. Perhaps Beast Stable pushes the exploitation angle a little too much, trying to shock more than it needs to. The incest angle, for example, is pretty unnecessary, and you get the feeling some of the more lurid scenes are there just because they have to be, that an exploitation movie of this type has to have a requisite and predetermined number of gross-outs, much like a pinku eiga has to have a sex scene every so often.
That said, Beast Stable is thoroughly enjoyable and worth your time. Meiko Kaji is at the top of her game in this movie. It's perhaps the archetypal exploitation movie – with all that that implies – and as such is essential viewing.
Thanks to the people at Eureka for providing the DVD used for this review.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 8/10 – a bit dated, but lightning-paced and ultra-brutal
Violence: 10/10 – did I already say ultra-brutal? Double that
Sex: 100/10 – MEIKO KAJI IN UNDERWEAR!!!!
Gore: 15 litres of tomato ketchup per square inch
Female impersonators: Manly/10
Golf clubs: 1. Ouch
Severed arms: 1. Ouch
Big, big knives: about 100.
Films in a Similar Style: Hmmm. Kill Bill, obviously. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Lady Snowblood. Gozu.
*** Recommended ***
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Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion: Beast Stable Wallpaper
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Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.eurekavideo.co.uk/ - Eureka - the UK's answer to Criterion - are releasing the movie on 8th October 2007.
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=0HnVj0GoCVI - trailer on YouTube, Urami Bushi included
http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/femaleprisoner701.php - positive review from DVD Verdict
http://www.sarudama.com/japanese_movies/beaststable.shtml - Scott Foutz gives the movie the once-over
http://www.sancho-asia.com/article.php3?id_article=469 - glowing review from Sancho [French language]
http://www.cinemasie.com/en/fiche/oeuvre/femaleconvinctscorpion3/noscritiques.html?langtext=fr - a couple of reviews from Cinemasie [French language]
http://www.medievidenskab-odense.dk/index.php?id=54 - really good article about Meiko Kaji's career