My choice, as it turns out, is Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. I promise you that no one is more surprised than me that my final choice is a women-in-prison movie. While I have, I admit, enjoyed a handful of them, it's certainly not a genre I would have taken on for a vigorous defense. Even Caged Heat, by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, is little more than an amusing divergence.
This film, directed by Shunya Ito, while fulfilling all of one's basic expectations for the genre, masterfully manages to also surpass them on every level.
The theme song, "Urami Bushi" by the movie's star, Meiko Kaji (and featured on the Kill Bill, vol. 2 Soundtrack), must be acknowledged for the tone it sets. The lyrics are poetic and add a lot to the interior view of the mostly silent lead character's motivation, the music is both haunting and catchy, and Kaji's performance is restrained but emotional.
Director Ito makes a number of bold stylistic moves, beginning very early, showing the heroine, Nami Matsushima (she is rarely, if ever, referred to as "Sasori" or Scorpion in this first film), losing her virginity, leaving a shot of the sheets in the shape and framing of the rising sun of Japan's flag. Some of this may seem to be style for it's own sake at first glance, but as one continues watching, each stylistic choice has meaning, building subliminally on your perception of the character and her situation. When she is, shortly afterward, gang-raped, we witness much of it from an angle beneath the floor, so we are left faced with the grotesque expressions of her attackers.
The movie makes much of the sadism of nearly everyone else in the movie, including one particularly horrific and surreal sequence that briefly shows a characters rage by putting her in Kabuki styled makeup, but unlike many movies of the sort, these are not designed for our enjoyment, as it were. The filmmakers are building us up.
This is a not only the story of a woman, it's almost unique in how female it's view of its subject matter is.
Too often that is portrayed as the role of the victim.
Matsu is no victim, at least not in the present tense. There is the flashback I described some of, but she tells us that story and the person telling the story is no victim. She is remembering back to another time, another person.
And her endurance is not idle. She is a woman dedicated.
But she can endure indeed. The scene of "The Devil's Punishment" may be the single most amazing show of endurance ever recorded on film. It's beautiful and harrowing.
Its point, however, is to show the character's incredible strength and dedication to her goal.
Kaji plays the character mostly in silence, but conveys a constant level of thought and depth.
I chose this movie over its sequels partly because, well, it's first. Watching it again, I was struck not just by how wonderful the character is, or how great Ito's direction is, but in how magnificent it is as a film. How well it takes the conventions required of its genre and uses them against themselves, showing her trials not to humiliate her, but to show how each step is a part of her growing strength and determination. I can't believe I'd choose another.
The second movie, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, is rather a fairy tale influenced look at an escape plan. It's very popular, although I think part of that is due to it having spent a decent period as the only one easily available. I recall being moderately disappointed. The third, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion: Beast Stable, and last of the movies directed by Ito, was the one I enjoyed the most on first viewing. It is the visually boldest of the series. The final film, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion: Grudge Song, is frankly an insult to all. The budget and director Ito was gone and so is everything that I complimented the first on, aside from Kaji's consistent acting. It's a brutal, ugly story that seems only to exist as a means to humiliate its victims, up to and included the audience.
But I will unabashedly hold this first movie up as an example of how to use genre cinema boldly, as a means to experiment with technique, to show elements of the human condition not often explored in the mainstream. I will say it's not only what genre cinema should do more of, it's what cinema should do more of.