Friday, March 12, 2010

Stung by the Belle: FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: Jailhouse 41 (1972)

No one "beats" the Japanese when it comes to sadomasochism in cinema: They whip each other right out in public; they rape everyone in sight while grunting and frothing at the mouth; they engage in uninhibited gang violence, glue-sniffing and arson. In American exploitation film we seem to be at a loss to "ahem" measure up, perhaps due to our (relative) lack of repression. Even our recent torture porn phase is really offshot/borrowed from 'J' (and 'K') in style and substance. We can do sleazy (the OLGAs and ILSAs) and we can do titillating (the Tweeds and Mundaes) and we can do violent, but but the Japanese know to turn over the apple cart and start humping it like a dog. Their films transcend words like 'transfigur-titiliation,' 'pop-arterial' and 'hypno-dermal,' and FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION series remains a stellar example. It leaves you dazed, disturbed, clammy, depressed and worn out, even strangely exhilarated. Its sexual fever cruelty opens up your cranial shell, and then the pop art color patterns come in and blow out the previous contents until all that's left are nerve endings. And yet, the Japanese are often terrified of body hair. Hilarious!

With their over-the-top butoh style acting ever diffusing any sense of adult sexual reality, Japan's Scorpion series becomes strangely cathartic, and undeniably artsy. The suffering of post-war prostitutes in 1950s Suzuki films merges with the Sergio Leone western's sense of surreal absurdism and subtextual anti-authority, with Scorpion's ability to "take it"--her capacity for suffering without ever 'breaking'--so astounding in its deadpan feminist disaffect that it becomes its own form of dishing it out.

I've always been in awe of Japan's Sadean way to wrap prurient transgression in candy-coated shells of guilt, feminism, deadpan drollery, and existential despair. When the French do S/M, you can tell they're clutching onto their copies of Bataille as defense against Catholic-school guilt, and as a result a creeping bourgeois airlessness sometimes suffocates the sleeping beast of voyeuristic-Gallic masochism in its cradle, but the Japanese crank the Masoch-volume down to minus-eleven and get you laughing in delight at the sheer absurdity of all human expression, from grimaces of ecstasy to grimaces of agony, showing that our deepest most profane desires, fears and unendurable pains all look the same from far away, and are as ridiculous as anything else when exposed to light--even fake pink cinema light-- and so the Japanese find their way to Bataille almost by accident, and that has made all the difference.

Nowhere in my experience is this more balls-out perfect than in FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41 (1972). It takes the cake because its candy crazy colors suggest that intense prolonged pain and incarceration--indeed that being a female unwilling to bow her head to the rutting Japanese male's petty tyranny--might lead to pop art candy color satori. As the title arachnid, Meiko Kaji has such a firm nail on her world-weary but mercilessly resolved "Girl with No Voice" type of avenging dark angel, even in a role that's mostly nonspeaking and barely moving, that we feel her menace. Just standing there, waiting to strike, we're wary and--if feminst by temperament--also hopeful that this perennial victim of double crosses, sexual harassment and unjust incarceration will get some balls in her treasure sack and crimson on her hatchet, as no saying goes. No matter how much humiliation and brutality she endures, her Scorpion never flinches or weeps, and her hair is perfect. Freshly washed and combed, it blows from her own private offscreen fan.

Kaji also sings the theme song in that great bluesy lounge pop style of the movie's moment and there's some great surreal interludes, including a  Japanese kind of "Biwa" (the ancient Japanese folk ballad tradition) version of "Cell Block Tango (He Had it Comin')" from Fosse's Chicago. The musical score itself is a constant Greek chorus-style counter-response of swelling, trombone-heavy crime jazz; Jew's harp "boing boing" western leitfmotifs, bassoon and reed sustains over close-up staring contests, all suggesting the Sino-Morricone-Leone connection courses throughout... or did Leone borrow the bold comic book style from the era's films or both from manga?

Thankfully, though it's certainly traumatic to watch, the sexual violence is highly symbolized, even abstracted. There's no doubt these Japanese filmmakers are on the feminist side as they so keenly convey the level of sexual enslavement most American males deny exists. They help it go down smoother with a huge dose of self-conscious satire, a complete capitulation of all sympathy and dignity on the parts of all males and most females-- both cops and prisoners--everyone in fact, but our protagonist antihero. She keeps her dignity to the bitter end. The roaches will have inherited the earth and the stone Buddhas will crumble before her stony glance softens to a bearable g/cm3.

If you've ever been an alienated self-conscious new kid in school you know what it's like to suffer. Humiliated and horrified as you try and find your home room; no one notices or cares about you and yet you feel them judging you anyway. At lunch they resemble pigs at the trough and simian brutes in gym class. Well, if you still perceive your fellow man that way then Japanese pinku films are your revenge. Just as "the final girl" survives the horrors of slasher-filled cabins and lakefronts by her rejection of sex and gender differentiation, so we are encouraged to take a final girl approach to the entirety of Japanese patriarchal society and regard human contact itself as inherently corrupting. We're better off without sex, alone in our little trichophobic apartments. We had no idea, going into these films, that--as intentionally turning away from patriarchal social mores to become fledgling hikikomori--we were doing something noble. Isn't this what cult movies do, after all, validate our not going out to play with others and commune with nature?

Thus, we see and participate in a kind of Technicolor ritual where sexual violence--revealed to be a tool for subjugating and demoralizing women in order to strengthen patriarchal rule--is itself subjugated. The more violence is done to her and her fellow women the more karma weaves its spell and Matsu waits like the patient spider-scorpion for the karma wheel to slowly turn her way. Sooner or later she'll get a chance to strike. She won't miss.

There is only one pair of eyes whose gaze she seems to profit from: ours. She never addresses the camera directly, as, say, her 2009 British male counterpart, Bronson (from the 2009 film of the same name) does, but the effect is the same. As purely cinematic subjects, they each represent a distilled essence of masochistic cinema viewing. Without our gaze, their suffering would become unendurable. It's as if she senses our eyes and is trying to illustrate how she feels about school, work, and family in a ritualized distinctly-Japanese feminist performance art.

It's good sometimes to remember "it's only a movie," and this comic over-doing it also does much to undercut any potential over-identification with either side, so we can realize that at the core of these films lurks a deep revulsion for one's secret shame/desire; a need to pull out at the last minute from over-identification; the shame and guilt contorting their bodies even as the crime is being committed. Only in the later Scorpion films is the violence highly sexualized in a less academically applaudable state, as if the initial shock of seeing your most debased primal fantasies played out has worn down to a hollow numbness, requiring ever more dangerous dissolving of the boundary between the masochistic (ala Steven Shaviro) and sadistic (ala Laura Mulvey).

One's opinion is bound to be personal, but to me, Jailhouse 41 isn't misogynist but misandric, and overall just pure masochistic fantasy. If soap opera martyr movie emotions had their own pornography, this would be it, a protracted defiance of death, Antigone caught in a Fujicolor prism. The western Gallic-influenced torture porn of SAW and company tends more towards the fearful anticipation of pain/gore and self-conducted limb amputations, but the frisson in the Scorpion films comes more from existential weariness as garishly violent beatings--replete with amplified, echoed whacking noises--stretch into abstraction, and we begin to re-imagine our whole earthly existence as one long stretch of watching someone get fake whipped on TV (i.e Videodrome). The Scorpion films project this as the ultimate reflection of a bad acid trip, where every event, color, action, word, gesture, even act of shifting weather patterns, seems geared to illustrate that modern life is a smokescreen for eternal hell, a boot camp of agony designed to either break our spirits or turn us into cold-blooded scorpions.

The only deciding factor is our ego -- the more we cling to ego the more the pain hurts, but if we release ego and surrender to our higher self, we can endure the suffering and wreak a vengeance made all the sweeter by the cauterizing flames that have cored us like an apple or the insides of a junky taking an opiate receptor blocker to hasten (and hopefully shorten) the inevitable stretch of agonizing withdrawal, the 'crucifixion cruise' all alcoholics and junkies inevitably suffer, either intentionally or not.

In a scene filmed atop and around a recently-erupted volcano, Matsu and her fellow escaped female convicts run and creep around the ashy slopes, dressed in gray cape/shawls, all while bassoon and Jew's harp twang and moan, making us expect Macbeth and Banquo to come riding past, or a dinosaur to come roaring down from the sky. It's important to realize this innate sense of connection with primal, tribal forces is much more pervasive in the Japanese mindset than in, say, USA's melting pot blood-splatter. With their insane eyes and gnashing teeth, the other women convicts are representations of a pure, undistilled feminine animism. Presocialized erotic apparitions pummeled by Apollonian logic into barely recognizable caricatures of longing and fear, they are personifications of the chthonic stain that endures no matter how much carbolic acid and electroshock bleach beatings are poured onto it. The volcano itself is a perfect metaphor for this Dionysian primordial archetyping and while the female prisoners seem perfectly part of the landscape, the cops and dogs are out of their element, both menacing alien others and buffoons, easily stuck in the ash or falling victim to Matsu's booby traps. These figures of law and order seem to sense that they've been led to a place where patriarchal law has no jurisdiction, and that their whole purpose in the film is to be swallowed up by the unconquerable feminine force that Matsu embodies.

At any rate, SCORPION suffers from a very limited emotional palette including passages of death throe squeak-speak and screaming contests that drag on for minutes. I envy those who can watch these films on a regular basis and not become warped and misanthropic, or at least not get a headache. The color coordinated trash dump scenes are pretty awesome, at any rate, and when she slashes at the bad guys, she tears the celluloid itself in half... it's artsy like that!

If there was a line between life and death, it's where Matsu, Sgt. James (HURT LOCKER) and Bronson all dwell. For some warriors, it's bleached Iraqi deserts; for others, dank prisons and heaps of volcanic ash and garbage; for an unhappy few, even their own household has become a battleground. The question is, when will they stop cringing in fear rise up as fearless, unfazeable warriors beyond the illusions of life/death duality? Or as they die, die, die, die, when will they scream, in slow mo pitch shift squeakspeak, instead: MATSUUUUUUUUUO!?!?!?!?!

(Thanks Aria at Muse's Garden, from whom I ripped some of the above beauteous screenshots - read her insightful and much more expositional review here)

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