A delirious, cult movie gem, FCS: Jailhouse 41 unfolds like a candy-coloured fever dream: high art surrealism, swirling widescreen imagery, karate thrills, black humour, soft-core lesbian antics, fantastical gothic horror, spaghetti western shootouts and deadly serious political subtext set to a fuzz guitar and catchy pop soundtrack (Kaji croons: “A Woman’s Grudge Song”, later featured in Kill Bill (2003)). Ten movies condensed into one dynamite night at the movies, fuel-injected into your brain’s pleasure centre the way Toei Studios intended. Based on the gekiga (adult-oriented manga): Joshu Sasori, the potty-mouthed title character was transformed, upon star Meiko Kaji’s request, into a female Clint Eastwood – few words, all action, iconic in her swish black coat and wide-brim hat. Framed by her dirty cop boyfriend (Jailhouse 41 is actually part two), Nami a.k.a: Scorpion endures sexploitation hell in a women’s prison, gouging out the evil warden’s eye to make a lifelong enemy. Overcoming an assault by his cadre of sock monkey ninja rapists, she escapes together with a mixed band of bad girls.
A box office crisis hit Toei Studios in the Seventies with audiences deserting cinemas for the simple pleasures of the goggle box. At the same time, a generation of film school graduates found jobs hard to come by. Many joined anime studios, filtering their Nouvelle Vague influences to create the world’s greatest animation industry. Others were cajoled into a genre that became box office gold: sexploitation. The sweetener was so long as their films contained the requisite naked lovelies and gory thrills, they could employ social satire, text and subtext and tackle any provocative subjects they wanted. These men were students in the Sixties, angry about America’s naval presence, the Vietnam War and right-wing conservatives employing yakuza thugs to destroy the liberal dream. These were filmmakers with something to shout about.
Ito was a star that burned brightly. Employing cinemascope compositions of exquisite beauty, machine gun editing, and tricksy angles, he fused comic book thrills with social commentary, envisioning Nami as an avenging angel against social injustice, defying government power. A key scene features a coach load of obnoxious businessmen who fondly reminisce about raping their way through war-torn China (“I could hear my backpack clacking as we went at it.”) before they assault one of Nami’s friends. Ito condemns them and others like them as the shameful secret behind Japan’s economic growth. Vile rapists, corrupt politicians, dirty cops, Nami slays ’em all in slow-motion blood-fests that would awe Sam Peckinpah.
Kaji was a pop princess and after Nikkatsu Studios’ Stray Cat Rock series (1970-71) made her a star she jumped ship to Toei where FCS made her an icon, the original lady vengeance. Four FCS instalments later she hit the big time with Toho Studios’ prestigious Lady Snowblood (1973). Jailhouse 41’s wordless climax is a testament to Ito’s visual flair and Kaji’s phenomenal expressiveness as an actress: surreal, unsettling, yet poignant and life-affirming.