Double Feature: Manga in Chains (Female Prisoner Scorpion & Riki-Oh)
Double features are a great way to watch movies. Well-selected double features complement each other like food and wine, bringing out hidden flavors or making you realize new aspects of something familiar. If you’re ever in need of a keenly paired set of movies to screen, check out our handy pre-packaged Double Features category– complete with theme breakdowns, aesthetic comparisons, and honest commentary about which movie should be the leading feature.
We are all of us individuals but we are also inherently part of a larger eco-system, whether it be our society or the laws of nature. It’s an everlasting struggle of personal desire versus the greater cause. You either bow down in disillusionment, or rebel against the powers that be via self-expression. Two movies that deal with said topics in their own, very distinct ways are Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner Scorpion (1972-1973) series, and Lam Nai-Choi’s Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991). Both originated from popular manga and while tonally they showcase a radically different approach in adapting their source material, thematically they truly act as birds of a feather.
"BAKANA ONNA NO URAMI BUSHI"
In the '60s, studio Toei had a string of hits on their hands with Teruo Ishii’s yakuza film series Abashiri Prison. Eager to add another chapter to this particularly successful sub-genre, Toei contracted Shunya Ito, Ishii’s assistant, to adapt a manga they had gotten the movie-rights to: Toru Shinohara’s Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. What they probably weren’t aware of was the extent of Ito’s rebellious nature. A young upstart with a political chip on his shoulder, Ito was hardly one to conform and churn out studio requests willy-nilly. Here was a young rebel-with-a-cause aiming to make his debut one with a lasting impression, tear down walls, and create (as he so lovingly puts it) fiction beyond fiction.
The original Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion tells us the origin story of a woman by the name of Nami Matsushima, lost in love, betrayed and sold out by a man aiming to win favor with the yakuza. After a botched attempt to stab him (in front of the police headquarters no less), she soon finds herself behind bars as the 701st inmate of a seedy women's prison run by some of the worst examples the lesser sex has to offer. Shunya Ito doesn’t shy away from his rage against The Man in his cynical denouncement of monuments, such as opening the curtains of this pinky violence flick to an image of a hoisted Japanese flag. But Ito wouldn’t be Ito if he'd be serving up any old garden variety sexploitation/women-in-prison shlock. This was a guy who’d been honing his craft in the shadows, steadily working his way up under the tutelage of Teruo Ishii and other famed directors. Here was a guy burning with vision, and a deep-rooted admiration for European expressionism.
The Female Prisoner Scorpion trilogy is dense with themes and Ito's own internal conflict between Japan as it exists and the Japan he longs for. But also they are just incredibly well-made movies. Conveying a message is one thing, but if the images don't stick with you you might as well be reading a think piece about the toxicity of the patriarchy and call it a day (which is of course fine as well, but we're talkin' movies here). And it is therein that these films set themselves apart, to be remembered and endlessly rediscovered by people aiming to dig a little deeper. Despite their low-brow roots, there is visually far too much at play to dismiss them as trash. Don’t get me wrong, they're definitely trash-y, but if anything they're trashy art. The way Ito plays with color, and utilizes tricks such as rotating sets that are straight outta kabuki theater isn't something you’ll easily find in exploitation cinema, let alone movies in general.
Seeing how I’m getting goosebumps thinking about her death stare as I’m jotting this down, I'd be remiss if I didn’t mention Meiko Kaji’s performance as Nami Matsushima, aka Scorpion/Sasori. In a radical departure from the manga, Ito had made the decision Sasori would hardly ever speak any lines. Which makes the fact hers is so memorable all the more impressive. From the moment she's introduced Sasori becomes an icon of feminism, whose only crime was getting betrayed by a man.
On the other end of the spectrum, completely abandoning any inkling of “good taste” in that trademark Hong Kong emphasis of attraction over... well, anything else basically, exists Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. But as I've alluded to before, it mostly only differs from the Scorpion series on a skin-deep level. They both exist in an anarchic reaction against totalitarianism, featuring protagonists who’ve been wronged, let down by a corrupt judicial system, and whose presences end up taking on mythical proportions over time. Though in Riki-Oh's case most of that can probably be accredited to its source material, and cult director Lam Nai-Choi was purely out to serve us up with a gay old, hyper violent romp.
Penned in 1988 by Masahiko Takajo & Saruwatari Tetsuya, and optioned by Golden Harvest in 1991, Riki-Oh tells the story of a young man (Ricky/Riki) who ends up incarcerated for taking revenge on the yakuza who took the life of his girlfriend (sound familiar?). If the Scorpion movies feel like they’re set in a place of “fiction beyond fiction,” then Riki-Oh is downright otherworldly in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic, corrupted universe, littered with super-men who can punch a hole the size of an elephant through a concrete wall (watch it to find out what that'll do to his adversaries). I think it says it all when I tell you that this was the first Hong Kong movie without any sex scenes to receive an 18+ rating. Which brought with it the unfortunate consequence of a diminished box office return. You see, the manga it was based on was fairly popular with young people... who couldn’t go out to see the movie!
Nonetheless, another remarkable similarity with the Female Prisoner Scorpion series is the fact that both movie adaptations are far more memorable than their manga counterparts and they’ve since enjoyed a comfortable, ongoing cult appreciation. Of course there’s the matter of neither manga having been translated to English, but I can assure you they were cranked up all the way to crazy town for their silver screen debut. What’s possibly even more surprising is that despite all of its over-the-top gore, Riki-Oh manages to be the more faithful adaptation. It legit feels like a comic book come to life in an almost defiant, down-with-realism way. Lam Nai-Choi understands that just because you’re watching real people on the screen, things don't have to abide by the rules of reality. If anything it only adds to the larger-than-life tone it’s aiming for. It may be juvenile as heck, but I’ll be danged if it ain’t FUN.
All in all I feel like both Riki-Oh, and the Scorpion series highlight the sensibilities of Japanese and Hong Kong cinema at the zenith of their age. Thematically they complement each other perfectly, yet their tone and presentation (while both trashy) differ enough that you won’t feel like you’re watching the same drum being beaten in succession. Though I would strongly suggest closing out with Riki-Oh to avoid a pre-emptive case of sensory overload.