Beast Stable may not be the most popular of the original Sasori trilogy, but it is probably the most accomplished in terms of storytelling, both visual and aural. This was to be director Shunya Ito’s final Scorpion film, again starring Meiko Kaji, who also sings the primary theme (Urumi Bushi), and a few characters from the previous installments. Ito (and the art direction of Tadayuki Kuwana) is less bold here than in Jailhouse: 41, with fewer camera sweeps and manual zooms, but it actually works in this film’s favor. Gone are the excessive lingering close-ups and the wild metaphors that made Jailhouse: 41 so interesting yet so often tedious. Ito has shorn away the excesses while still conceiving of brilliant, eye-popping images and compositions; here the images are more effective because the editing is so much sharper, the pace striking the proper balance between the freneticism of Prisoner #701 and the sober deliberateness of Jailhouse.
Having disposed of the one-eyed warden at the end of Jailhouse, Nami Matsushima is now trying to stay off the radar, but as the opening montage shows us, her face is being broadcast all over Japan. She manages to evade a couple of under-covers on a subway car by mutilating one and during the opening credits we see her dancing through the city with his severed arm manacled to her wrist. She finds a cemetery and successfully looses her cuffs on a tombstone, but collapses from exhaustion. She’s taken in by Yuki (played superbly by Yayoi Watanabe), who prostitutes herself to take care of her brother, rendered infantile because of some long-suffered cerebral trauma. Matsu is of course attacked by him at the first opportunity, and only Yuki’s abrupt intervention prevents Matsu from cutting him to pieces. When Yuki admits that she not only nurses her brother, but provides him with sexual release, Matsu reacts with a mixture of sympathy and disgust.
Like all Scorpion films character is subordinated to aesthetics, narrative to formal associations. Matsu’s rational and emotional complexity is always under the surface, and not merely through any deliberateness of character, but it’s also obscured by her apparently superhuman perception, which Meiko signifies with her large, round, cold eyes. Her silent exterior affords us an opportunity to observe her mental processes through other characters, none of whom is able to contain their internal content like Matsu. She embodies an ideal of womanhood in Ito’s films, one of both relentless stoicism and providential wrath; ironically the women she pities possess the kind of emotional sensitivity and pliability that she yearns for and of which she is no longer capable. Like a Christ figure, Matsu is forced to maintain both an emotional distance and a moral clarity to do what has to be done, placing herself in the position of fulcrum between good and evil forces.
While feeling sympathy for the invariably pathetic women she encounters, there is also present a resoluteness to leave them to a fate she feels is precipitated by a sadistic conspiracy of phalluses, but masochistically yielded to by woman. Matsu yields only strategically and her seemingly infinite patience allows her to win her battles down the road. Ito associates Matsu figuratively with the scorpion, an inscrutable creature of cunning and elegant lethality. When she learns of Yuki’s pregnancy, Matsu briefly considers killing Yuki’s brother out of mercy for them both, but it’s the forced abortion of another abused girl that convinces her otherwise. As in Jailhouse, abortion is both a subject of narrative consequence and subtextual, reinforcing the point that pitiless males have total control over the female body, and in both films Matsu unleashes vengeance upon a state that both fosters and enforces such practices.
Matsu’s revenge on the brothel of the title and its mistress is photographed and edited together by Ito masterfully: we see one of her victims in a car emerging from a car-wash with a blade stuck in his heart, another hanged by his tie from a sleek office building—and they all exhibit the Scorpion’s marks; with montage there’s no need for us to see how it all unfolded. In another scene, Ito recreates the inebriated sense of time of a swank nightclub through clipping, or deleting strands of film stock to accelerate time and expand space; and the artificial lighting and colorful sets perfectly assist the nighttime milieu. Ito also better translates narrative ideas into cinematic ones in this film. When Yuki drops burning matchsticks through manholes and into the sewer to locate the fugitive Matsu, the director shoots them descending from every conceivable angle. Then with a smaller wide-angle lens he blurs their descent until a virtual firestorm of falling matchsticks consumes the toxic tunnels that Matsu darts through. It’s all of these little details of technique (you’ll wonder repeatedly how this effect or that effect was achieved) that further enrich the viewing experience, even if they don’t always inform.
If you’ve seen the first two of the trilogy, the fact that Matsu runs into and settles a score with an old prison nemesis won’t come as a shock, and neither will Ito’s treatment of the incredible ending. If you have the opportunity to see the trilogy in its entirety, you’ll understand Ito’s singular genius. The amount of variation in sets, characters, action, lighting, photography and ambience over the course of these three films is astounding; each has its own peculiar vibe and unique strengths. Overall, this is my personal favorite of the Sasori trilogy and a fine edition to any collection, exploitation or not.