Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song

Posters

Buy shirts at Teemill and giclee poster prints at Etsy!

My final poster design in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series is for director Yasuharu Hasebe’s only entry, and Meiko Kaji’s last outing as Nami Matsushima/Sasori/The Scorpion, Grudge Song. While it lacks the wild creativity of Shunya Itō’s incredible trilogy, Hasebe was no slouch – a veteran of Nikkatsu’s ‘borderless action’ yazuka movies of the late 1960s, including his remarkable Retaliation which featured Meiko Kaji in a supporting role, and 3 entries into Kaji’s sukeban series Stray Cat Rock. A sombre and fascinating coda to the wilder Itō pictures, this film allows Kaji to ground her portrayal of Nami more than at any other time in the run – even going so far as to find her a male love interest for the first time since the evil corrupt cop that sent her down the path of cyclical incerceration and revenge. The film even features fascinating visual callbacks to the first film in the cycle that evoke that relationship, deepening the drama and dourness when things inevitably go awry for our stoic heroine.

I’ve tried to capture that pared-back simplicity with a bold and stark design that incorporates a flower-shaped bloodstain – visually representing one of the more memorable kills in the series as Nami eludes capture by driving a flower into a cop’s jugular. The bloodstained fabric refers to that visual callback during Nami’s brief moment of physical intimacy she shares with the damaged anarchist she comes to trust enough to take to bed – a visual motif that in the original film also recalls the hinomaru flag.

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable

Posters

Buy shirts at Teemill and giclee poster prints at Etsy!

Shunya Itō’s third and final Female Prisoner Scorpion film opens with a bravura jolt – Nami Matsushima, Sasori, the Scorpion, is out of prison and on the run. As superimposed wanted posters fly past the screen while the camera barrels down a Metro track, we eventually enter the carriage where a glowering, olive green jacket-clad Matsu stares dead ahead while a crew of detectives scour the faces of the passengers. As their eyes lock, she springs violently into action, slashing away at the cops with a knife and escaping as the train pulls up to a platform. Alas, one dogged detective catches her arm and slaps the cuffs on her wrist, and tethers it to his own, just as the doors are closing. Wide-eyed, desperate, she takes a second to assess the situation and then begins hacking away with the blade, eventually severing his arm in a torrent of blood as she swings his severed appendage above her arm. Freeze frame, blood red title card, the first blast of Meiko Kaji’s now familiar theme song enters, as the image becomes aggresively solarised. The stricken cop writhes on the floor, as Matsu takes flight, emerging into the harsh light of the Tokyo streets. She sprints through panicked pedestrians with the bloodied arm flailing in her wake, we know that once again, Itō isn’t going to let his audience settle in to the familiar despite the rapid production schedule of his series.

This vérité approach strips away the grim-yet-operatic visuals of the previous film, coming off more like the street-level gangster movies that preceeded it. The poster has, in tandem with the film’s more toned down, gritty, comparatively stripped-down aesthetic, been created to emphasise fewer elements (and increased violence). Again using the stripes of the iconic prison uniforms as a guide, I wanted to divide the poster into three horizontal strips, and was immediately convinced that the image of Nami dragging the detective’s severed arm would be her hero shot at the bottom – unrestricted by the stripes that would run across the top and middle. With realtively little real estate to work with, choosing the right images for the rest of the poster was a challenge. Originally I had used a screenshot of Katsu and her gang menacing Yuki, but the brutality of the sequence, divorced from the context of the film and the intent and artistry of Itō surrounding it, came across as too extreme and exploitative to use as a standalone image. These posters do have to strike a balance – these films are, after all, ‘exploitation’ films, which the artwork has to reflect, but should never stray too far into the realm of bad taste where they become too unpleasant or triggering. Even when dealing with somewhat extreme material, there are still lines to be drawn. And while the backstory behind the image of Yuki I did end up using is of course horrifying (she is raising a knife to her brother, wondering whether to kill him to spare them both the pain of their desperate situation), visually it seemed to me to be compelling, suitably harsh for the tone of the film, but falling just barely on the right side of acceptability. It was also one of many of Itō’s beautifully composed and lit shots, Yuki’s heavy makeup popping out of the gloomy dark room, the blade poised dangerously across her, the Dutch angle of the camera creating the fantastic diagonal sweep of the room behind her.

The colour scheme, overall, came to me instinctively. Again, the green was inspired by the original release poster, albeit that one was a very dark green, with red, blue and yellow along with a large image of a crow. I used Nami’s jacket as inspiration for a more military green mid-tone, with a pale green background – much in the same way the #701 poster used a solid blue over a pale blue background. And I knew I wanted to have the title text in white – which meant using a less detailed image for the middle strip upon which it would sit. I stumped for a wide shot of the one-armed Detective Kondo walking down a dark, industrial-looking street plastered with wanted posters – this time with all white removed so that the whole image was green-on-green. That was when the idea hit to incorporate red into the image. First, I wanted Kondo’s severed arm to be in red, so that it would be clearer to the viewer what it was (the downside of this film’s use of exterior, almost documentary footage is that both focussing issues and massively increased grain, coupled with a reduction in the kind of contrast you get from studio lighting, meant that the main image of Nami was, and remains, a little soft). A few tweaks were made to the image – painting in more detail on the hand, the cuffs, and most controversially and experimentally, running the face of the image through an AI enhancer. Knowing that the riso filter process would help to smooth over any mismatches in the image quality, I feel that it was important in being able to make the main hero image of the poster stand out, and was happy with the result in the end.

When I had just the arm in red, it felt very disjointed (so to speak). So, I experimented with using a blood splash to link it to Nami at the top and bottom. I felt this looked a lot better, and this inspired the further use of the splash across the text. In turn, that necessitated using red on the top image. At first, I had a horizontal streak running through the middle of the image, but this seemed to imbalance the layout. I experimented next with a splash, which looked more in keeping, but now seemed to be overusing the effect and diminishing its impact. Finally, it hit me to use the diagonal back wall – that a diagonal streak would direct the eye through the image, and would mirror the angle of Nami’s right arm, almost like a chevron, running from the top left, through the right middle, and back to the bottom left, encompassing the whole poster.

Now all that remained was the lettering. Each poster has had very different fonts – chunky and minimal for #701, more traditional and elaborate for Jailhouse 41 – and here, I wanted to use a more functional, appropriately 1970s street signage font. The final decision was to highlight Meiko Kaji’s acting credit in red, in a placement that I felt helped draw the eye in that chevron-esque direction through the composition. All this achieved, I felt that the poster had done all I could hope for. I was disappointed to not be able to include Katsu or her birds, or Kaji’s horror scene where she attempts to grind off her handcuffs while grasping Kondo’s disembodied arm in her teeth in a graveyard, but I feel like, if I saw this poster, I’d go and seek out this film. Which is surely what it’s all about.

To adapt this into a shirt design, I simplified the design down to just Nami’s daring escape, and kept the blood-spattered title text and the credits. I added the horizontal dark green bars top and bottom just to create some solidity to the layout (it also reminded me of a fantastic Stars of the Lid band shirt I owned many years ago! Head to Teemill for shirts and sweatshirts.