Prisoner #206 (in a clear homage/ripoff of the Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion series), the titular Maria (Noriko Aota), is employed by her warden to take out bad guys. Meanwhile, an insane doctor gets involved with Taiwanese gangsters in a scheme to control the minds of people for fun and profit. Who will Maria’s next target(s) be?
Yes, Shuji Kataoka’s Prisoner Maria: The Movie follows in the footsteps of Toei’s fantastic, Meiko-Kaji-starring franchise. It also owes tons to the films of John Woo (and just about every action film director to come out of Hong Kong), Luc Besson’s Nikita, the Pinky Violence and Women with Guns genres, and comic books in general. Given its title, I don’t know if it is an adaptation (I could find nothing regarding this information, but then my fluency in Japanese is crap), however two manga writers worked on it (Keiji Nakazawa and Shigeru Tsuchiyama). The problem is that this film takes all of these elements, regurgitates them across the screen, but adds nothing of its own. It can be argued that its more bizarre elements are what distinguish it, and that’s a fair statement. Yet, the film is so disjointed, wanting to be so stridently unoriginal, that it becomes little more than a pile of hand-me-down clothes, more disappointing to sift through for its sameness than any gems that may hopefully be hidden at the bottom (one can only own so many “vintage” Hawaiian shirts or whatever; this point is, of course, up for debate). The first scene has Maria pulling a hit on a gangster which involves a nice throat-slashing, a great many bullets, and camera angles that make you want to stand on your head. Maria sequesters herself in her concrete apartment when she’s not sequestered in her concrete cell. She has a mini-arsenal under her bed that she seems to be proficient in, although in practice she’s not nearly as smooth as we expect her to be. She meets a cop, Igarasi (Tetsuo Kurata), with whom she naturally falls in love, despite their being at cross purposes. And so on, and so on. If this is an adaptation of a manga or a novel, it’s less like a side by side comparison than like staring at a stack of pages which may or may not be in order, but the result would be the same.
Prisoner Maria is an absolute sleazefest, but rarely to any effect other than being skanky. For example, a young serial killer ties up a woman in his home operating theater. He cuts her clothes off with a large hunting knife. He runs the blade across her breasts and crotch. He sucks on her nipple for a second. Then he slices her torso open, and we get to watch the life fade from her eyes. Fair enough. This scene works in setting up the level of evil Maria must oppose. Compare it with the scene where the Taiwanese gangster kidnaps a brother and sister. Before taking them away, he has his men haul out some anonymous Taiwanese woman, and the baddies double team her in front of everyone. Why? The victims already know what’s in store for them. This is sleaze for the sake of sleaze. I guess there’s a place for that, but as I was watching the film, the word “gratuitous” kept flashing across my mind. To me, then, it’s more distraction than necessity, either as genre or narrative requirement. After all, formless pornography is readily available elsewhere, even back in the 90s when this was made. Surprisingly, Aota’s sex scene is chaste. Considering the film it’s surrounded by, this sticks out like a sore thumb. Perhaps its modesty is meant to highlight some emotional involvement between the two characters. Unfortunately, their chemistry is more like a sparkler than a roman candle.
Male power trip and rape fantasies clearly make up the film’s raison d’etre. Maria’s warden plays like the Niles Caulder of the story. He emotionlessly flings Maria into situations with little-to-no information. He withholds and/or just doesn’t update his operative with new data that would facilitate her work and reduce the risk level to himself. He coerces Maria’s participation by keeping her from her son (who doesn’t seem to miss his mother at all, when we do get to see him). In other words, the warden is a dick who can’t even bring himself to work in his own self-interest. The other men in the film who are not Igarasi exercise control over women, by will or by force. Women are meat to them, and their white slavery/prostitution/mind control racket confirms this. There are very few women in this movie who aren’t bound, gagged, or drugged at some point or another. Dr. Kito’s mind control experiments are the ultimate display of this desire to erase women’s minds and keep their bodies as literal receptacles for sex. He believes himself to be God (that’s not an analogy), forming and casting off people as it pleases him.
Despite the surface differences between the bad guys and Igarasi, he is just as much of a male power fantasy, simply tilted toward the more benevolent end of the spectrum. He’s clearly smarter than Maria (but the way she’s written, just about everyone is), since he effortlessly follows her trail and tracks her down. Worse than that, for as talented as Maria is supposed to be, and for as good as Aota looks all kitted out in her leather hitwoman outfit, she’s given very little opportunity to kick some male chauvinist/misogynist ass. She gets thrown around and has the tables turned on her almost constantly, her victories occurring more by accident than skill and planning. To that point, Igarasi shows up more than once in the nick of time to save her bacon, robbing her of any true sense of empowerment, and it’s only through his largesse that she escapes in the end. Like every other woman in the film, Maria is just another object to be used. Prisoner Maria: The Movie thwarts every moment for its protagonist to shine until one begins to wonder why she’s the protagonist at all? Possibly because she’s not meant to have agency in this world, a powerless cog that thinks she’s the motor driving her life? Her disenfranchisement and oppression are inescapable. She’s serving a life sentence as a prisoner in more ways than one. I’d like to believe that this is what the filmmakers were going for, as it would bestow the film with a darkly cynical outlook on the unchanged place of women in a male dominated society, given the illusion of power and hope to keep them in their place. But from the evidence of the film’s construction and prurient attitude, I tend to think the people behind this just didn’t care about the film and its characters. So, neither did I.
MVT: Aota shows some talent, and she has the potential to carry an action film. She just doesn’t get her shot to do so here.
Make or Break: The first female victim’s torture and death is about as blatant a sign post for what this film is as you can get, for better or worse.