More and more frequently, it seems, directors are opting to omit opening credits altogether, save for the film’s title (and sometimes not even that). The phenomenon dates back at least as far as Apocalypse Now—no doubt there are earlier examples—but used to be pretty rare. Nowadays, it’s fashionably momentous to dispense with all the throat-clearing and just go full steam ahead right from frame one. This trend helped me out enormously a few years ago, when I saw the entire Competition slate at the Cannes Film Festival without knowing in advance who had directed the pictures (as an experiment in avoiding preconceptions), but on the whole I find it a bit disheartening. At their best, title sequences excel at setting a film’s tone, functioning as a cross between a précis and an overture; even if we aren’t remotely interested in who the costume designer or line producer was, the parade of names automatically inspires a receptive mode, rendering us more permeable than we might otherwise be mere minutes after taking our seat.
Superb, distinctive examples of the form abound—I could easily devote the next six months of this column to Saul Bass alone. And I may tackle Kyle Cooper’s Stan Brakhage-influenced titles for Seven or Stanley Kubrick’s gently perverse Lolita pedicure down the road. But right now I’d like to examine the ferocious blast of grim determination that opens the Japanese cult classic Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41. More often than not, especially today, movies, like TV shows, have a “cold open” that precedes the credits sequence, but that’s not the case here—this is how the film begins, without prelude. And if viewers somehow managed to sit down without a sense of what they’re in for (as if the title itself weren’t something of a giveaway), it’s safe to say that they have a fairly good idea by the time this sequence is over, just three minutes later.
When I first saw Jailhouse 41 in a New York rep house 11 years ago, I apparently didn’t bother to read up on it—in any event, I had no idea until now that it’s the second film in a trilogy, having been preceded (just four months earlier!) by Female Convict 701: Scorpion. So I suppose this opening plays slightly differently to those already familiar with Matsu, a.k.a. Scorpion, who know her as a badass. But this is still as striking an introduction to a protagonist as I’ve ever seen; put James Bond or Harry Potter in that scenario and I’d goggle nearly as hard. (Aside: It’s kind of a sad commentary on the state of women in Hollywood that I tried to think of a female character of equal stature to plug in there and came up totally blank.) Among other things, she seems to be accusing the audience of abuse and cruelty, which is not exactly a commonplace mindset for the first few minutes of even the most aggressive exploitation items.
But that chilling indictment of a glare comes later. First we get a deliberately disorienting tour of Matsu’s quarters, lit only by a single barred window at the far end of what looks more like a dungeon than a cell. Director Shunya Ito goes out of his way to make the geography perplexing, but not in the hack-ish, ADD manner of Michael Bay and his ilk. Instead, the camera turns on its side, moves alternately in opposite directions, makes an inexplicable plunge—methods of inducing in the viewer the same uncertainty Matsu must feel about where precisely she is. And all the while, we hear, at unnatural volume, an unnerving and as-yet-unexplained SCRAPE. SCRAPE. SCRAPE. SCRAPE. Before too long, this is revealed to be a spoon, dragged repeatedly against the cement floor by the chained Matsu, using her mouth, and we realize we’re seeing the painfully slow and methodical creation of a shiv. Which is roughly the point at which Matsu suddenly looks directly into the camera lens, as if daring us to stick around until she finishes. The instant she returns to her labors, the screen explodes with both kanji and song.
Interestingly, though the opening notes of the theme song are brassy and harsh, it quickly turns into a rather pretty ballad, very much at odds with the images it accompanies. That’s even more intriguing if the viewer is aware, as Japanese audiences surely would have been in 1972, that the voice on the soundtrack is that of Meiko Kaji, the singer/actress who plays Matsu. (Buffs will know Kaji as the lead in Lady Snowblood, which was a huge influence on Kill Bill; Quentin Tarantino included her similar song “The Flower Of Carnage” in the film and on the soundtrack album.) My DVD doesn’t translate the lyrics, and I don’t speak Japanese, but it doesn’t really matter much—it’s the contradiction that entices, preparing us for a movie that won’t necessarily stick to one side of the fence that ostensibly separates the bleak from the beautiful. We’re not necessarily conscious of the way a sequence like this signposts what follows, since to at least some extent we’re distracted by text. All the better for it to burrow into our unconscious.
Over the course of the brief musical number, Ito shoots Matsu’s incessant scraping from almost every imaginable angle, or at least all the ones that are visually evocative. (My favorite is the profile shot in which all that’s visible are Matsu’s angry left eye and a shock of black hair.) The images are all continuous, yet this montage, coupled with our sense of how long it would take to abrade that much metal from a spoon, somehow creates the impression that a great deal of time is passing; it comes as little surprise when we learn she’s been in this cell for many months. One of the things that’s always disappointed me about The Shawshank Redemption is that Frank Darabont fails to really drive home, as Stephen King’s novella does, the years and years of patient chipping that lead to Andy’s escape—we’re told about it, we understand it intellectually, but we don’t (or at least I don’t) feel it. Here, there’s no real evidence that Matsu doesn’t accomplish this arduous task in a single long afternoon, yet each composition bounces off the preceding one in a way that cumulatively suggests enormous condensation.
Regardless, when the sequence finally concludes, with Ito’s directorial credit superimposed on Matsu’s shadowy death glare, we know just what kind of movie is about to begin in earnest. Which is really an excellent tradeoff, all in all, for having the names of various artisans who worked on the picture imposed upon us, whether that information interests us or not.