It’s always interesting to see how different countries translate popular film trends from other countries to fit their own cultural and commercial needs. Consider the women in prison film: it was hugely popular in the U.S. and Europe from 1970’s through the early 1980’s but Japan didn’t produce a lot of films in this subgenre during that time. However, the small handful that Japanese filmmakers made show them adapting the women in prison film to their own filmmaking designs.
A worthwhile example is Nikkatsu’s True Story Of A Woman In Jail: Sex Hell. It takes the women in prison film and gently reworks it to fit the mold of Roman Porno sexploitation line that had become a vital part of Nikkatsu’s output during the 1970’s. The plot seems traditional enough for this kind of movie, beginning with the introduction of two new “fish” to a juvenile-level facility: Harumi (Maya Hiromi) is prostitute who is chatty and familiar with the system while Mayumi (Kozue Hitomi) is quiet, withdrawn and mysterious.
Once they are in general population, both new prisoners have to deal with its resident Queen Bee (Seri Kaori). Harumi plays up to her, even becoming a sexual surrogate for her, while Harumi locks horns with her and avoids befriending anyone. Flashbacks sprinkled through reveal the reason that Harumi ended up in jail, explaining her bitter attitude as well as her desire for escape and revenge. After suffering enough indignities at the hands of the system, Harumi and Queen Bee see past their differences to make an escape. That said, one shouldn’t expect happy endings in a film like this.
The end result doesn’t attempt to innovate upon its genre template or add twists to any of the genre’s expected elements. The women in prison component of the film hits all the necessary marks: women done wrong, predatory prisoners and guards, catfights, shower scenes and a climactic escape attempt. There are no real surprises in this area but everything works as it is supposed to.
What makes True Story Of A Woman In Jail: Sex Hell interesting is the Roman Porno part of the equation. For example, the narrative is orchestrated around a series of erotic setpieces incorporated in a clever way: the flashbacks not only fill us in on the character’s backstories but allow the filmmakers to incorporate a series of male-female sex scenes that would otherwise be difficult to include in a women in prison film. It also weaves in the kind of kinkiness necessary for the Roman Porno crowd, like the methods used to create sex toys in prison and a guard who gives a woman in solitary confinement food so he can have sex with her through the door’s food tray slot.
True Story Of A Woman In Jail: Sex Hell also impresses with its craftsmanship. Director Koyu Ohara keeps the narrative tight and his pacing lean, bringing in the fairly involved plot at a tidy 70 minutes. Yoneza Maedo’s scope lensing infuses the grubby narrative with style and a bluesy rock score from the Downtown Boogie Woogie Band enhances the moody, forlorn quality of the film. The acting is also solid: Hitomi gives an appropriately stoic performance as the vengeful heroine (she’s got a great angry stare) while Maya brings a knowing sauciness to her veteran call girl role and Seri is appropriately imperious as Queen Bee.
In short, True Story Of A Woman In Jail: Sex Hell works both as a Roman Porno and a women in prison film thanks to its thorough, disciplined sense of craftsmanship. As a result, it is well worth the time for any exploitation film buff curious about the wonders of Eastern-meets-Western schlock fusion.