Though Japanese director Sogo Ishii has been relatively quiet lately – his most recent theatrically released feature, Gojoe, having failed so spectacularly that it bankrupted its production company – with only an anthology film, some festival commissions and an experimental piece only one theater in Japan was equipped to properly present to his name is recent years it is hard, if not impossible, to overstate just how important Ishii’s influence has been. Simply put Ishii changed everything, shocking new life into the stagnant Japanese film system and being largely responsible for bringing independently produced films into the public consciousness. On a stylistic level if not for Ishii there would have been no Shinya Tsukamoto and he has been cited as a major favorite and influence on film makers as diverse as Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike. Though his key work is criminally under-available outside Japan his influence has been simply enormous and thanks to new releases from Discotek Media two of his key works are now readily available here in North America for the first time.
Shot in 1982 when Ishii was just 25 and fresh off the surprising success of Crazy Thunder Road Ishii was granted the budget to populate Burst City with thousands of extras and the cream of the Japanese punk rock scene – a scene Ishii himself rose out of and maintains links to to this day – all of them housed in a ramshackle, post-apocalyptic village built just for the film. Equal parts concert film, performance art piece, and post-apocalyptic battler a la Mad Max Burst City tells the story of an impromptu punk rock festival / political protest staged to protest the building of a nuclear power plant – a situation that soon leads to riot police and yakuza thugs coming in to subdue and disperse the leather and body armor clad, heavily made up masses.
While Burst City is clearly a watershed film it stands up better as a cultural document than as a film, per se. Clearly and entirely rooted in a specific cultural moment - it is an early eighties punk rock fantasy of rebellion, anarchy and hot cars – many of the touch stones that would have appeared so brash and exciting then have been thoroughly appropriated and become commonplace now. A man wearing eye shadow is no longer rebellion, it’s a simple fashion statement. That said Ishii’s energetic camera style, rapid fire editing and the constant manipulation of film speeds that have become his trademarks are in full force here and, as an added bonus, the music simply kicks ass. The DVD issue is sparse on extras but the DVD does feature an excellent widescreen transfer that looks to be a port of the recent Japanese remaster.
After a ten year absence from the film world Ishii returned with a string of more thoughtful and introspective films before shooting swordplay epic Gojoe – the already mentioned studio bankruptor – back to back with Electric Dragon 80000V, a slap to the head and kick in the nuts that shares Gojoe’s lead actors – Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase – and announces that while Ishii’s previous couple films may have been more ‘mature’, for lack of a better word, he hasn’t lost any of the fire or edge that drove his earlier, name-making films. Electric Dragon is a raw, muscular refinement of the assaultive style of Ishii’s early films.
Clocking in at a lean fifty five minutes Electric Dragon stars Tadanobu Asano as Dragon Eye Morrison a young man who, thanks to a severe electrical shock received as a child, has had the reptile part of his brain awoken and continuously absorbs electrical power. Morrison is forced to restrain himself when he sleeps, a grounding rod stands next to his bed, and he channels his excess emotions and electricity the only place he can: into his electric guitar. But unknown to Morrison his unique abilities have caught the attention of the Thunderbolt Buddha (Nagase), a half masked, split personality plagued, electrical genius supervillain who wishes to test his strength against someone with similar electrical gifts and it isn’t long before the two meet, lightning bolts flying, in a violent rooftop confrontation.
Like perhaps no other director Ishii understands that film is a uniquely sensory medium and Electric Dragon is an all out assault on those senses, the stunning rapid fire visuals fused with a propulsive soundtrack provided by Mach 1.67, a band that includes both Ishii and Asano amongst its members. While Electric Dragon captures all of the energy of Ishii’s earlier work it does so while also reflecting the enormous advancements in his technical skills since those early days and it also avoids the trap of cultural specificity that now limits the effectiveness of Burst City by creating an entirely new mythology for its characters rather than rooting them in an established subculture. Discotek’s DVD release is excellent, featuring a dead solid transfer and DTS sound – absolutely essential for this film – plus a host of special features that take you through the production process plus, fantastically, a complete soundtrack CD.
Ishii’s films will simply not be for everyone. In fact, the large majority of people will likely outright hate them. He spurns standard ideas of narrative, opting instead for raw sensory experience but for those open to that change he is an experience not to be missed. Play them loud.