4*. ELECTRIC DRAGON 80000 V (2001)

Erekutorikku doragon 80000V

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Sogo Ishii [AKA Gakuryû Ishii]

FEATURING: , , voice of Masakatsu Funaki

PLOT: A boy who survives electrocution while climbing an electrical tower grows up to be “Dragon Eye Morrison,” a human battery and “reptile investigator” who tracks missing lizards and who can only control his violent impulses by playing his electric guitar. Meanwhile, “Thunderbolt Buddha,” a half-man, half-metal being who was also struck by lightning as a child, hears of our hero, and wants to test his electrical superpowers against his counterpart’s. The villainous Buddha provokes a high voltage showdown with Morrison on a Tokyo rooftop.

Still from Electric Dragon 80000V

BACKGROUND:

  • Sogo Ishii was an established director whose work was influenced by punk music and style. He was an influential figure for Japanese underground filmmakers, but his work is seldom seen outside of his homeland.
  • Industrial/noise band MACH-1.67, an occasional ensemble that included director Ishii and star Asano, provided the music. They subsequently performed concerts with this film playing in the background.
  • Composer Hiroyuki Onogawa said he had never written rock music nor worked much with the electric guitar before this project.
  • The movie was a cult success in Japan, running to packed houses in one theater for two months. Plans for a Part 2 were discussed, but never materialized.
  • Reports suggest that the film was shot in three days (other accounts say three weeks, and obviously post-production took much, much longer) and largely improvised.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’re going to go with the visage of the movie’s villain, a half-man, half-statue. (Beyond the fact that he was struck by lightning as a child, his alloyed origins are never explained.)

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Thunderbolt Buddha, TV repairman; pre-rage noise solo

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A team of Japanese industrial punks decide to made a surrealistic black and white superhero noise musical. If this sounds awesome to you, we won’t argue.

Original trailer for Electric Dragon 80000V

COMMENTS: We can dispense with any sort of search for deep meaning or allegory in Electric Dragon 80000V. In  one of the interviews included on the DVD, even star Tabano Asano says it’s a movie you “don’t have to think too much about.” The theme here is energy; and the film’s electric style embodies its theme. Try to keep up the pace: this assault will shock your system in a speedy hour of nonstop sound and electrical fury.

Brief and simple as it is, Electric Dragon 80000V nevertheless manages to be thoroughly confusing, at least on a first pass. Because the movie is filled with lightning-paced surreal digressions and offbeat vignettes, it’s easy to miss simple plot points. There’s little meaningful exposition, although there’s a good bit of absolutely meaningless exposition provided by a narrator given to screaming out slogans like a carnival barker: “He’s the electricity man! All its wavelengths are his!” The movie begins with a 10-minute, montage-filled prologue discussing dragons in world mythology and showing how the shock therapy young Morrison received as a boy damaged his brain, awoke his inner lizard, and turned him into an electrified, guitar-playing superman (he’s the only performer I know who can plug his amplifier into himself). The bulk of the movie shows Morrison and Thunderbolt Buddha moving separately through Tokyo: Morrison hunts missing reptiles (we see many of his first-person scurries through narrow backstreets and alleyways), while in a subplot that goes nowhere, Buddha spies on and frustrates the plans of a gang of drug dealers, while simultaneously tracking Morrison. Also, there’s a scene where Morrison is walking down a crowded street and summons his guitar, which flies through the sky and lands in his outstretched hand. After a ridiculously long and dissonant guitar solo from Morrison, the madness accelerates into the final comic book confrontation with Thunderbolt, which takes a good 10 minutes, all told.  All of this sounds more comprehensible than it really is; in practice, the scenes and images are thrown at the viewer chaotically, without much context. It’s not exactly dream logic—more like music video logic.

The visual style is impressive. The choice to use black and white seems inevitable; it’s hard to imagine this movie in color. It’s all dark shadows and lightning flashes and gray lizard hides. The monochrome look hearkens back to the Japanese New Wave films of , and , and perhaps even more to 1989’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man.1 It’s constantly inventive: there’s a history of human violence through the told though overlapping images in a black void, a Raging Bull homage, shots of Buddha’s head gliding through the city in profile, inserts of electrical meters and observing lizard eyes, iconic low-angle rock-god views of Asano shredding his axe, and a furious fast-motion flight through the streets of Tokyo. The lightning flashes and sparks flying off of the character’s fists and guitars were lovingly hand-fashioned in post-production. Even the end titles are amazing: a blazing fast of quavering Japanese characters intercut with stills and bits from the film. And I’ll take the final over-the-top, WWE-type smackdown here over any formula Marvel superhero brawl, thanks.

In keeping with the musical nature of the storyline, the soundtrack is equally important as the visuals. This industrial punk/metal/noise music isn’t the sort of thing I normally gravitate to, but it’s absolutely essential to the high-energy mission here. There is also some laid-back electronica, notably the dub groove that accompanies the serene introduction of Buddha, but mostly it’s all propulsive, grinding rock. Three Asano guitar solos are scattered throughout the film.2 The most memorable of these is the finale, an ear-searing three minute freakout (which seems like it takes at least ten interminable, grating, fascinating minutes to play out). Morrison returns home to discover his guitar sliced into pieces by Buddha; he calmly patches it together with screws, takes a few tentative strums, then starts abusing the strings with a screwdriver and an aluminum can, the metal-on-metal contact producing abrasive screeches. Eventually, he wanks his instrument so hard that sparks fly, as an offscreen drumbeat urges him on. As his anger climaxes, a full band joins in, and the noise resolves into a raucous speed-metal anthem as Morrison races off to confront Thunderbolt Buddha. Your pulse will race, too.

While I started this essay by claiming that we didn’t have to look too closely at the film’s “deeper meaning,” that doesn’t mean there’s nothing at all underneath the surface. Although the structure is simple as a black and white comic book, clever touches supply  depth. Lizards are seen throughout the movie, coldly regarding the action. As a man in a lab coat explains in the film’s prologue, they symbolize the old “reptilian” part of the brain that “controls emotions and acts of desire.” The battle between Morrison and Thunderbolt reflects the battle between violence and pacifism, between the emotional lizard brain and the rational man, that rages inside our hero. Morrison sublimates his violent instincts into the electric guitar to show us how man civilizes himself through art. For a movie that sometimes feels like it was thrown together on a whim over a long weekend by a bunch of punk musicians binging on speed, Electric Dragon 80000V can be surprisingly deep and detailed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…punk cinema at its wildest, tackling a simple concept head on and making the absolute most of it… he dialogues are completely nonsensical (‘Conserve electricity!’), the story is staggeringly whimsical and the pacing is as random as can be.”–Niels Matthjis, Screen Anarchy (DVD)

“Words cannot begin to describe this film… sheer cinematic delirium.”–Tom Mes, Midnight Eye (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Electric Dragon 80.000V

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Post-Human Nightmares – The World of Japanese Cyberpunk Cinema – Midnight Eye article on the Japanese cyberpunk subgenre which prominently mentions Electric Dragon 80000V

Midnight Eye interview: Shogo Ishii – Rare interview with the director (which does not mention Electric Dragon 80000V directly)

HOME VIDEO INFO: Discotech Media released Electric Dragon 80000V on DVD in 2006; it has since gone out of print (buy used). The bad news is, that DVD is hard to find, getting harder to find, is expensive when you do find it, and seems unlikely to be a high-priority re-release candidate. We found a copy to review on Netflix’s DVD rental site (yes, it still exists); this disc will probably continue to circulate until it wears out. There is a much cheaper Japanese disc out there, but it requires a Region 2 player, and we can’t confirm that it comes with English subtitles.

If you do get your hands on the DVD, it’s a good one. Since the feature only runs for a mere 55 minutes, the supplements are essential. Extras include trailers, four “making of” segments on the special effects (including a 20 minute interview that gets quite technical), and a suite of live interviews with the stars , producer Takenori Sentô, director Ishii, and composer Hiroyuki Onogawa. The crowd’s reaction gives you a sense of just how big a star Asano is in Japan: when he appears in front of an audience, men shout out his name and women squeal, as if he were a real-life rock icon. Taken together, the extras exceed the length of the feature. Limited edition versions included the soundtrack CD as a bonus: it’s not something I could see listening to often, but it is rare as hell.

To our knowledge the film is not currently available on Blu-ray, or via streaming or digital rental services.

(This movie was nominated for review by Dan Calhoun. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

  1. Ishii borrows a lot of ideas here from , although it’s equally true that Tsukamoto was heavily influenced by early Ishii films like 1982’s Burst City.
  2. Asano actually plays the guitar, but he was overdubbed by professionals at least some of the time.

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