The provocative 80s movement, studded with the neon-slick works of Sogo Ishii, Shinya Tsukamoto, and Shozin Fukui, paved the way for a new filmic wave in Japan
In the mid-80s, the Japanese film industry was at an all-time low. Several of the major studios had gone bankrupt, and the ones that remained had either focused their attentions to softcore pornography or suspended production entirely in favour of distributing Hollywood imports. Even the most well-established directors struggled to secure funding. And independent cinema just wasn’t economically viable.
The Japanese “cyberpunk” movement was a product of this filmographic impotence, and a total rejection of the traditions of Japanese cinema that had preceded it. The period dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, the samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa, and even the documentary-style yakuza dramas of Kinji Fukasaku had no place in a 1980s Japan that was experiencing a world-renowned technological revolution. Instead, a new generation of filmmakers with a critical view of the hyper-modern world were picking up video cameras as a means to attack the country’s shifting identity, creating wild dystopias that foreshadowed the economic crash that would hit Japan in the 90s.
Throughout the 80s, this provocative school of filmmaking was helmed by three renegade directors: Sogo Ishii and Shinya Tsukamoto, film students at Tokyo’s Nihon University, and Shozin Fukui, a one-time crew member for each. But the short-lived cyberpunk movement was effectively over in Japan as soon as it emerged from the underground. When Tsukamoto’s avant-garde explosion Tetsuo: Iron Man unexpectedly scooped the Best Film Award at Rome’s FantaFestival in 1989, it single-handedly revived international interest in Japanese filmmaking. The film’s success prompted serious investment in the country’s V-Cinema indie filmmaking system, laying the path for a new wave of filmmakers to thrive in the 90s.
This May marks 40 years since the release of Sogo Ishii’s Crazy Thunder Road — the film that started the entire movement, and therefore the revival of Japanese cinema as a whole. On its ruby anniversary, Dazed traces the history of Japanese cyberpunk through its three most important directors.
Sogo Ishii’s upbringing in Hakata, Kyushu, a mecca for Japan’s burgeoning punk scene in the 70s, would shape his attitude towards filmmaking when he was a student in Tokyo. He often attended lectures solely to appropriate school equipment, and this delinquent attitude would be the crux of his success after his 1980 graduation project Crazy Thunder Road was unexpectedly bought by Toei Film Studio for release in theatres.
Crazy Thunder Road, the genesis of the Japanese cyberpunk movement, set early precedents for what would become essential tropes of the genre. A raw and chaotic biker movie set between desolate urban wreckage and the neon streets of Tokyo, its roaring engines, and vicious gang warfare was the Japanese embodiment of rollercoaster thrillers like Mad Max and The Warriors. Cast almost entirely by the spiky-haired, leather-strewn band members from his punk circle, Ishii’s movie offered an ominous vision of a society in turmoil through hordes of armed thugs and erratic night-time brawls.
The visual and thematic similarities to Akira, the 1988 biker-punk sci-fi that would be considered the apotheosis of cyberpunk anime, are uncanny. And while the goblin-masked, metal-clawed acolytes of Crazy Thunder Road only hint to the themes of bodily metamorphosis that would follow, the film’s in-your-face camerawork and brash rockabilly soundtrack established a riotous template for cyberpunk to build on.
Ishii would expand his own blueprint two years later with Burst City, a chaotic action-punk-musical hybrid that catapults the bleak world of Crazy Thunder Road into a dark and cold dystopian future. From the opening shot, wherein a vehicle-mounted camera loudly tears through a cityscape at Mach speed, the film sets off like a rocket. It remains explosive right up until the climax — a showdown between warring cops, gangsters and guitar-shredding punks amidst the smoke and rubble of a long-since decimated society.
Disorientating mosh pit footage spliced from concerts performed by film’s cast (peroxide-haired Tokyo punk bands The Stalin, The Roosters, and The Rockers) do plenty to interrupt the standard narrative format. And even the dilapidated, scrapheap world these characters live in feels palpable, not least due to the fact that the majority of the cast lived on set for the entire shoot. But perhaps the most important practice put to use in Burst City, would be Ishii’s abundant use of undercranking.
A technique whereby film is initially shot at a lower speed and later manipulated in playback to create a hyper-kinetic visual effect, undercranking would serve as one of the stylistic cornerstones of cyberpunk’s expressionism. Alongside jagged jump cuts and jerky handheld camera, these methods would be adopted by one Shinya Tsukamoto, a freshman while Ishii was in his senior year at Nihon University who had already begun crafting his own subversive shorts.
The Phantom of Regular Size, the 18-minute, 8mm film that kicked off Tsukamoto’s career in 1986, was effectively a dummy run for what would be the defining film of Ishii’s movement three years later. While the “plot” of ‘Phantom’ is moot, the entire cast plus several of the short’s most vivid scenes would all re-appear in Tetsuo: Iron Man in 1989. Among the most notable is a sequence wherein a bespectacled salaryman is terrorised by a malformed woman in the Tokyo subway. The climactic image of a man with a roaring power drill bursting from his nether regions, meanwhile, would end up being one of the most defining images of the entire cyberpunk movement.
The Phantom of Regular Size also offered a first look at Tsukamoto’s vital evolution of Ishii’s undercranking into what would become his signature shot. His hybrid stop-motion technique would create the appearance of a subject traversing an environment at impossible speed; an unnatural and jarring movement of characters and objects across a given scenography. In Tetsuo it is used to make seas of metallic cables and wires writhe like snakes, and to make the movements of the film’s tortured subject, a man who is gradually, excruciatingly transformed into metal, all the more unnerving.
Commonly referred to as “the Japanese Eraserhead” for its grainy 16mm black-and-chrome industrial setting and surreal, nightmarish atmosphere, Tetsuo: Iron Man takes the intense expressionism of its predecessors to their limit. It offers a world corrupted entirely by junkyard scrap, with the enduring sounds of television static and Chu Ishikawa’s relentless, chiming soundtrack mirroring the film’s singular theme explicitly. “Your future is metal!” offers the antagonist in one of the film’s few pieces of dialogue — a statement that underpins the anarchic vision of the cyberpunk movement in totality.
Shot over a painstaking 18 months marred by crew walkouts, Tsukamoto’s crowning achievement is abrasive, disorientating, and violently sexual. But the merit of its inventiveness was enough to prompt not only a cathartic festival win in Rome, but also a distribution deal in the USA, and later Europe. Tetsuo was truly the zenith of the movement, a sensory overload that introduced the world to a renegade style of low-budget filmmaking in Japan. But it was also the death knell for live-action cyberpunk; a filmmaking kamikaze that left its successors in its mercurial wake.
Shozin Fukui had offered some of the most hyperactive examples of the cyberpunk oeuvre in the years that preceded Tetsuo. The three-minute black-and-grey attack-on-a-stranger Scourge of Blood features some of the most exhilarating examples of editing in a canon of intensely cut films, while Gerorisuto, a grainy snapshot of a possessed woman on a train would demonstrate Fukui’s passion for guerilla filmmaking. Caterpillar, a 1988 short film made while Fukui was working as an assistant director on Tetsuo, would recycle the same sets used in Tsukamoto’s film. It was his final exercise in perfecting cyberpunk’s stop-motion, shakycam manifesto before moving into “full-length” cinema.
But by the time Fukui got round to directing his own feature-length cyberpunk film, Tetsuo had already served the double-edged strike that simultaneously legitimised and upended the movement. It is for this reason that Fukui’s 1991 film 942 Pinocchio (also known as Screams of Blasphemy), while of great enough quality to be screened at Rotterdam Film Festival and to receive a US video release, remains criminally under-seen in the West.
A loose, twisted translation of the classic Disney story, 924 Pinocchio finds a lobotomised sex slave cyborg abandoned in a hallucinogenic neo-Tokyo with no concept of his identity. Adopted by a similarly ostracised woman named Himiko, he learns to speak, and even to love, before a strange power is awakened with him that leads him to a bloody showdown with both his adopted mother-lover and his creator.
Set in a vividly-coloured 2064, the future setting of 964 Pinocchio is a departure from the cold, desolate worlds of Fukui’s contemporaries. Blue skies, bustling streets, and an ethereal electronic soundtrack offer an almost utopian spirit to this tangible sci-fi world. But the tragic Pinocchio is destined never to fit in, as illustrated in the film’s most distinguished sequence: in a fit of despair, the cyborg runs screaming through the streets of Tokyo, the camera neurotically cutting and jerking as thousands of horrified real-life onlookers look on.
Through its developed narrative and revised aesthetic, 964 Pinocchio offered a natural progression for the cyberpunk genre, without disposing of the hurricane filmmaking style that made it so intoxicating. But it would take Fukui five years to deliver his next film, a perverse and unpalatable number would ultimately represent a nail in the coffin for the original cyberpunk movement.
Set entirely in a crude, industrial laboratory called The Unit (a clear reference to Japan’s notorious ‘Unit 731’, an experimental research unit responsible for some of WW2’s most heinous war crimes), Rubber’s Lover is a nightmarish exercise in sadism, torture, and BDSM that concludes the cyberpunk movement in a disturbing fashion. While as stylistically emphatic as its prestigious precursors, it pushes the boundaries of taste far beyond what had previously been attempted, foreshadowing the rise of “extreme” Asian cinema and “splatter” horror films like Ringu and Audition at the turn of the century.
Filmed in black-and-white from all manner of disorientating angles, Rubber’s Lover deserves credit for delivering some of the most creative and striking images of Fukui’s catalogue. One scene, wherein a patient is secured to a hospital bed by wired metal headgear, foreshadows the designs used in The Matrix by several years. The spinning eyeballs that flicker on a wall of computer monitors in the background, meanwhile, feel like they are plucked straight from A Clockwork Orange. But despite such artistic flair, the film virtually borders on avant-garde snuff. Scenes of prolonged and violent sexual assault, shot in intrusive and unforgiving close-up, push the boundaries of taste and make for particularly uncomfortable viewing.
A closing scene featuring reels of celluloid video film falling from the ceiling appears to signpost the demise of live-action cyberpunk in 1996. With director Takeshi Kitano winning the prestigious Golden Lion award at Venice the following year for poignant crime drama Hana-bi it was all but confirmed that a different kind of Japanese cinema was now in vogue.
By the turn of the century, cyberpunk had been relegated to the memory of Japan’s thriving indie filmmaking community, now headed by the likes of Hideo Nakata, Takashi Miike, and Takeshi Kitano. After Rubber’s Lover, Shozin Fukui wouldn’t return to filmmaking in any capacity for another ten years. Tsukamoto, “the cyberpunk director”, basically abandoned the movement after the release of Tetsuo and its diminished 1991 sequel-remake (2009 threequel Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, being the only exception). Ishii, though, would return to the genre for one final hoo-rah in 2001 with Electric Dragon 80.000V, a 55-minute pet project that served as a love-letter to the movement he had spawned two decades prior.
A black and white comic-book style caper about a pair of electrically-charged super-heroes in a near-future metropolis, Electric Dragon 80.000V is a blitz of super-charged filmmaking flair that lifts as many cyberpunk tropes as it can handle in its pristine runtime. Many scenes and characters feel satisfyingly familiar. Punk protagonist Dragon-Eye Morrison dwells in a metal-strewn warehouse, discharging the electricity that flows through him by plugging into his electric guitar and noisily letting loose in front of hundreds of bemused onlookers in the streets of Tokyo. Steel-masked antagonist Thunderbolt Buddha, meanwhile, looks as if he’s been plucked directly from the thuggish ranks of one of Ishii’s earliest projects. With a general lack of plot or dialogue, relentless staccato editing, and an armful of light-speed tracking shots, it’s a cyberpunk classic one generation removed.
Electric Dragon 80.000V debuted at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam in 2001 — a feat unimaginable for a film of this style when Ishii started his filmmaking career. But it’s palpably high production values, untainted photography, and comic-influenced animation also represent a departure from the classic cyberpunk texts of the 80s and early 90s. And as the image of Thunderbolt Buddha tracking his rival via GPS on a modern desktop computer confirms, the breakdown of technology (and therefore society) has not taken place, after all; in 2001, Ishii and co’s vision of the future was already outdated.
Somehow it seems almost fitting that, despite their cultural significance, many of these rebellious films remain underground obscurities, banished to the realm of out-of-print DVD copies, midnight art screenings, and foreign VHS imports. But the sonic boom of Japanese cyberpunk can still be heard in all kinds of creative cinema. Cyberpunk laid down the gauntlet for a new kind of filmmaking in the 80s and 90s — one that revolutionised Japan’s industry and allowed it to become what it is today.