Ahead of its UK release, the Japanese filmmaker reflects on his anarchic 1980 cult classic, Crazy Thunder Road
It’s been called “the Holy Grail of Japanese film releases”; a founding influence on cyberpunk cinema; and one of the most important works in Japanese indie filmmaking history. But for over four decades, Sogo Ishii’s biker gang battle royale Crazy Thunder Road has been nigh-on unseeable in the West. That all changes on February 21, 2022, when Third Window Films gives this anarchic 1980 cult classic its first physical release outside of its home country. Be prepared – it’s going to be a wild ride.
Set in crumbling concrete ruins in a dilapidated near-future Japan, Crazy Thunder Road is the story of a biker grunt, Jin (Tatsuo Yamada), caught in flux when his gang leader throws in the towel. With the gang left vulnerable to assimilation from their ultra-right-wing rivals, the young thug’s treacherous path is laid out via scorched asphalt and neon lights, with a deafening rock and roll soundtrack guiding his way. The ensuing film captures the warring gangs in all their black leather and blade-wielding glory, as they clash at places like “Battle Royale Square” and “The Death Match Factory” before reaching a climactic bazooka-and-battle-suit showdown.
When we speak over Zoom, Ishii looks stony and lean, wearing a stiff black jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. He recounts his youth, spent hanging out with rock musicians in bars in his hometown of Fukuoka in Southern Japan: “It was the Mecca of rock music around that time,” he says. And while he would move away to Tokyo at the age of 19, this nonconformist background would stay with him thereafter.
Despite enrolling in film school in Tokyo, Ishii wasn’t interested in entering the industry the traditional way. “The punk movement started in 1976 in the UK, and people like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were the same age as me,” he recalls. “They were my main inspirations. In punk, it’s not about technique – it’s about instinct, or impulsiveness… You have to express that by doing something, and for me that was filmmaking.”
Ishii put that mentality into great effect during his studies, shooting the teen anarchy short film Panic High School in 1976, and then co-directing a feature-length remake two years later. When it was time for him to turn in his thesis project in 1980, the young director re-appropriated school equipment to shoot an ambitious, apocalyptic feature film. Crazy Thunder Road proved such a raw and exciting piece of work that major Japanese studio Toei opted to pick it up for nationwide distribution. “I’ll blow away every man in this town,” declared the vengeful Jin in the film’s Mad Max-style climax. The film, likewise, became a counter-culture sensation in cities all across the country.
Ishii’s mentality and energetic filmmaking style were clinical to the film’s success – and so were the subjects on-screen. “[Lead actor] Tatsuo Yamada was the main member of a rock-and-roll musical theatre troupe,” recalls Ishii, “and I heard he was homeless because of his gambling problems... He’s a really wild man. A lone wolf. The real deal.”
Elsewhere, fired-up gangs posture menacingly with their motorcycles and shanks across countless busy scenes in Crazy Thunder Road. Given the film’s student-sized budget, it’s no surprise to learn that these intimidating extras were often not actors but real biker gang members – the events portrayed within the film, as Ishii describes it, becoming more like some “deformed” version of reality. “Motorcycle gangs, or bōsōzoku as we call them, were a big thing in Japan at the time,” he says, describing how police would often try to restrict their movement and culture. “When they’re on their own they can be nice people, but when they become a group they can become really violent. A lot of bōsōzoku were joining the National Front – they were recruiting all the gangs. I kind of twisted that [truth] a little bit to put it into my film.”
This plotline forms the crux of Crazy Thunder Road – but how did the director convince so many hoodlums to appear in his film? Put simply: “We had no choice. I would go… to these biker gatherings to recruit them to be in the film with their bikes as extras – because we didn’t have any bikes ourselves.”
There’s also the setting: with looming factories, Day-Glo graffiti, twisted metal wastelands and great, grey dust clouds, it is the post-industrial setting of Crazy Thunder Road that provides so much of the film’s atmosphere. This vivid look would forecast the dystopian aesthetic of the cyberpunk genre that emerged in the decade thereafter in films like The Terminator, Akira, and Tetsuo: Iron Man. But while many of the Japanese films of the genre were understood as anxious commentaries over Japan’s booming economy and striking techno-proficiency, Ishii claims that his vision developed from something much more personal. “It was too neat, too orderly,” he says, of the great megalopolis of Tokyo. “I found it uncomfortable to live with. I started longing for like junkyards and industrial wastelands – I find those kinds of locations so beautiful.”
One of the most prominent locations used in the film, then, ended up being a petrol complex that was used to shoot scenes full of sparks and fires. “I wasn’t really thinking at the time, but it was so dangerous now that I look back.” Fortunately, for the film’s sake, nobody told 23-year-old Ishii otherwise. “There were only four of us,” he says of the minuscule crew he’d assembled. “I don’t think anyone thought we were shooting a film!”
The film’s soundtrack is as riotous as the audacious title would suggest – from the incendiary guitar riffs that punctuate the film’s neon title sequence to the spaced-out dub and feverish proto-punk heard thereafter. Much of the music used would foreshadow Ishii’s emergence as a music video director in the years that followed, as well as the completion of his apocalyptic punk feature, Burst City, in 1982. But it was also this very aspect that would halt Crazy Thunder Road from international distribution for over four decades.
“The main problem with Japanese indie films from that era is the music rights,” says Third Window Films’ Adam Torel, who took on the unenviable job of clearing the film’s music in order to release the film. “It’s the reason why great films by Ishii like August in the Water and The Crazy Family can’t get out there.” And while he claims it wasn’t necessarily a complicated process (rather, just a relatively expensive one), he also emphasises the rigidity of the copyright system in Japan. “Read up on JASRAC (The Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers),” he tells Dazed over email, pointing to an article published by The Asahi Shimbun in 2019. The opening paragraph describes how a housewife who took violin classes at a music school for two years was later revealed to be a spy dispatched by Japan’s largest copyright body. “They’re like the yakuza for music,” Torel concludes.
Ishii’s name would have been far more prominent in the West if these issues had been easier to resolve (Quentin Tarantino did, at least, hail him in the credits of Kill Bill), but as a godfather of Japanese cyberpunk cinema his place in history is untouchable. Though even this aspect of his legacy might have been more evident if a pair of abandoned projects from the 90s had gotten off the ground.
“There were two films I was going to make with William Gibson,” Ishii says, referring to the visionary cyberpunk novelist whose 1984 book Neuromancer would later become a major influence on The Matrix. One of those, he says, was New Rose Hotel, based on a short story set in the same universe as Neuromancer. “The project was cancelled because some actors were attached before I started, and I really didn’t get on with them.” He smiles when Dazed asks who they were – but doesn’t budge. The film was eventually completed by King of New York director Abel Ferrara in 1998 – it starred Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Asia Argento.
The second abandoned project sounds even more fascinating: “I can’t really remember the details,” Ishii says, “but it was going to be called Cyber Cowboys.” More than just a great title, it would have been a goth rocker’s wet dream: “I was going to cast Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave from the Bad Seeds, and Peter Murphy from Bauhaus,” he says, pointing towards associates from his leanings into the music industry.
While these ideas were left on the back burner (or, perhaps, at the bottom of a scrapheap), the director continues to deliver provocative work in Japan today. With titles like Angel Dust, Electric Dragon 80.000v and Isn’t Anyone Alive? among his later highlights, the chameleonic director insists that his next project – now in post-production – won’t disappoint “It’s three hours long,” the director says, excitedly. “And it’s like a psychedelic version of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, where the film crew, including myself, become the cast.”
“It’s quite different from Crazy Thunder Road,” he concludes – but that’s really beside the point. As long as Sogo Ishii’s motors are revving, there’s always a reason to strap in.
Crazy Thunder Road is out February 21, 2022 via Third Window Films