As the cult classic is re-released in the UK, we catch up with the ‘godfather of cyberpunk cinema’ to discuss a lightning-in-a-bottle movie like no other
In a monochrome metropolis marked by dark alleys, jagged aerials and rumbling storm clouds, two electrically-charged warriors prepare for the ultimate face-off.
Snakeskin-trousered and spiky-haired Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer) is Dragon Eye Morrison – a boxer and reptile whisperer subjected to electro-shock therapy after suffering electrocution atop a pylon as a child. Masatoshi Nagase (Mystery Train) is his nemesis, Thunderbolt Buddha – a mysterious, half-masked stranger who wields electricity with nefarious intent. Across 55 minutes, a blitz of screeching guitars, provocative camerawork and neurotic editing provides a full sensory explosion, as man and mains collide in Electric Dragon 80,000v.
It’s one of the most singular and emphatic works in the history of Japanese indie cinema. And this March, the 2001 cult classic is restored for re-release in the UK via specialist distributors Third Window Films, the first of two titles celebrating renegade filmmaker Gakuryū ‘Sogo’ Ishii – the “godfather of cyberpunk cinema”– this month (Punk Samurai follows next week).
“I was quite fragile around that time,” Ishii tells Dazed via an interpreter. “Quite down, and mentally unwell.”
The Japanese auteur had suffered his fair share of disruptions since his career kicked off in the late 70s, and just prior to the turn of the century a passion project was about to go tits up. He was supposed to direct The Box Man, he says – an adaption of the book by renowned author Kōbō Abe (Woman in the Dunes), about a man who descends into madness while living in a cardboard box with cut-out holes for eyes. “The set was already made in a studio in Germany. But the day before shooting was due to commence, it was cancelled due to lack of funding.”
The director was left downbeat and frustrated, but found salvation when a producer named Takenori Sentô came knocking. Sentô had just had a hit with the 1998 horror sensation Ring and was keen to encourage Ishii to keep going, so he offered to fund a new film. “The budget would be low, but I could make any film that I wanted,” says the director. “It was the first, and only, time in my directing career that I had total control of a film.”
The opportunity arrived at an interesting time for Ishii. After making an impact on Japanese audiences with films like the 1980 bōsōzoku battle royale Crazy Thunder Road and 1982 punk dystopia Burst City, Ishii stepped back from feature filmmaking in the mid-80s to concentrate on avant-garde concert films and shorts. He’d then re-emerged in the 90s as a different kind of filmmaker altogether, maturing in style to deliver deep, philosophical art films like August in the Water and Labyrinth of Dreams. There was a reason for his change in approach: “I could have done anything when I was young, and it would have been forgiven… but I wouldn’t be forgiven a second time.” Still, the buzz of that reckless and spontaneous filmmaking of his youth never faded: “Those aggressive, punk-ish films,” he says, “they’re the films that I always wanted to make.”
Inevitably, Electric Dragon 80,000v would be a carnival of mayhem that harked right back to those early days. It boasts an unforgettable, extroverted visual style, with violent jump cuts, disorienting dolly zooms and intense graphic animations supplying a volatile energy, as cameras trawl crumbling back alleys strewn with cables, concrete and collapsed air con units to provide a desolate realism. In its most vivid moments, the film descends on Tokyo’s lively pedestrian areas, with no apparent forewarning to the public. Ishii recalls how Asano barged into the crowds, wailing on his guitar like a man possessed in improvised scenes seemingly included purely for the vibes. “Surprisingly, the people completely ignored us,” he says. “It was like they were trying to avoid making eye contact.”
These weren’t the only troublesome moments of the shoot, which took place at the height of winter, when Japan was at its coldest. “It was freezing,” Ishii says. “And most of the scenes were shot at night, so it was really hard to film. In fact, the cinematographer got really upset, and said ‘I’m never going to work with you ever again’. And he didn’t – not for a very long time.” Ishii stifles a chuckle. “I felt really sorry for all the crew and the actors because I made them stand on the tops of these buildings in the freezing weather. And they just had to do it. I couldn’t say anything apart from… ‘sorry!’.”
‘Most of the scenes were shot at night, so it was really hard to film. In fact, the cinematographer got really upset, and said ‘I’m never going to work with you ever again’. And he didn’t – not for a very long time’ – Sogo Ishii
No less vital to the film’s striking visual signature is the stark, monochrome colour scheme. Combined with larger-than-life characters and elements of fantasy, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to Japan’s mid-century tokusatsu (“special effects”) productions, like Ultraman and Godzilla. But in fact, inspiration was derived from elsewhere.
“I love black-and-white films from the silent era,” Ishii says, “and when the silent films started to have sound alongside them.” He describes great German Expressionist films like Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr Mabuse, and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr – the macabre horror classics of the 30s. “They’re beautiful and fantastical,” he continues. “They sort of blow my mind. I can completely immerse myself in those kinds of films, they have that kind of power. That’s why I wanted to make [my film] like this.”
Despite all the incredible visual flair, it was another facet of the film that was the most crucial to the film’s conception. “The most important thing was for it to have an amazing sound,” says Ishii. “And for the film to be led by that sound.”
Of course, the director had just recently formed an industrial noise band called Mach 1.67 with his long-term musical collaborator Hiroyuki Onogawa (August in the Water). And Electric Dragon 80,000v’s star, Asano, was on the drums. No surprises, then, that they’d be responsible for the film’s amped-up score: an ear-splitting ruckus bent on a cacophony of metal, electricity, and white noise. The sonic potential was maximised when Ishii upended to a state-of-the-art mix studio in Hollywood to work on the film’s sound editing. “I’ve always been in bands, and the live experience is something you can’t really achieve in cinema,” he says. “But here, you’ve got this live-feeling surround sound… In my opinion, there’s nothing like this film that exists anywhere else.”
Upon its release, Electric Dragon 80,000v was a hit at Japanese indie cinemas. It played at film festivals like Berlin, Rotterdam, Toronto and Busan, too. But it never reached mainstream success overseas; it was far too intense and iconoclastic for the normies, and it bore a ridiculous title and a completely unorthodox presentation and runtime. Instead, it was picked up by an anime-focused DVD distributor in the US for a brief run in the early 00s – but it’s long since been banished to the realm of myth and memory after going out of print. Things might have been different if Ishii had got his way.
“I had always wanted to make a sequel, with a bigger scale,” he says, describing his disappointment. “I’ve already got a script in hand.”
Ishii lays bare the sequel that never came to be: “The story begins when you connect the guitar to the amp, and everything connects into a world of electricity – a cyberpunk kind of place.” He name-checks John Carpenter’s post-apocalyptic cult film Escape From LA and continues. “I’d bring back all these characters from my old films, like people from Crazy Thunder Road and the psychic soldiers from [1983 short film] Asia Strikes Back. The buddha man from Electric Dragon 80,000v would be in it, but he’s no longer the half-buddha man – he’d become the full buddha man. And then maybe the ghost of Jimi Hendrix, or Jim Morrison, too. They’d all go into the cyber world connected by the guitar amp, and we’d shoot it somewhere in South East Asia.”
It would have taken a huge budget, he laughs – something on a scale equivalent to Apocalypse Now, or at least Mad Max. He knows it sounds spectacular: “I’ve always got this delusional thinking going on in my head. It’s like a kind of mania.”
But his dreams still haven’t been completely dashed, and of course, Ishii is still creating provocative work today: see eclectic period action-comedy Punk Samurai, for proof. His next film, meanwhile, is a three-hour epic starring himself and his own film crew, titled Self-Revolutionary Cinematic Struggle (“it’s like a psychedelic version of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2”). So, who’s to say that this long-lost sequel might not still happen one day? The director signs off with a call to arms:
“If I could find a producer interested in making Electric Dragon 1,000,000v,” he says, “I’d be very happy to hear from them.”