Spotlight on Japan: Electric Dragon 80000 V

While I’m worried about Japan’s recovery from the terrible earthquake and tsunami, I can do nothing but continue my daily routine that consists of watching films and reading. I was looking for something that would set my senses on fire and something that would go together with my need for escapism. As I was going through my DVD collection I spotted Sogo Ishii’s Electric Dragon 80000 V. Watching it a month ago was one hell of an experience as it is certainly one of the most baffling and polarizing films I can even think of. It is practically a screenplay full of camp value played completely straightly with a noise soundtrack and bizarre characters.

Sogo Ishii is best known as the director of punk cinema from the 70’s and 80’s. His independent films have impressed and inspired numerous contemporary directors in Japan, most notably Takashi Miike. During the 90’s he took a completely new directorial approach that has created many fascinating but underseen results. Basically Electric Dragon 80000 V is about two men who were struck with electricity as kids – which left them with an unstable personality and deadly powers. Both of them are dangerously obsessed with electricity and pain, but initially they manage to keep it under control. The conflict between the two characters is never given a tangible reason, but we are left with the impression that it is about jealousy.

It is certainly a gripping cinematic depiction of frustration, obsession and rage, but Ishii tries to desperately mix that with a pretentious and pseudo-philosophical take on the human nature itself. The references to mythology and religion are not necessary when the film could thrive incredibly well as a mere assault on senses. With names like Dragon Eye Morrison and Thunderbolt Buddha it’s hard to believe that the film is serious, but Ishii doesn’t let the actors make it funny. Getting magnificent actors like Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase must be quite challenging on its own, but not even letting them have fun with the campiness of the script is one insane trick and for that I respect Ishii greatly. The end result is surprisingly entertaining and quite hilarious during the climax.

Given Ishii’s attempt to make the film more than it needs to be, the writing is a bit disappointing. However Ishii redeems the film with a mighty form that is quite unlike anything else I’ve seen. Menacing black and white photography, innovative editing and loud noise soundtrack – created by Ishii’s own band, Mach 1.6 – come together as a truly explosive cinematic experience. To truly appreciate its sound design and soundtrack you need to turn your volume as high as your ears can endure – and possibly even beyond that. The visuals are striking on their own, but you really need the strong sound to immerse yourself fully. This is where Ishii also stumbles: the film can even be a bit damaging for your ears if you ever wanted to experience what he originally intended. The pacing is also quite wonky at first, but the climax is so epic that it is easy to forget problems like that – especially in a film which is only 55 minutes long.

Electric Dragon 80000 V is a film that doesn’t sit well with any traditional rating, like the 3-star rating I gave it out of formality. It is certainly not for everyone and even I feel a bit puzzled by it. In terms of pure entertainment value it’s great, but Ishii doesn’t manage to make most of it for that. Right now I admire the film a lot as it managed to “wake me up”. I felt like I was going towards a cinematic burn out – a state in which no film could satisfy me or keep me interested. I’ve had them once in a while and I was certainly feeling like that in the past few days, but with a loud bang and a touch of electricity Sogo Ishii has made me a passionate film buff again. For that, I feel obliged to write more about this film.

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About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (johlauri@hotmail.com), Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

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