Gakuryū Ishii's Crazy Thunder Road is like a gourmet meal someone made with two rocks and a cup of water, and it still tastes good somehow. Shot with little more than pieces Ishii scraped together from his buddies at college and the help of musician Shigeru Izumiya, it's had near-legendary status among fans of underground J-cinema, or "jishu eiga" ("self-made films"), in big part because it was all but unavailable outside of Japan due to licensing issues. Now Third Window Films in the UK has delivered a proper Blu-ray Disc release, and seeing it reaffirmed my appreciation for how so many movies substitute money and marketing for ingenuity and passion.
You go your way, I'll go mine
The Maboroshi ("Phantoms") gang has fallen on hard times. This tightly knit biker crew once tore up and down the highways and low-ways of a near-future Japan, a little substitute family holding out against the rot and rigidity of the rest of the world. Now their leader, Ken, has plans to leave the gang life and settle down with his girlfriend Noriko. The only thing like a successor to the gang is the fiery, don't-give-a-damn Jin, who resents Ken's drift towards conformist normality, and the implication that they too should follow suit. What's life for if not to raise hell?
Jin's breakaway group includes Yukio, a mute misfit with a broken jaw hidden behind a metal half-mask (shades of Mad Max, one of the movie's many clear inspirations), and the quiet Shigeru, who clearly needs a leader of some kind to follow. Jin's far more inclined to crack the heads of the rivals he's supposed to be buddying up with, much to the chagrin of Ken and the rest of the group.
Into the picture steps Takeshi, the former leader of the Maboroshi, now an officer in an ultrarightist faction. He has an avuncular compassion for all of them, but he's most sympathetic to Jin and his crew than Ken and what's left of that gang. Jin hasn't forsaken his fire, and isn't content to just live like one of the herd. People like him, Takeshi believes, just need direction and discipline. Jin tells Takeshi to take a hike, and becomes resentful when the more experienced man's help saves their skins when one of the rival factions kidnaps and tortures Yukio to death.
In time Jin gravitates to Takeshi and his crew of Rising Sun fascists, just as Shigeru (ever in need of a strong guiding hand) did before him. But it doesn't last: Jin would rather throw himself back at his enemies, even if it means one of his few remaining friends ends up beaten half to death and he himself is left a cripple with one hand and one foot chainsawed off. With no other path open to him, Jin screws on a hook hand, wraps himself in body armor, arms himself to the teeth, and goes off to massacre both the fascists and the other gangs, now united against him.
An epic on a shoestring
Right from the beginning of his career, Ishii made the most out of the least. His first film, Big Panic In High School, was shot while he was still a film student using campus resources. Crazy Thunder Road had a similar genesis, and the end result was wild and stylish enough that Toho put it into theaters. It helped that a major collaborator on the film was Japanese alt-rocker Shigeru Izumiya, who provided both the raucous music and the improvised production design (duties he repeated on Ishii's next micro-budget mini-epic Burst City).
Road plays almost like a prequel to Burst City; one can imagine the anarchy hinted at throughout Road exploding into its full-blown counterpart in the later film. Ishii populated the movie with actual bikers and shot in a variety of found locations — abandoned factories, construction sites, ruined neighborhoods — all giving it the flavor of a world sliding into chaos, if not already there. A more expensive movie would have tried to invent all this stuff from scratch, and might not have looked anywhere nearly as credibly grubby. Ishii just went out and found it. The vast majority of the budget clearly went towards the eye-popping, car-flipping, heroic-bloodshed climax, where a helmeted and kitted-out Jin goes up against the rest of his world with a pump-action shotgun and a belt full of pistols.
All this amazing energy and frenzy comes at a couple of costs. Some of it is narrative clarity: there's a couple of stretches of the movie where it isn't always clear who the current gang of goons sides with, or to what end — although Jin and his thirst for freedom and life on his own terms always comes through. And while sometimes the low budget means Ishii's realization of his vision basically means wrapping the set in tinfoil, its sheer vigor and ambition outpace that.
I've covered much of Ishii's career here: Burst City, the explosive power of Electric Dragon 80.000V, the Jodorowsky-meets-Kurosawa intensity of Gojoe, the unclassifiable Punk Samurai Slash Down. We're still missing significant slices of his career in English — his very first feature Panic In High School, his outlandish domestic-disintegration drama The Crazy Family, his postfeminist serial-killer trance film Angel Dust, his other meditative features like August In The Water and Labyrinth Of Dreams. Having Crazy Thunder Road at last fills in one of the biggest gaps, and one of the wildest.