Two of the wildest, most stylish films from Japan in the past few decades clock in at only an hour or so. One is Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man, with more jammed into its frenzied 65 minutes than many films muster into two hours. The other is Gakuryū Ishii's Electric Dragon 80.000V, only slightly less frenzied but every bit as exuberant and heedless. It's also more fun to watch; it's like a indie manga come to life, complete with scratchily drawn animated intertitles and low-fi effects. And it's loud. Really loud.
The punk meets the electrician
When "Dragon Eye" Morrison (Tadanobu Asano) was a kid, he climbed an electrical tower, mostly just to see what was up there. A shock sent him plummeting to the ground, and he suffered brain damage that left him with poor impulse control throughout his childhood. He beat up other kids, and his reward was ECT. As an adult, he became a boxer, but lost his license when he raved out of control. His reward: more ECT. Now he lives in a basement apartment with foil insulation on the walls, and ekes out a living as a pet detective. At night, he shackles himself to his bed. But when the pressure inside him becomes impossible to contain, he straps on an electric guitar and discharges the eighty thousand volts pent up inside him as a wall of noise.
"Thunderbolt Buddha" (Masatoshi Nagase)'s history is a mystery: he's a silent, jumpsuit-clad figure, half his face hidden behind a Buddha mask, speaking with the aid of an electric voice box. He roves around Tokyo in his equipment-jammed truck., fixing things like malfunctioning satellite dishes and compulsively scanning the airwaves for cell calls. In his gadget-lined lair, he experiments with stun guns, which he then goes out with under the cover of night and uses to take down neighborhood evildoers. But his inhuman side is taking over, and there are days when the left side of his body literally doesn't know what the right side is doing.
Of course these two are doomed to collide. Worse, Morrison has far more buttons to be pushed than Buddha does. At first one of Morrison's pet lizards goes missing, then turns up dead; then his precious guitar is found neatly dissected. Enraged, Morrison charges out into Tokyo's night streets to summon all his electrical powers to defeat Buddha, and the two slug it out in a rooftop battle that stands at least as much of a chance of shorting out Tokyo wholesale as it does leaving one of them a victor.
The loudest silent film ever made
No, the story isn't really the point. It's mostly an excuse to give two actors (and a director) with style to burn a place to burn it. But what style, and what a burn. Asano was still a young rising star at the time, and it's easy to see here why he turned heads: he's charismatic just standing there, doubly charismatic in a role that demands physicality. I wasn't a fan of the scenes where Morrison wails on his guitar for minutes on end, but Asano (who himself was a co-creator of the movie's blasting noise-rock soundtrack) throws himself absolutely headlong into it, so much so that the martial-arts stuff he whips out at the climax almost seems a step down. Nagase is not as physical an actor — his roles are mostly about detached cool and scruffy cynicism — but his role here is mainly about body language and facial expressions, the latter being twice as challenging since he only has half a face to work with.
A fair chunk of Gakuryū Ishii's movie career has been shorts, from the mini-features he made as a college student to the wild little projects he made between feature films like this one. Ishii shot Dragon the same year as his psychedelic samurai feature Gojoe, and it could be thought of as the inverse spiritual brother to that one. Dragon is a mere hour to the other film's two-plus; it's in speckled black-and-white where the other is in lush, moody color; and it's a riotous, rock-scored romp where the other movie is a moody mini-epic with a neo-ambient score. Plus it has two of the same key actors, Asano and Nagase, in roles that reverse their dynamic from the other film. And I also liked how its tiny budget (a fraction of Gojoe's) meant its effects are endearingly primitive, as when Ishii shows Tokyo suffering a brownout by simply speeding up and slowing down the film to make the images brighter and darker.
Not long ago I watched a couple of silent film classics, The General and Safety Last!, and they both reminded me of one of the subtle hazards of an art form gaining a greater range of technical options: when you gain some things you lose others, and you often don't realize what's lost. A movie where you can tell everyone what's going on is often not as interesting, or fun, where you can show it. Showing things requires more creativity, more actual moviemaking. Despite the dialogue and explanations (mostly in the beginning), Dragon is basically a silent film — it's all about how things and people move and look, and how fun it can be to lean on that in a story until you have it bearing up the entire weight of things. It just also happens to be the loudest silent film ever made.