by David Robson
There was a time when Tadanobu Asano was known in the United States as “the Japanese Johnny Depp.” But this shorthand, quirky as it once was, was never adequate to really capture Asano’s range, which has seen him play a number of roles for some of Japan’s (and the world’s) finest filmmakers. Capable of displaying quiet tenderness and flamboyant menace, exhibiting an endless placid calm in one movie and electric violence in the next, Asano has essayed roles as disparate as the psychosexual gangster Kakihara in Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer, a withdrawn librarian in Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, Genghis Khan in Sergei Bodrov’s Oscar-nominated Mongol, and an Asgardian adventurer in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor.
It is absolutely fitting that such an artist is being feted next week as the Guest of Honor at the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco. And it is completely fitting that Asano’s opening night appearance at the festival should accompany a screening of Sogo Ishii’s Electric Dragon 80000V (2001), easily one of the most energetic, wild, offbeat, creative, and just plain insane movies ever graced by an Asano performance.
Asano is utterly cool as Dragon Eye Morrison, who, as a result of a childhood accident with a power cable, has floods of electricity coursing through his veins, which can only be safely discharged through noisy electric guitar solos. His lizard-brain turbocharged by the energy within him, Morrison spends his days seeking lost lizards through Tokyo’s busy streets, and soon finds that he’s being stalked by a mysterious nemesis in a metal Buddha half-mask (Masatoshi Nagase, matching Asano for straight-faced cool).
That Ishii should hit the screen with a movie this loud (and please be assured, this movie was made and mixed to be played loud) is no surprise. Ishii, after all, singlehandedly began an influential strain of Japanese cult cinema firmly rooted in punk music and aesthetic, not to mention a healthy dose of manga’s cartoonish pop energy; his first true feature film, Crazy Thunder Road (1980), was a favorite of Takeshi Kitano. But after a decade-long hiatus Ishii returned to feature filmmaking with a slew of mysterious and unsettling movies that were as quiet and menacing as his early works were brash and colorful. The dark and edgy crime opus Angel Dust (1994) and the dreamy, black-and-white romantic thriller Labyrinth of Dreams (1997) suggested that Ishii had matured well past his punk years.
Happily, Electric Dragon 80000V shows that Ishii remains as joyously riotous as ever, and gloriously balances his vibrant punk aesthetic with the refinement and focused intensity of his later work. The nearly nonstop score by noise group Mach 1.67 (of whom Ishii and Asano are members) is rife with noisy guitar solos, but lays out streams of tribal, psychedelic percussion and dub bass that maintain the movie’s pulse during its quieter moments. And longtime Ishii collaborator Norimichi Kasamatsu, the director of photography whose black-and-white treatments of rural Japan housed such gorgeous menace in Labyrinth of Dreams, works similar magic here, rendering both frenetic mayhem and static shots of the Tokyo landscape with dreamy, monochrome clarity. Every shot of this movie is frameable. And at 55 minutes the movie doesn’t waste your time, nor does it leave you wanting more. Ishii and company pack an insane amount of detail into its novella-length running time, and manage to hit all of the beats of a Marvel superhero movie several years before that template had even been established. Yet the movie manages to layer in aspects of classic cinema, with even its eye-popping title cards (calligraphed by Ishii, Asano, and Nagase—clearly the whole movie is the dedicated effort of a small team of devoted maniacs) bridging a gap between the silent cinema of yesteryear and the punk scene of right fucking NOW.
Which is more than enough overview. This is a cult movie in the finest sense: one that is much beloved by its fans, and best shared communally. Given the amount of hands-on work and personal investment that Asano put into the movie, it wouldn’t surprise me if he chose it for next Friday’s program. That the Japan Film Festival sprung for a 35mm print (and are highlighting this aspect of it in their publicity) is nothing less than a gift, to the movie’s longtime fans, to Asano’s admirers who have yet to see it, and to the city of San Francisco. With Japan’s cult cinema now dominated by too many cookie-cutter movies offering deliberately crude CGI, primitive irony and winking but un-fun sleaziness, Electric Dragon 80000V stands tall as the real deal, marked as such by its handmade electricity, its artful grace, the considerable charisma of its leads, and the glorious stupidity and sensuality of its freakishly high volume.
Rounding out the program: what is sure to be a marvelous live DJ performance by world-renowned techno DJ Ken Ishii, boosted by visuals courtesy of veteran anime artist Koji Morimoto (of Memories and The Animatrix fame), presented by J-Pop Summit. The whole program begins at the Castro Theatre at 8pm on Friday, August 7th. Advance tickets can be bought here.David Robson holds a degree in theatre from the University of Virginia. He is the editorial director at Jaman.com, a website that offers a smarter search for new movies to watch online. David blogs irregularly at the House of Sparrows, but is often too busy seeing movies to write about them.