Eisenstein, Frankenstein and Tetsuo walk into a bar… Not quite, but Electric Dragon 80.000 V gets most of the way towards a bizarre blend of effects and styles in Gakuryû Ishii’s superhero mash-up, 55 minutes of entirely wordless stark black-and-white imagery with all the action set to a relentless punk thrash.
How’s this for an origin story, dealt with in the opening minutes – young boy climbs up a pylon and receives a massive electric shock, recovers but grows up as a problem kid being given repeated doses of electro-shock therapy. Eventually, Dragon Eye Morrison, as the IMDb tells us he’s called (there are no on-screen clues), throws off his shackles, gives himself a few jolts of volts, then escapes from the confines of his cell, picks up an electric guitar and, thrashing away like a thing demented, heads out into the city. Ishii, meanwhile, montages together shots of overhead wires, cabling, electricity meters spinning out of control, scudding clouds and lizards.
Morrison wears trainers, black snakeskin pants, a scrap of a T shirt and a lot of hair gel. He looks good, in a rock’n’roll way.
Up comes a caption – “Enter the challenger: Thunderbolt Buddha”, a half-man half Buddha creature (see picture for details) and a battle royal commences.
That’s the entire film – a quick origin, some guitar posing, electricty and a massive fight payoff. Ishii, who was going by the name Sogo Ishii at the time but was born Toshihiro Ishii, built his reputation as a director of kinetic, punk-inspired epics such as Crazy Thunder Road (1980) and Burst City (1982), and is back on familiar territory for this workout. He shot Electric Dragon 80.000 V back-to-back with the more traditionally feauture-length Gojoe, using the same two actors – Masatoshi Nagase and Tadanobu Asano – neither of whom are called on to deliver acting of surgical subtlety. This is a mosh. Nagase you might remember from Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Asano turns up all over the place – in Scorsese’s Silence, in Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe now and again as Hogun.
The manga-inspired tokusatsu movie is a Japanese creation. Intensely relying on physical effects (think of the killer driller penis in Tetsuo), it piles on quickfire grungey imagery with the aim of getting a reaction – both “wow” and “ew” count as a win.
Here, Ishii adds in the montage style of Sergei Eisenstein, creating meaning through the juxtaposition of images, throwing in low angles for disorienting effect and sparks of electricity because high voltage is the name of the game – plot and style.
The music is by MACH-1.67, Ishii’s own industrial punk noise outfit, and it thrashes away at full throttle, pausing only for a pop-video interlude – in what is essentially an extended pop video to start with – during which Dragon Eye Morrison flails away at the guitar in an attempt to build up enough rage to take on the half-man, half-Buddha, a villain whose split nature means he’s also at war with himself.
The finale is a big dick showdown. You only have 80,000 volts, Thunderbolt Buddha taunts Dragon Eye Morrison, whereas I have millions. And into a faintly Matrix style big finish we go, Morrison’s arms moving in a cheapskate mockery of bullet-time speed (so fast it’s slow) as he attempts to thwart his nemesis.
Throughout, no words are spoken, nor are they necessary. Which, among other things, raises the question of the talkiness of so many other superhero movies, and why they rely so heavily on chat, when they’re billed as action movies.
It’s exhausting but brilliant. And it was a total flop that bankrupted its producers, Suncent Cinema Works. Undeterred, Ishii took up teaching to help keep the wolf from the door while he continued making films. Two years later, in 2003, he was back, with Dead End Run. A maverick well worth checking out.
Electric Dragon 80.000 V – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023