ELECTRIC DRAGON 80,000 V (2001)



ELECTRIC DRAGON 80,000 V is a great cyberpunk-SF-rock-electro-madness & weirdness from the unsung great Sogo Ishii – more typically Japanese prime qualities packed in its medium running time than most features can boast! Forget duelling banjos: how about duelling electric guitars? Yep, it's 21st century, after all, and who could be better to announce it but Sogo Ishii?

This is the DVD review of his cult film.

You’d never think that a 55-minute film could be graced with so many extras, but the good people from Discotek are there to prove you wrong – and to put to shame most DVD presentations of feature films. First of all, the film itself is in glorious black and white (anamorphic widescreen), with Japanese audio in 2.0. Stereo, 5.1. and DTS 5.1. and with very good white (but legible) subtitles. Then we come to extras: the usual ones, like chapter selection and trailers (among them is one for Ishii's amazing BURST CITY, already available and already reviewed here), and the REAL extras.

The latter include 'Making of', divided into four chapters: 'Title design' and 'Filming snapshots' contain numerous sketches and photos in an excellent frame stylized like the film itself; 'About the Tattoo Illustrations' merges drawings and text written by Hiroki Mafuyu about his concepts; and finally, there is something called 'Synthesized Images' where storyboards, photos and actual scenes (before and after special effects) are commented (for more than 20 minutes) by Ishii and the visual effects guy. Then you have the 'Interviews' section: it is unnecessarily divided, but contains mostly shots from the film's premiere, press conference and an event two months later, when the film has already become a cult phenomenon (just wait to see the kind of applause Tadanobu Asano gets!). These interviews are also in black and white, in line with DRAGON'S style.

There is also a section 'Final Showdown' – which is nothing more or less than the actual ending of the movie, extracted as the 'real meat'. To top all of this, there's a second disc too: a CD with the 'eardrum-shattering industrial/punk noise soundtrack' by Mach 1.67. The discs are in the usual plastic slipcase protected by the carton one (with different covers! yippie!). All in all: this is the definitive version of ELECTRIC DRAGON to own and cherish!



Country: Japan

Genre: Action / Musical / Cyberpunk

Running Time: 116 min

Director: Sogo Ishii

Cast: Takanori Jinnai, Michirou Endo, Machizo Machida, Shigeru Izumiya…




Story: Set in a barren, futuristic Tokyo of highways and wastelands, a rowdy group of punk bands and their fans gather to protest the construction of a nuclear power plant. Riot police and the factory owner's yakuza friends soon move in to break it up. However, the arrival of mysterious, metal-clad bikers and a revolt among the disgruntled construction crew makes for a situation that spirals dangerously out of control… This description, taken from the DVD sleeve provides far more linearity, logic and plot than can be found in the actual film. BURST CITY is preoccupied more with conveying the energy than with telling a story, so… be warned: this city is bursting with power, but is certainly not plot-driven!

Review: Sogo Ishii is not a film director: he never went the beaten path in Japanese film industry (which is, usually, to start as an assistant and rise from there). Too passionate about his vocation, he was also too impatient to wait, and while still a student he grabbed a camera and went out there to shoot life as he saw it. He found himself in the middle of Japanese punk revolution in which he participated both as a musician (he was a singer and a guitarist) and director of promo and concert videos. His motto was: ''To experience the video not with just the eye and the ear, but to feel it through the whole body.''

Because of that, BURST CITY is not a film: it is a raw, vivid, breathing and bleeding document of an era. At the same time, it is a root of new Japanese cinema. It spearheaded the career of a major director, a pioneer of the 'new wave' of Japanese film, the man who brought the youthful punk attitude and fresh sensibility to the way movies were made. Before Tsukamoto and Miike, there was Ishii. Before TETSUO there was BURST CITY.

BURST CITY is the world's first cyberpunk movie, made in the same year as VIDEODROME and BLADE RUNNER, and predating William Gibson's 1984 novel 'Neuromancer'). Set in an indefinite near future, it presents a world of speed and noise, a world of asphalt and metal, of engines roaring along cold grey highways, of colorful gangs clad in leather and rags MAD MAX-style. It created a typically Japanese brand of cyberpunk in which alienation, discontent and anger are painted against the background of a desert slightly different than that in MAD MAX: it is 'the desert of the real', the spiritual void of contemporary affluent Japanese society. There are no literal, visible ruins: quite the contrary, the apocalypse of the soul has left the industry, office buildings and high-rises untouched. They still domineer the grey landscape, summoning their destruction, inviting dreams of a real apocalypse which pervade so much of Japanese cyberpunk, and genre film in general, from BURST CITY through AKIRA and TETSUO all the way to DEAD OR ALIVE, PULSE and beyond.

Ishii's own two previous films, PANIC HIGH SCHOOL and CRAZY THUNDER ROAD, are the only precedents to BURST CITY: brimming with youthful angst, they are the visual equivalent of punk music. Perhaps too raw for their own good, they are superseded by BURST CITY, because that was his first film with some real budget which provided a room for serious stylization and directorial flair. Ishii's themes, style and direction are showcased at their peak in BURST CITY, and his ideal of ''feeling the movie through the whole body'' is achieved 110%. This is obvious from the stunning opening minutes in which his camera takes a furious joyride down the (mostly deserted) highways, bridges and streets, with their lights turned into beautiful abstract paintings, a SF ambience which needs no robots, space ships or even huge fancy buildings like those in BLADE RUNNER. Rapid-fire editing, non-linear structure and disregard for plot are just some elements of Ishii's style.

Characters are reduced to their colorful image, sketched but never explored: after all, most of them are not even actors but members of the leading punk bands of the time. Instead of any specific person, in BURST CITY Ishii's camera becomes a real protagonist and runs, shakes, drives, and cuts insanely among the people, gangs, cars, motorbikes and cityscapes thus presenting one of the most fascinating examples of the doctrine 'show, don't tell!' His characters communicate their feelings and visions through numerous songs, through action, movement, fight, and Ishii masterfully penetrates their lifestyle and worldview completely abandoning words (dialogue, narration, etc.).

Revolutionary on so many levels, this is a unique and highly important piece of cinema: even if the music is somewhat dated, Ishii's filmmaking is not in the least! BURST CITY is a joy to watch and learn about the real power of cinema to transcend the burdens of literature (words) and theatre (stage) and find unique style of its own, expressing things that no other medium could. Not only the cornerstone of modern Japanese film, BURST CITY is more than a historical document: it is a must-have for any serious lover of film.

DVD [ NTSC, Region 1 ] : Luckily, Discotek's special edition does full justice to the importance of BURST CITY, and presents it in a manner that could hardly be surpassed. Occasional grain and murkiness come from the film's 16mm origins and are part of its appeal: or perhaps you would like your punk movie to be a slick, over-produced big-budget extravaganza? It is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 ratio. Pity that the sound, so important for a film like this, is only in Dolby Digital 2.0, and that some songs cannot be heard loudly and fully. Again, this has to do with the original source material, and it is what it is. This edition really shines when it comes to extras: Tom Mes provides three pages of excellent liner notes, while the disc itself showcases textual background of the film, its protagonists and the whole punk scene. There is also a theatrical trailer, rare b/w stills gallery and soundtrack lyrics (unfortunately, copyright issues prevented the option of having a bonus CD with the soundtrack the way it was done recently with Ishii's ELECTRIC DRAGON: 80,000 VOLTS). Excellent carton case envelops a regular, plastic one (with a different cover) and rounds up this wonderful edition.


THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Book review)

Ethan de Seife

Wallflower Press

(London, UK – distributed in the US through Columbia University Press)



Here's another volume in the Wallflower's Cultographies series of books devoted to cult movies. Of course, the book market is clogged by all kinds of picture books and 'guides' through the highs and lows of cinema, including the despised (but commercially viable) cult, genre, 'grindhouse', exploitation movies. But how many serious attempts are there which not only present an overview of recognized cult cinema, but also re-assess the canon of cult, and its audience? How many of them have to offer anything more than mediocre writing, funny anecdotes and colorful pictures? THIS IS SPINAL TAP certainly belongs to the former category of studies with a serious, scholarly agenda (which, somehow, does not stand in the way of the entertainment and readability).

Like other books in the series so far (THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, by Jeffrey Weinstock and DONNIE DARKO, by Geoff King), this one also uses a specific title to cover much larger ground relevant for its context, and deal with questions like: what is the specific appeal of a cult film? How are cult films conceived, constructed and configured? How are cult films received? What is the place of cult films in culture? Or, as de Siefe himself admits: "Cult films provide perfect opportunities for studying the intersection of enjoyment and analysis. A detailed study of the factors that make such films enjoyable can tell us a great deal about the films' cultural statuses; analysis can and should explain why these films have generated such devoted followings."

After the beginning in which he maps his own introduction to THIS IS SPINAL TAP in a gullible teen age, when the film's central joke of mock-documentary was lost on him (like on so many other innocents who took it for a real thing), de Seife goes on to recount the production, promotion and initial reception, guiding us through the relevant facts but never losing his way in the plethora of trivia. You can learn a lot about, for example, how much was scripted and how much improvised; the misguided marketing (including a poster way too reminiscent of AIRPLANE's, creating misleading expectations!); critical response which was almost universally favorable (a rarity when it comes to cult films!); the various video, laser disc and DVD editions of the film, and subsequent reviews of those; the fan base, including the web sites, blogs and even a band (VINYL TAP!) which pay homage to the movie.

Analyzing the particular type of humor that made the Cult of Tap, de Siefe sums it up: "Not only is SPINAL TAP extremely funny, but it is funny in ways that allow and even encourage its viewers to take part in it. By making a film about a subject (rock'n'roll) that has great meaning for many people, which does not talk down to its viewers and which provides ample opportunities to participate in its central joke, the creators of THIS IS SPINAL TAP have fashioned one of the definitive cult films of all time." The author places the film firmly in its stylistic and generic context of cinema verité style, mockumentary/rockumentary, comedy/parody, musical and rock history. He recognizes the stylistic devices attendant to the genres and styles that THIS IS SPINAL TAP adopts, but also the deviations from those, the reasons for them, and accomplishments thereof. He concludes that the film is predominantly a comedy, not mock documentary, and that each narrative and stylistic choice was made in order to make every scene funnier.

At the same time, the text follows the evolution of SPINAL TAP's music from country-tinged rhythm and blues all the way to heavy metal, pointing to the allusions and references to similar (actual) bands and extensively quoting from SPINAL TAP's outrageous lyrics, which are rightly recognized as one of the main sources of the film's timeless humor. Another time-defying aspect is that this film "parodies not only rock'n'roll, but also the semi-parasitic people and industries that have emerged to promote and valorize it. (...) SPINAL TAP has anticipated and pre-parodied the vapidity of rock star culture, which in recent years has metastasized on global level; such prescience is a major reason for the film's cult status. So cleverly accurate is its parody that, as long as there are rock bands, THIS IS SPINAL TAP will find an enthusiastic audience."

The obvious affection and deep understanding that Rob Reiner and his cast and crew had towards the music played in THIS IS SPINAL TAP is certainly at the root of their film's success. Instead of laughing AT the rockabilly, pop-rock, sympho-rock and heavy metal, they laugh WITH them, making numerous actual groups recognize their experiences even in the film's more outrageous incidents. The viewers were able to feel and respond to that. Hopefully the readers of this book will feel the same blend of reverence and critical attitude that Ethan de Seife shows toward the film he analyzes.

The author provides several thought-provoking figures, like the one showing the rise of numbers of home VCRs in American homes in the early '80ies (proving that the film grew in its cult status thanks predominantly to the video market, unlike, say, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, which created its main cult in the midnight cinema showings). Some figures seem a bit haphazard, like the comparison between the placement, duration and percent of total running time of musical numbers in THIS IS SPINAL TAP and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (the latter being an example of a typical musical). He also adds the appendix: 'THIS IS SPINAL TAP segmentation' which includes the time scale of all relevant events, characters and themes; approximate running time of each scene and song titles present in it. All of these show the seriousness of approach and amount of care which will enlighten even the most devoted followers of the cult of THIS IS SPINAL TAP. Eminently readable for both connoisseurs and the uninitiated, Ethan de Seife's analysis of THIS IS SPINAL TAP can serve both as a great introduction and an elaborate extrapolation.