Some may look at the 55 minute running time and be put off - maybe that’s the advantage of growing up watching Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, or even classic Hollywood second features, as you’re used to watching a film that’s barely an hour long and as a result recognise the virtues of a shorter running time: the film packs in everything it needs to say and do so without bloat or boredom.
And don’t doubt for a moment that bloat or boredom ever enter into the 55-minutes that is Sogo Ishii’s Electric Dragon 80,000v.
After years of electroshock used to curb his childhood violence, Dragon Eye Morrison (Tadanobu Asano) has his reptile brain fully turned on and is able to control electricity. Discovering the curative power of violent guitar playing he lives as a reptile detective, only Thunderbolt Buddha (Masatoshi Nagase), who has similar powers, leads Morrison a frustrating reptilian chase ending in a bang on the rooftops of Tokyo.
The first thing that strikes you is that this is a glorious fucking transfer. It’s a beautiful print, absolutely delicious in the clarity of its black and white images in the way that almost no modern films are; silent films, those best-preserved, look like this and it’s a beauty to behold. And the angles, the camera looking up at the young Dragon Eye Morrison as he climbs an electricity pylon, are vertiginous and visually compelling. It's a superb opening to a film, one that is then underscored by its sheer economy of narrative, using visual repetition and motifs to show us Morrison’s road to adulthood. The style of this economy is as compelling as is the black and white photography, and visually you are in a for a treat because Electric Dragon 80,000v delivers a dynamic feast for the eyes, and aurally, too, so that all I can say is make sure you play the film loud through speakers it deserves (my old Tannoy floor-standings were one of my best investments ever and here deliver in spades). Because if anything Electric Dragon 80,000v is a film that deserves to be experienced. I say that precisely because you’re not in for subtle storytelling or nuanced character, this is no bad thing, because Ishii provides 55-minutes of powerful cinematic visceral impact.
Here the running time to me feels very, very important because like Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, length really, really matters. This may be budget but the reality of the film is that it hits the perfect length. Less would have been unsatisfactory and more would likely have been less, would have undermined the impact through unnecessary repetition. Yes, I said early on the film repeats images but this is visually exciting, it’s repetition as style not repetition as superfluity.
Instead, Ishii carries the film forward with stylish camerawork and a soundtrack that often pounds and pulses with rock energy while also being careful and considered. The very beginning of the film is eerily reminiscent of Lynch’s Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me, with the shots of electric wires and buzzing, but also Thunderbolt Buddha - just as Morrison has a rock soundtrack, he has a more subtle percussive musical score that follows him. As such the film is very much one that matches style to sound. You also feel that Ishii recognises, like Tsukamoto does, how silence can be enormously powerful, as can be stillness in amongst the kinetic cinematic energy. This is no small matter because it stops Electric Dragon 80,000v ever feeling like some long music video, as opposed to a genuine cinematic entity. Add to this how both Morrison and Buddha have their soundtracks and their visual iconography. Buddha, with his face half buddha image, half human, often calm then brought to violence, though in his case most often used to fight crime; Morrison, leather clad forever moving, reptilian in his sliding movements throughout the city.
And here Asano really deserves plaudits. True, Asano is lucky bastard because he has always had that cinematic magnetism that allows him to be still and yet hypotonic. I think I first saw him in Kitano’s Zatoichi, or was it Tsukamoto’s Vital, I don’t know (who cares? Actually, I do) but in both he commands the screen without needing to do anything, so always compels you. He's also excellent as Dragon Eye Morrison, who often is searching through the worst alleys of Tokyo after reptiles (and damn how I love shabby corners of cities - it must seem like a questionable fetish, but it is those who don't that are the strange one I think. These are hidden, ordinary corners deserving of focus... ahem, anyway...). So Asano balances the excess with the stillness, the perfect leading man.
The best thing to do with Electric Dragon 80,000v is not to read about but watch it. Films like this often feel to me like a trap: is it as good as you’ve heard or is it just that not enough people have seen it to tell you it really isn’t worth it?
Do I have issues with the film? No, but watching Nagase as Buddha he reminded me a little of Shinya Tsukamoto and suddenly I wished Tsukamoto in that role. Now that would have been something, possibly something different... something I shall just have to imagine.
Subtle drama Electric Dragon 80,000v isn’t. Dynamic cinematic dynamite is it.
Watch the trailer here.
Oh, and the beautiful artwork you see as the film opens, that's Asano's.