Electric Dragon 80,000V: Limited Edition Review
When he was a young boy, Morrison (Asano Tadanobu) was involved in an accident as he climbed a pylon: hit by thousands of volts of electricity his body began to conduct high voltage levels that would lay dormant until he was provoked into unleashing his anger. Now known as “Dragon Eye” Morrison, a reptile investigator, he prowls the streets of Tokyo looking for lost lizards, while he satisfies the dragon rage in his heart by rocking out with his electric guitar in order to release pent up energy. By night he straps himself into a custom bed, which sees to it that his electric discharges don’t take over his body and send him on a rampage. When an evil TV repair man known as “Thunderbolt Buddha” (Nagase Masatoshi) arrives on the scene, armed with a special power suit and plans for destruction, Morrison finds himself drawn ever closer to him. An epic battle looms over Tokyo and the city’s future can only be determined by one of these men.
Electric Dragon 80,000 V can so easily be likened to Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo; hell it has been. It’s even been said that it borrows heavily from said feature. Fact of the matter is is that without Sogo Ishii we might not even have Tsukamoto. These are people who have redefined what cinema entertainment is and should be. While Tsukamoto was breaking out with his heavily stylized and genre defining features, Sogo Ishii was taking a break from the norm (comparatively speaking) and dabbling in much more reflective pieces and television work. The likes of Burst City was long behind him. It wasn’t until around 2000 when he filmed Gojoe that he went back to his low-budget independent roots and simultaneously began production on Electric Dragon 80,000 V. Filming back to back, both of these pictures featured cult actors Asano Tadanobu and Nagase Masatoshi and both opened to little fanfare, failing to make back enough money and seeing to it that their production house was left in tatters. However disastrous the repercussions Ishii was at least left with the knowledge that he had made two great films, both of them sharing other similar traits, such as a rockin’ soundtrack from Ishii and Tadanobu’s band Mach 1.67 and plenty of feverish action. For my money, however, Electric Dragon 80,000 V is the better of the two; a glorious and inventive production that achieves so much in the space of one hour and has that most important quality of being replay-tastic. Ultimately Electric Dragon 80,000 V generated quite a cult following and remained popular on the independent circuit for some time after its release.
So with talk of comparisons out of the way, Electric Dragon 80,000 V is an exquisitely beautiful film in a sort of grimy, urban way, in which black and white proves to be perfectly complimenting; although funnily enough Sogo Ishii originally contemplated shooting in colour. Ishii has managed to take the wild energy of Burst City and place it in a different setting: the narrow alleyways of Tokyo; the glorious open rooftops and some of the more eccentric locales, such as Morrison’s apartment. When the sun goes down flashes of brilliant white neon light up the streets, and there isn’t anything else like it, it just works. Electric Dragon 80,000 V is like a well drawn comic book; each scene is carefully planned, each shot a perfect panel that needs no words to convey its emotion. Seeing is believing and when you do see it you will believe that a man can generate tens of thousands of volts of electricity from his bare hands, with such dazzling thunder-strikes on display and an array of equally impressive additional effects. We have the familiar speed editing and optical illusions; at one point Ishii edits Asano in a scene that practically mimics Bruce Lee’s now famous invisible hands from Enter the Dragon. His influences are there alright, but most of it is unmistakable stuff from the director, with beautiful compositions and such fine attention to detail.
As you’ll already have gathered from the synopsis - which is basically the entire story from beginning to end by the way - Electric Dragon 80,000 V is fairly simple at heart. It has some basic elements, mainly character driven stuff that pertains to the obvious, being of a philosophical nature as it explores the awakening of the dragon inside some of us. Therefore it equally has very little in terms of dialogue, although what there is happens to be extremely manic and rambunctious. The film is narrated infrequently by Japanese pro-wrestler Masakatsu Funaki, who rallies off a series of furious exclamations such as “He talks to the animals, he’s the man!” and other random gestures that grab our attention and force us to take in another loony round. With its narrative flushed down the toilet, then, the feature relies on other means: a series of fabulous flash titles, designed by Asano Tadanobu which back up Funaki’s zany expressions and turn the film into something even more abstract. In addition Ishii wonderfully uses cartoon humour to generate a few good laughs: people falling down stairs, hands that control their owner - a la Dr. Strangelove - and Asano’s guitar magically finding (or flying even) its way into its owner’s hands in the middle of a busy street. But not even they prove to be the sole reason as to why this is so insanely good. What really enlivens it and gives it such poetic justice is the killer sounds of Mach 1.67 and Hiroyuki Onogawa, in conjunction with Yoshiya Obara’s cunning sound design. Mach 1.67 was formed when Asano and Onogawa worked with Ishii on Labyrinth of Dreams in 1997, with Electric Dragon 80,000 V signalling the perfect opportunity for them to pair up again. The multi-talented Asano - armed with his custom waling banshee of a Jazzmaster - fronts a literally thundering score that jolts through Ishii’s masterpiece from beginning to end, once more depicting the director at his creative peak as he fuses music and imagery together, embracing true cinematic experiences.
We’re then left with performances from two of the best actors of their generation; two incredible lead men who don’t really act here, they just cool instead. Asano and Nagase cool about on screen for fifty five minutes. Yes, you read that correctly – They cool. It’s something I just made up but it works here because these actors exude coolness like Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr, Steve McQueen and James Dean, or Yusaku Matsuda and Ken Takakura. But how you define performances such as these? Asano is perfectly cast as the titular hero; he’s slight of frame but a complete demon, and when we see him going crazy with his axe (that’s guitar to all those rockers out there) we can sense a huge part of him that’s truly and sincerely immersed in what he’s doing. Nagase as Thunderbolt Buddha is also a lot of fun. His role isn’t anywhere near as intense but he does pull off the comic shtick well and overcome the bizarre half-Bodhisattva mask to bring us a suitable rival for Morrison to square up against. Their eventual confrontation leads to some highly physical work on both parts, the fruition of an intense build up that sees the film all too quickly reach its conclusion, before inviting us back for seconds.
Please note that the Limited Edition is now out of print. The links I have provided are for the single disc edition which retains all other extras. If you are still unsure then e-mail Amazon and DVD Pacific to confirm stocks first. Otherwise you may be able to find other online retailers stocking this edition. Good hunting.
Discotek has put out what is arguably their finest release to date. This limited edition comes with two discs of Electric Dragon goodness, the second being a CD soundtrack which we’ll get on to shortly. Looking at the menus for the disc it seems as if the company has lifted every aspect from the Japanese release, for example the menus have original kanji, but with generated English translations over each segment.
Unlike the director’s older 16mm jobs Electric Dragon 80,000 V is a quite clean piece of film. Although I can’t pinpoint what he used for shooting - though it’s likely several different cams - there’s very little in the way of grainy textures. Ishii still captures a gritty angle, but it’s all so perfect. He’s a master of the glassy eye and it seems that he adores everyone and everything that passes through it. So it’s great to see that Discotek has sourced their material from the Japanese DVD release, which is quite impressive indeed. Ishii’s gorgeous use of black and white has been lovingly mastered on disc, featuring deep blacks and superb shadow detail and grey scale tones. Contrast levels are also quite brilliant and detail is pleasing throughout. The only draw back here is that the transfer is interlaced and I suspect that the Japanese disc also suffers from this. A teeny bit of edge enhancement is also noticeable, though more strictly on roof top antennas for example.
Electric Dragon 80,000 V also features two magnificent audio tracks: Japanese 5.1 Surround and Japanese DTS, along side a more subdued stereo track. Considering that the film was optimised for DTS that’s the option I’ve gone with. Quite simply it’s astounding; a highly aggressive track that’s perhaps best suited to those who live out in the middle of nowhere. This is loud and powerful, with great directionality and some of the most kick-ass guitar sounds that I’ve heard in a long time. Of course not everyone will dig it; it’s very experimental and might be just considered as noise, but if anything it’s a passionate sonic affair. Equally Yoshiya Obara’s sound design is given lovely treatment and proves to be a unique and compelling addition to the overall product. Electric Dragon 80,000 V is littered with little nuances amongst the far more punishing stuff and they creep in well at various points, with some nice rear action (please don’t read that the wrong way). Dialogue - although there’s very little - is well taken care of, with Funaki and Asano’s raging tones being a real highlight as they take us through each chapter, along with confrontational scenes.
Optional English subtitles are also included and I’m pleased to report that there are no errors.
Accessed from the main menu, oddly enough, is a nice collection of bios for various members of the cast and crew. On the staff front we get Director Sogo Ishii, Producer Takanori Sento, Cinematographer Norimichi Kasamatsu, Editor Shiuchi Kakesu, Tattoo Designer Mafuyu Hiroki, Visual Effects Supervisor Nobuaki Koga, Rerecording Mixer Masayoshi Okawa and Sound Editor Takamatsu Ogawa. Asano Tadanobu and Nagase Masatoshi are found in the cast section.
Split into four segments, accessed individually from the sub menu, things start off with “Title Designs”. Here we see Asano Tadanobu’s wild sketches, which are large, bold kanji given some twists. They show various actions belonging to his character and Nagase Masatoshi’s, along with main credits designs. Each one has also been given an English translation at the bottom of the page. Following on from that we have “Filming Snapshots” which consists of ninety nine stills, ranging from black and white to colour. This is your typical collection, showing actors and sets and behind the scenes; the colour designs are quite interesting because we get to see how both actors looked, with Nagase’s striking gold Buddha mask standing out. Next is “About the Tattoo Illustrations”. This contains a series of designs for Asano’s dragon tattoo and begins with a text based introduction from Hiroki Mafuyu which then moves on to each design (eight in total) and explains the way in which each one evolved from the last. Finally we have “Synthesized Images” (22:31) which is basically a set of storyboards narrated by Sogo Ishii and Editor Shuichi Kakesu. They explain the decision to shoot on black and white film and talk about the various special effects and techniques and how they’re complimented by B&W. The storyboards are comprised of live stills, some of which are then shown as moving images while Ishii describes applying the optical effects, amazingly through Photoshop. Things get quite technical from here but it explains a lot, especially the budget and how the film was shot with digital effects being added later and the amount of time it consumed in doing so. With film development halted for a year it gave the editor a bit of time to test things, but working with analogue is an arduous task as he explains. There’s a lot of other ground covered, such as morphing techniques and trying capture realism, using blue screen and the advantages of keeping specific frame boards for reference.
This takes us into another sub menu which contains five sections that are accessed individually. “Formal Press Release” (3:36) takes us to July 2001 for a special screening in which Sogo Ishii, Asano Tadanobu and Nagase Masatoshi are in attendance; as soon as the latter enter the women go absolutely wild for the two heartthrobs. The footage is quite poor, shot in black and white but largely out of focus and very shaky. The director and actors give brief introductions before exiting stage. Next we have “Takenori Sento Interview” (9:32), which sees the film’s producer sit down and talk about wanting to make Electric Dragon 80,000 V alongside Gojoe. He’s asked about using multi channel sound and how DVD played quite a large role as it was just surfacing. He’s also asked about the decision to use black and white, with comics and old classics being major inspirations, along with making it such a short story, to which he gives some very good responses. Using American techniques to better the Japanese movie experience is also touched upon.
“Asano Tadanobu Day” (5:49) takes place in Sept 2001 for another screening of the movie where he’s assaulted by the screams of more excited women before taking time out to answer some questions. He’s presented with various props from which bring back fond memories for him, including the guitar that he designed. It’s clear that he has a lot of passion for the movie. “Nagase Masatoshi Day” (8:21) runs in much the same fashion, with the actor greeting a lot of fans and leaving some messages. He’s very soft spoken and laid back and provides very brief answers for everything. He seems strangely spaced out as he stares at a small megaphone in his left hand, while he talks through the mic in his right; I’m not sure if he’s on something or if he really doesn’t want to be there. The questions aren’t very interesting and the conductor seems to be more interested in showing Nagase stuff that he’s broken in the past, but at least the actor offers a nice gesture to a fan at the end.
“Other Interviews” (14:29) takes place in Oct 2001 for another screening of the film. This time we have on stage director Sogo Ishii, musician Hiroyuki Onogawa and producer Takanori Sento. The threesome get through a lot of questions, with Onogawa starting things off by answering questions from a fan who asks him about how he goes about composing and what tools he uses. He provides some insightful answers for enthusiasts, with Sogo Ishii joining him for some fun discussion on working together, including a very funny side story on Asano’s snake-skin pants. Takanori Sento is next up, where he talks about music, but it ends up becoming a discussion between all three participants. Soon they’re surprised when toys based on the Electric Dragon characters are presented to them and then we hear discussion on a sequel for the film in addition to turning it into a series, but they end up going off on a Cutie Honey tangent. Things conclude with talk on Asano’s guitar scenes. This is easily the most entertaining interview on the set; filled with a lot of humour and a great sense of comradery between all involved.
An odd one, this. It’s just the final confrontation between Morrison and Thunderbolt Buddha, while Mach 1.67’s “Electric Buddha” plays over the top. Fun if you’re just after replaying this section, but not necessarily an essential extra.
Trailers for Electric Dragon 80,000 V, Burst City, Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs and Lupin III: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy finish off the disc.
“Electric Dragon 80,000 V” Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
As if all of those other extras weren’t enough Discotek throws in the film’s amazing score, built up of punk and rock anthems. There are seventeen tracks in total to enjoy, but unfortunately there is a major one missing. The film’s signature theme “Electric Buddha” is omitted, presumably due rights issues. The trouble here is that it’s such a brilliant, energetic track and I’d wager that it’s one most people want to hear on the OST. However, for those truly intent on completing the soundtrack, like me, can find it on Mach 1.67’s single “Star Burn”, which is available on Japanese import. Check out the likes of CD Japan and Amazon.co.jp.
So, a perfect score and many you may be wondering how I could rate a film so highly when it lacks so many things. It does gloss over a lot but in all honestly they’re incidental, trivial, totally insignificant factors. Electric Dragon 80,000 V is as basic as you can get but what it lacks in, well, a script, it more than makes up for with unrivaled bouts of energy, enthusiasm, kick-ass wailing guitars, two amazing performers going completely mental and more technical flair than most directors half of Ishii’s age today could dream of achieving. This is hardcore entertainment; an awesome achievement in film making which will pummel your senses in ways that very few films can, and once you’re done I defy you not to sit down and take it all in again.
I’m done. Rock out.