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RAW POWER

‘Electric Dragon 80000V’

by Mark Schilling

Electric Dragon 80000V

Rating: * * * Director: Sogo Ishii Running time: 55 minutes Language: Japanese
Now showing

What should rockers do when the paunch starts to sag over the jeans and the gray hair starts to glint in the spotlights? Have some self-respect and stop shaking that wrinkled booty, says rock critic John Strasbaugh in his new book “Rock ‘Til You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia.”

Masatoshi Nagase and Tadanobu Asano in “Electric Dragon 8000V”

Rock dinosaurs will never listen, of course; there’s too much gold in them thar stadium tours. Still, Strasbaugh, a middle-ager himself, has a point.

Film directors would seem to have it easier: They can play the enfant terrible long after the shag cut gives way to the comb-over. But though older filmmakers can keep shaking it on the screen, they can’t keep faking it forever. Sooner or later, nostalgia takes over — just ask Oliver Stone.

Sogo Ishii, once an indie wunderkind for such films as “Koko Dai Panic (Panic in High School)” (1976) and “Kuruizaki Thunder Road (Crazy Thunder Road)” (1980) and now on the far side of 40, has resisted the pull of the past better than most. If anything, he seems to be turning back the clock. In last year’s “Gojo Reisenki (Gojoe),” his reworking of the Yoshitsune and Benkei story, he made the camera swoop, glide and jump as though it were an Olympic gymnast wired on an exotic new performance-enhancing drug. And his ending — a battle royal on a bridge — was straight from a worlds-colliding “Dragonball” cartoon. The film was a disappointment at the box office (even kids can only take so much sensory overload), but it solidified Ishii’s position as a cutting-edge filmmaker, even though he is at an age when he should be watching his cholesterol.

The film under review, “Electric Dragon 80000V,” was a sort of warmup to “Gojoe.” Shot in three weeks in February 1999 using black-and-white film and a small cast, it is less a mini-feature than a 55-minute punk-rock video, with a throbbing, whining, screeching soundtrack by Hiroshi Onogawa and Ishii himself, and a story as in-your-face simple as an arcade battle game.

The two protagonists — or rather antagonists — are like game characters that have, not personalities, but a list of attributes (power rating: 80,000 volts). Dialogue is minimal, while the voice-overs, by a narrator who sounds as though his day job is announcing pro wrestling bouts, are accompanied by captions in jagged “electrified” script. Meanwhile, the cuts fly by like images from an acid trip.

Though it seems to bypass the cerebral cortex entirely, “ED8″ (as Ishii abbreviates it) is saying more than it lets on about humanity’s love-hate relationship with technology. It has been a long, troubled passage from electricity to electronics, from Frankenstein’s dreams of conquering nature to the modern realization that we are slaves to, as well as masters of, our electrified inventions, as they insinuate themselves into not only our lives, but our souls.

The obvious comparison is with the films of Shinya Tsukamoto, such as “Tetsuo (Tetsuo: The Iron Man)” (1989), “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” (1992) and “Tokyo Fist” (1995), in which man merges with machine and the id takes a brutally violent holiday.

While Tsukamoto’s work boils with a dark rage direct from the collective unconscious, however, Ishii’s is more ironic, cerebral and — let’s face it — nostalgic. Even punks become middle-aged and misty-eyed about the icons of their childhood: in Ishii’s case, lizards, superhero shows and electricity as a metaphor for ultimate power. Throw the switch, Igor — the moment has come!

Tadanobu Asano stars as Ryuganji Morison, a loner in leathers whose twin obsessions are electricity and lizards. Struck by lightening when he was a boy — a charge that overstimulated his medulla oblongata, or “lizard brain,” he has become a human bolt from the blue who plays the electric guitar with a frenzied intensity and charges himself up, Frankenstein-style, on a specially built pallet. Powered down, he is a gentle sort who ranges the alleys of Shinjuku looking for lost iguanas and cares for a large collection of reptilian friends in a flat that looks like an abandoned warehouse.

His unusual talent attracts the attention of Raiden Butsuzo (Masatoshi Nagase), an electrician who specializes in repairing antennas and other rooftop hardware, but whose true calling is freelance avenger. Using sophisticated electronic tracking gear, he zeroes in on gangsters and others miscreants and dispatches them with a blow from his supercharged rod.

Like Ryuganji, Raiden was fried by lightening as a child, but while Ryuganji remained normal — outwardly at least — Raiden was left with only half a face. He covers the damaged half with a metal Buddha mask that gives him the sinister look of a half-man, half-statue (which doesn’t bother his clients — perhaps he only shows them his good side).

Seeing a rival in Ryuganji, Raiden decides to terminate him with extreme prejudice. Ryuganji, however, is no pushover, even though Raiden has a bigger power supply. One day Ryuganji comes home from a hunting expedition to finds his lizards dead — zapped by that rat Raiden. All hell breaks loose — and the city’s power grid nearly blows — as Ryuganji pumps himself for the big showdown.

A selection for the Midnight Madness section of this year’s Toronto Film Festival, “ED8″ is a black comedy for hipsters and works well on that level, though it overstays its welcome. Asano and Nagase, both familiar faces on the indie circuit, resist the urge to camp it up (Asano better than Nagase), while giving their characters the right dry comic spin. Meanwhile, Ishii inserts wry touches, such as the shots of fat, smirking iguanas that pepper the film — reminders of where we came from and where we may well be going.