The films and the fury of punk moviemaker Gakuryu Ishii

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

Last year’s release of “Blade Runner 2049” and this year’s Netflix series “Altered Carbon” have rekindled interest in the futuristic cyberpunk aesthetic, though those works were decidedly more “cyber” and less “punk.”

Punk is meant to be raw, gritty — easily identifiable as do-it-yourself. The polished sheen with which “Blade Runner 2049” was presented was visually stunning, but there’s something rebellious in imperfection.

Cyberpunk took on a somewhat different form in Japan with more body horror elements, and much of it was influenced by filmmaker Gakuryu Ishii, who until 2010 was known as Sogo Ishii.

Ishii’s directorial debut came in 1976 with “Panic in High School,” but his break came in 1982 with “Burst City,” a film in which a fictional nuclear power plant was protested by real punks. The Stalin’s Michiro Endo and Inu’s Machizo Machida (now known as novelist Kou Machida) were among the musicians who appeared in the film.

The National Film Center in Tokyo is currently holding a series of screenings to celebrate Ishii’s body of work. The two-week event, titled “Directed by Gakuryu Ishii: His Own Selection,” is set to screen 16 movies including earlier pieces such as “Crazy Thunder Road” (1980) and “Angel Dust” (1994), as well as more recent films like “The Flower of Shanidar” (2013) and “That’s It” (2015).

Though a slew of Japanese filmmakers and American director Quentin Tarantino have cited him as an influence, Ishii’s work has never received much mainstream attention. The 61-year-old director tells The Japan Times that his style of “depicting extraordinary experiences” is not something that major film companies have been eager to embrace. That’s OK, however, because streaming platforms have stepped in to present experimental filmmakers like himself with new ways to get their work seen without having to compromise on vision and without the grueling conditions and declining budgets that plague many film studio-backed productions.

“My new stuff is coming out via a streaming service,” Ishii says. “I think that’s why I am able to be as experimental as I am with it, I’m not being forced to change my style.”

The director is referring to a project he is currently working on titled “Punk Samurai Slash Down,” which is based on a novel by Machida from “Burst City.” It’s being planned and produced with help from NTT Docomo’s dTV streaming service, but is also scheduled to see a cinematic release on June 30 via Toei.

Ishii was still finishing “Punk Samurai Slash Down” at the time of this interview, but remained positive that he’d be able to retain his avant-garde aesthetics while making it entertaining enough to appeal to a wider audience.

“To put it simply,” he says of the film, “it’s unpredictable and eccentric.”

Before you assume this punk is in the pocket of Big Tech, however, Ishii says there are still a few obstacles to getting noticed — mostly due to algorithms based on viewing habits.

“When using a smartphone or computer to watch content, you — and I include myself in that — tend to limit your scope, prioritizing things you already want to watch or know about,” he says. “You also tend to ignore or dismiss important information when it is given to you by accident. That cycle is just … it’s very boring.

“Accidentally stumbling upon films I’ve made, I wouldn’t expect everyone to like them … but I’d like those people to give them a chance. It’d be great if they thought, ‘I didn’t know about this … it’s different.'”

Among the films being screened at the National Film Center, one that today’s viewers may find “different” is “Crazy Thunder Road.” Its biker aesthetic is a forerunner of sorts to Katsuhiro Otomo’s highly influential cyberpunk anime “Akira,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. If, however, you were going to catch just one thing at the retrospective, it would be worth seeing “Burst City” — a must-see on the big screen.

“My current challenge is getting those who watch my films on their smartphones or computers to come to the theater,” says Ishii, noting the double-edged sword of gaining popularity on Netflix and YouTube.

“Watching a film is about dedicating an hour or two to experience all the detail, but I feel that’s becoming too much of a time commitment for people,” Ishii says. “It’s very important to be in an atmosphere in which you can use your entire body and soul for a full two hours to feel things that are violent, or delicate — things that we tend to forget about in our daily lives but shouldn’t.”

Since 2006, Ishii has been teaching film production at Kobe Design University, and he says he often impresses on them the importance of the cinematic experience. Millenial-age Japanese, however, are not known for their rebelliousness — especially when compared to their peers from the raucous era of student protests in the 1960s and ’70s when Ishii came of age.

Does Ishii see any hint of a “punk rock spirit” in his students?

“Yes,” he replies with confidence. “I agree that many of them are very genteel on the surface, and they may be too embarrassed to speak out and be different … but they still want to express themselves.”

Does that mean punk isn’t dead?

“Punk is a spirit inside of you, that desire to do or create something different — even though it’s increasingly difficult to have such a desire,” he replies. “Still, the younger generation is expressing that desire in various new ways, so I don’t think that spirit has ever really changed.”

“Directed by Gakuryu Ishii: His Own Selection” runs through March 25 at the National Film Center in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. Single film tickets cost ¥520, with discounts available. For more information, visit