Common sense dictates that any film featuring the line “He conducts electricity! He talks to reptiles! He’s the man!” is bound to be good. But there are certain elements that separate the good from the great, and director Ishii Sogo has brought them all to Electric Dragon 80000V. Tadanobu Asano looking for lizards in the back streets and sewers of Tokyo? Masatoshi Nagase as the coolest half-deity assassin you’ve ever seen? A soundtrack so loud that it could turn your neighbours homicidal? It’s all there!
Before we go on, there’s one thing we should probably get straight: watching this film will give you a headache. Whether it’s a good headache or a bad headache will probably depend on how you view the film. Some will see it as the ultimate triumph of style over substance – a completely insane fusion of sound and vision that will, quite possibly, melt your brain with its sheer volume and crazy ideas. Others will see it as a 55-minute film that’s about 48 minutes too long – boring, no plot or character development to speak of, and a soundtrack that is nothing more than just really, really loud noise (and bad noise at that). Either way, have the aspirin on stand-by!
One of the first things you notice about Electric Dragon is that it’s a great looking film. The excellent black-and-white cinematography is on show right from the start, with a close-up of a bead of sweat on a boy’s face just before he gets electrocuted (climbing up a live electrical tower does have its downside), and later with a great depiction of the backstreets of Tokyo, as well as the pulsing movement of the cityscape. Japanese calligraphy sometimes flashes up on the screen to move the story forward or to emphasise the dialogue, adding an almost comic-book feel.
If the visuals are the first thing you notice, the soundtrack is what you’ll remember long after the final credits have rolled. Mach 1.67 (Ishii Sogo’s band, in which Tadanobu Asano also features) and Hiroyuki Onogawa have probably contributed to a lot of burst eardrums with this fantastic effort, which ranges from distorted wailing guitar music to industrial punk rock to other things that I wouldn’t even know how to describe. Suffice it to say that the soundtrack (and the sound design, which features much sizzling of electricity, as well as lizard noises aplenty) is integral to the success of the film – it’s pretty much what the entire film is built around.
Another strength of this film is its cast – Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase are both in top form here. Asano plays Dragon Eye Morrison, a “reptile investigator” who spends most of his time tracking down lost reptiles in the heart of Tokyo. Being electrocuted as a child gave him electrical powers to the tune of 80,000 volts, but also awakened “the part of the brain inherited unchanged from our reptile ancestors”, giving him the ability to communicate with reptiles, while also unlocking an urge towards uncontrollable violence. After years of electro-shock treatments and a brief career as a boxer, Morrison is saved by his one and only outlet (pun intended): the electric guitar (or, perhaps more accurately, GUITAR!!!), on which he habitually thrashes out wave after wave of unbelievably loud, distorted, feedback-drenched music.
But what is a man imbued with strange electrical powers without some kind of nemesis? And here we get surely one of the greatest villains ever to grace the screen: Thunderbolt Buddha (Masatoshi Nagase) – half-man, half-Buddha, all cool! Struck by lightning as a kid, Thunderbolt Buddha possesses an intimidating 2-million volts of electrical goodness, which has somehow resulted in him becoming half-man, half metallic deity. In contrast to Asano’s somewhat edgier character, Nagase portrays a man who exudes a controlled and calculating calmness, with the notable exception of the occasional schizophrenic episode in which his metallic half tries to beat the living snot out of his human side (if you’ve never seen a half-man half-Buddha beat himself up, this is your chance!).
Now this is where we get to the plot, so pay attention or you’ll miss it. For reasons that are never really clear, Thunderbolt Buddha orchestrates a conflict with Morrison, leading to an inevitable showdown. And that’s about it. Sure, there’s a subplot involving a yakuza who spins his phone around like a pistol (with an appropriately goofy swishy noise) but it doesn’t really add up to much. Let’s be honest – this is not a film you see for its great narrative.
Sure, Electric Dragon 80000V is missing a few things – plot, character development, and about 30 minutes of runtime if you compare it to a “normal” feature film. But that’s just it – Electric Dragon is not a “normal” film, nor was it ever meant to be. To judge it by those standards is to miss the point. This is not a film with a coherent and well-written story, with characters that grow and change. This is a wild, bizarre, experimental beast of a film, where music and vision fuse to create an experience that, one way or another, you will never forget. Get the aspirin out, turn the volume up and enjoy!