Electric Dragon 80,000 V (2001) by Sogo Ishii

A blend of cyberpunk and superhero movie, “Electric Dragon 80,000 V” follows Dragon Eye Morrison (Tadanobu Asano), a guitar-playing, reptile loving man with an unusual talent: following electro-shock therapy for violent behaviour as a child, Morrison is now able to conduct electricity, and refocus its energy. City lights flicker as he saps the power from around him. He has a job as an animal detective, looking for reptiles, in particular an iguana that has gone missing. He also plays guitar, able to focus his chaotic abilities into music. Things turn nasty when another man with electric powers, Thunderbolt Buddha (Masatoshi Nagase), appears on the scene; with an unspecified vendetta against Morrison he will go to any lengths to ensure a highly-charged showdown with our hero.

“Electric Dragon 80,000 v” is a tongue-in-cheek cyberpunk superhero story. It strips away philosophical concerns regarding humanity’s future and their place in the universe, evolution  and the coming machine world or digital singularity. Instead it plays with many of the tropes of the genre in an entertaining way. The plot is wafer thin, essentially the build-up of two challengers culminating in a final glorious showdown, but at under an hour in length the premise does not have time to outstay it’s welcome. Everything in the film revolves either around Morrison or Thunderbolt, there are no subplots or side-characters to distract from the frenetic energy and punk style. Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase give great performances. Although there is little dialogue shared between them for the majority, they embrace the wild, raucous tone of the film.

 Shot in black and white, with high contrast between the flashing lights of the city and the dark shadows, the film has a sleek aesthetic while also capturing the chaos of a world overrun with pylons, cables, and urban sprawl. The story’s comic book feel, with a hero and villain narrative, is heightened by the use of narration, flashes of electric-style font, and close-ups or cutaway inserts. Cyberpunk has always been a genre in which directors can show off their skills, and here is no different. Sogo Ishii uses everything from speeded up sequences, overlays, digital and practical effects, and shots from almost every angle to establish a tone that grips the audience from the beginning with its frenzied energy. The rock-metal soundtrack by Ishii’s group MACH-1.67 does a superb job of conveying a sense of pent-up aggression and the surging electric currents that symbolise it.

At times the film feels like a simple homage to earlier cyberpunk works, using many of the same techniques and even borrowing more than a few ideas, such as the machine-man duality and the idea that technology, in this case electricity is both a great and terrible force. However, the film rarely labours these themes, presenting them visually without the need for further explanation, perhaps in understanding that they are well worn ideas. It simplifies its message to the point that it stands as both an prime example and celebration of many things the movement as a whole tries to convey. The idea that Morrison was a troubled youth and given electro-shock therapy harks back to notions of government control, rebellious youth and the limits of personal freedom; while the concept of electricity coursing through his veins represents themes of potential, either for good or bad. Morrison directs his energy towards playing guitar, while Thunderbolt uses his powers for evil. This dichotomy is starkly drawn here and the film builds up both characters and their final confrontation in an entertaining way. Morrison’s love for animals, alongside his love of music, also shows he has a connection to the physical world unlike his counterpart who appears to be allowing the machine to take over.

Rubber’s Lover (1996) Shozin Fukui

In a secret laboratory a team of scientists are experimenting on humans in an attempt to produce psychic abilities. Their experiments take the form of a Digital Direct Drive, a machine that plugs directly into the brain, and uses ‘ether’ to provoke a psychological response. Given the unreliability of their current operations their experiments are often more a form of torture leading to death than viable scientific enquiry. Motomiya (Sosuke Saito) injects his rival scientist Shimika (Yota Kawase) with ether in an attempt to steal his research. He is helped by another scientist Hitotsubashi (Norimizu Ameya) and lab assistant Akari (Mika Kunihiro). Kiku (Nao), who is auditing the company’s books, comes downstairs to see what is happening and is raped by Motomiya, who seems to have gone insane. Motomiya soon regrets his decision as it seems the high dose of ether given to Shimika and his connection with the machine have created a monster that he cannot control.

“Rubber’s Lover”, written and directed by Shozin Fukui, is a prime example of the cyberpunk and splatter-horror genres. Drawing heavily on traditional horror – the mad scientist working on a creature – and melding it with an industrial aesthetic, it creates a nightmarish world of flesh and metal that is emblematic of the wider movement. Shot on 16mm, the black and white square aspect ratio induces a sense of claustrophobia with the chiaroscuro lighting obscuring and enhancing the special effects by helping to inflame the imagination. The film uses shots of industrial buildings, inexplicable metallic constructs looming against a pale sky, to create an atmosphere of harsh modernity. The sets are dressed to create a confused technophobic tangle of wires and screens, with the addition of some interesting ideas, such as the monitors showing close-ups of eyeballs, or the giant equipment for injecting ether (akin to a pneumatic drill). Shozin Fukui’s direction shows a flair for the genre, with camera angles carefully chosen to create a sense of unease, or to keep things fresh and engaging. There is also a clear desire to create backgrounds with a sense of movement or mesmerizing imagery, either by including flickering monitors, animals, or the large post-modern artworks on the wall of Kiku’s office. The soundtrack to the film, provided by Tanizaki Tetora, is a mix of industrial scrapes and echoes, seeming to evolve naturally from the visuals of pipes and machinery. Later it also includes tribal drums that serve as a reminder of the atavistic nature of humanity, despite technological advancement.

The plot of “Rubber’s Lover” includes many interesting elements. Firstly, the concept of human experimentation, something that is a mainstay of horror cinema, and may have dark echoes of Japan’s own past in relation to war time atrocities. The film leans heavily on the notion of experimentation as torture, going so far as to have one victim’s head explode after being pumped with ether. The film also has themes of drug-use and abuse, with Shimika becoming addicted to the ether as it appears to expand his mental capacity. Such discussions around drugs are far from the mainstream, but absolutely in keeping with the anti-conservative agenda of the film. This is a film that emphasises the ‘punk’ in cyberpunk, outrageous in its depictions and brutal in its conclusions about corruption and where society is heading.

Tamaran Hill (2019) by Tadasuke Kotani

Hinako (Hinako Watanabe) is struggling to write a personal introduction for her job seeking applications. She lost her mother at a young age and lives with her father and younger brother. Her teacher tells her simply to create a character and write about that version of herself instead, suggesting some ideas based on current popular literary trends. While at a bookstore, Hinako finds a book called “Tamaran Hill”. Amused by the title (“Tamaran” (unbearable) being her father’s favourite curse word), she purchases it. The book tells the story of a man who lives on Tamaran Hill and further delves into the potential origins and meanings of the name. As Hinako reads she is carried along on a journey that leads through time, history and fiction, to comprehend the significance of this name and this word.

Based on a script by Shinobu Tsuchiya, and directed by Tadasuke Kotani, “Tamaran Hill” is an unconventional film. Many of the shots are of Hinako reading this book as she slips into her visualisation of the story, or historical reveries as she discovers references to this place in various texts. Shot in black and white and with changing aspect ratios, the framing and cinematography from Kosuke Kuramoto is wonderful in its abstraction of the everyday. Whether scenes of the tangled mass of train tracks, buildings and powerlines that comprise the modern city; the delicate historical recreations; or the stylish dramatisations of the “Tamaran Hill” novel, everything is framed with precision and seems infused with significance. At moments the film will use illustrations, or photo stills, that sit comfortably alongside the artistic style of the filmed segments. Hinako Watanabe is excellent in the lead role, as a girl attempting to find herself, to discover her inner will and a sense of identity.

A curious work about the search for meaning and identity in a world that is full of ambiguity. Early in the film we see a robot helping to carry the teacher’s bag and the use of data analysis to predict literary trends. This hypermodern, computer-led world is in stark contrast to the literary world that Hinako delves into, one that is full of meaning yet without clear quantitative answers. Her visit to the bookshop captures the joy of personal discovery that bibliophiles will be familiar with: that of being surrounded by a cacophony of voices, and having that power to choose your own path. The film perfectly depicts that sense of exploration in delving into a new book, not only reading the book but also unlocking something within yourself at the same time. Hinako is able to lose herself completely in this world that is at once ambiguous, yet bursting with life and meaning, and find in it the courage to see herself and develop her own identity. She comes to understand that every life is different, just as everyone’s experience of “Tamaran Hill” is unique, and that the important thing is finding her own truth.

The Insect Woman (1963) by Shohei Imamura

The film tells the story of Tome (Sachiko Hidari), a girl born to a poor farming community in 1918. Tome’s upbringing is unconventional and difficult as she finds it hard to break away from the same problems of her parent’s generation. The story then moves to the second world war which finds Tome working at a factory, having children as she tries to lead a normal life. Post-war Japan sees Tome finding work in the city at a brothel. Tome’s life is packed with misfortune as she sees the worst of Japanese society.

The film deals with many difficult issues such as incest and prostitution and we see a shift from rural to urban focus in society, as people move from the countryside to find work, though still with the same sins and desires permeating and driving the characters. The film is well-written and we get an insight into the protagonists life and outlook through Tome’s interactions with a variety of characters, from family to colleagues. Fantastic acting and engaging dialogue drive the story on. The music is ominous, reflecting the darkness of the character’s lives.

“The Insect Woman” does not shrink from portraying a dark vision of Japanese life. At its heart it is a film about sin and attempting to escape from it while trying to do your best in a harsh world. The strong female protagonist battles on despite being seemingly punished for her own and others indiscretions.

Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa

Escaping from a downpour, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) takes shelter at Rashomon gate, where he meets a wood-cutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) who are discussing a recent trial they have witnessed. The wood-cutter tells the man that as he was walking through the forest a few days before, he came across a dead samurai. The priest had earlier seen the samurai (Masayuki Mori) leading his wife (Machiko Kyo) on a horse in that direction. Later a thief Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was caught with the weapons from the samurai. Tajomaru is taken to trial and tells his version of events, claiming that he did kill the samurai. They also hear the story of the wife of the samurai, which is different in points to that of Tajomaru. We also get two different version of events, with no hints as to which is correct, and all seeming to take the blame for the death of the samurai.

Based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film has an interesting structure, one that would later influence many other works. Instead of being a straightforward narrative, we are instead presented, through flashbacks, with several versions of the same event, and asked to choose which one we believe or trust. This makes the film engaging, especially when you reach the third and fourth versions, as you attempt to puzzle out why they would be lying about certain things, whether you can trust the witnesses, and what the true circumstances of the murder were. Unlike other historical films, this is focussed heavily on the telling of stories, and dialogue between the major players, rather than action sequences. All the actors do a great job, particularly the three involved in the crime, as they act out the various interpretations of the scenes. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is fantastic, with the use of static cameras during the trial scenes putting you in the role of an unbiased judge as each story is told, and use of framing and movement in the flashback sequences showing you exactly what you need to see. Both the story and direction work together to create a compelling narrative, that keeps you wanting to learn more about what really happened.

The film asks some difficult questions about the nature of truth and reality, and also includes some very dark themes of murder and rape, although never graphic, and nasty characters. At the beginning of the film we see the crumbling Rashomon gate amidst a rainstorm, which acts as a perfect visual metaphor for the chaotic reality of life, and the forces of nature that act to destroy what civilisation attempts to construct. The lack of order symbolised by the gates destruction is explained as the characters tear firewood from the building, further emphasizing the necessary selfishness of humanity). A deserved classic, this film is a must watch for fans of cinema, as it inspired the way many future stories were told.