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.

Mirrored Mind (2004) Sogo Ishii

The film begins with abstract images of golden triangles intercut with scenes of a bustling city as we hear a soundtrack of resonant and meditative bells. Narration then tells us that this story is based on the experiences of the director’s ex-girlfriend. We see a young woman crossing the Shibuya scramble junction outside the station. She is then sitting beside a window as she recounts recent troubles she is having distinguishing reality from fiction. The man she is talking to seems unsympathetic, telling her to find a job so she is distracted from her psychological issues. We then find that this is actually a scene from a film that is being shot, which the young woman wrote. She tells the director that she doesn’t feel it is really conveying what she wants to. He is also less than helpful, reminding her that they already spent a lot of money and that due to her past actions it is difficult for her to get films funded. On her way home she stops by a travel agent and while looking into the window a mysterious young woman appears at her shoulder. She returns to her untidy apartment and pours herself a large drink. We then see her wandering through a series of beautiful vistas in this location, eventually meeting the young woman from the city on the beach.

Written and directed by Sogo Ishii, “Mirrored Mind” is based on a short. The film does feel stretched, even at an hour in length, with relatively little going on. Instead the film luxuriates in its hypnotic imagery and dream-like visuals. The soundtrack of discordant bells has something of a religious aura, reverberating with strangely eerie tones. The sound design also fades down background noise at times to highlight a sense of disconnect from the city and other people. The story does have a twist at the end which is well set-up and paid off although there is a lot to sit through before getting to this moment. The acting by Miwako Ichikawa in the lead role is exceptional, really capturing the character of a woman who is lost and suffering from stress, loneliness and an inability to realise her own will.

More of an art-house experiment than a movie, focussing heavily on the psychology of the protagonist. The film uses sound and imagery to tell its story. Vast ocean vistas are shown as a symbol of the ineffable, the eternal and incomprehensible other that humanity seems doomed to search for without ever finding it. The film also subtly intimates ideas of a separation between the machine and the natural world. The scenes of the city are contrasted starkly with those of the peaceful natural otherworld that our protagonist escapes to. The end of the film suggests that a connection with nature is important to humans and something that many are missing. The film’s central philosophy, reflected in the title, is that the world is a mirror of internal psychology. An interesting concept and one that again the film allows the audience to make up their own minds about. “Mirrored Mind” is a ponderous affair but nevertheless with some stunning cinematography and sound design. If you are looking for something soothingly contemplative to watch then it is worth checking out.