During the first season of Unknown Japan we screened director Sogo Ishii’s Labyrinth of Dreams (1997), a dream-like mystery that is a world away from the punk-fueled anarchic masterpieces that have made him an international name. Last night we made up for that with the director’s first feature outing as a solo director, Crazy Thunder Road (1980), a film that Asian Cult Cinema called “the best bike-gang movie of them all, arguably the best in the world.” Garish, unforgiving, and endlessly fun, Crazy is truly the best introduction to Ishii’s filmography, which holds a number of other must-see films.
Luckily for us, some of Ishii’s greatest outings are readily available on DVD in the U.S. 1982’s Burst City is a genre-bending, post-punk apocalypse that features performances from now legendary bands of the era including The Rockers and The Stalin. 1986’s 1/2 Man (released here as Halber Mensch) is an artsy performance film featuring German industrial pioneers Einstuerzende Neubauten. It’s a fittingly bleak and often challenging outing, but there’s something thrilling about seeing Blixa and the gang do their thing within the confines of an empty factory. 2000’s Gojoe: Spirit War Chronicle is a rather dull mainstream outing that features big stars (Tadanobu Asano, Masatoshi Nagase) and even bigger special effects (at least in that slick, but not-so-realistic Japanese fashion). 2001’s Electric Dragon 80,000 V is one of those rare films that actually delivers on the craziness of its title. Tadanobu Asano stars as the electrically-powered Dragon Eye Morrison who finds a villainous adversary in Masatoshi Nagase’s Thunderbolt Buddha (yes, this was shot back-to-back with the aforementioned Gojoe). This noisy, Tetsuo-like assault on the senses is only 55 minutes in length, but it’s guaranteed to leave you exhausted.
Sogo (birth name Gakuryu) Ishii came to fame while still in film school. Crazy Thunder Road was actually his graduation project, and at that point he’d already co-directed the feature film Panic High School (1978), a Nikkatsu-funded reworking of a short he’d made one year previous. His short films from this period are legendary; I recommend searching out Shuffle(1981), which is basically a 34-minute high-octane chase scene. 1984’s Crazy Family was the film that made Ishii a name stateside; it’s a somewhat disturbing and endlessly odd comedy centered around the titular unit (this will definitely be screened in a future season of Unknown Japan). Ishii is perhaps best known in these parts for 1994’s Angel Dust, which received a VHS release in the U.S. It’s a high concept thriller about a woman obsessed with a serial killer and is best remembered as the first representation of the director’s maturation from anarchy to safe experimentations. Ishii continues to direct today.
WED March 14, 7:00 PM: The third installment of Unknown Japan wraps up with a doozy of a double-feature! First up is Shunji Iwai’s Undo (1994, 47 min), the heavily atmospheric tale of a young girl who suffers from “obsessive knot-binding syndrome”. And after that, we’re proud to present the U.S. premiere of The Time of Death, a new 47 minute thriller from big-name director Shinsuke Sato (The Princess Blade, Gantz). How often does Philadelphia host the U.S. premiere of a Japanese film? Rarely, if ever, and I’m usually the one who set it up. So please join us, a great night is guaranteed.