The Body Electric

A boy climbing the steel lattice of a power transmission tower gets a jolt of 80,000 volts of electricity and plummets to the ground below. Rather than killing him, the juice continues to flow through his veins, feeding his aggression. Something primal within his brain unlocked, he attempts to channel the bellicosity into a career in boxing upon becoming an adult, before finally discovering the release of an electric guitar.
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I have to admit I put off viewing Electric Dragon 80.000 V for a good long while based on its notorious reputation. Reading the reviews online you’d think your eyeballs would explode upon gazing on Sogo Ishii’s 50-minute labor of love. Comparisons with Shinya Tskukamoto’s Tetsuo, are inevitable and for the most part apt. It shares the “do-it-yourself on a budget but still show up the big money productions” ethos, a narrative subordinate to the exploration of the visual element and an impatience with conventions while still displaying an affinity for genre logic. In fact, both directors prove that a lot of quite early film techniques can still infuse a film with a vitality that makes it ground breaking. While we’ll be seeing the “Matrix effect” for years to come with ever diminishing returns, Electric Dragon’s director goes back to the montage to give the work a stylistic unity that draws the many thematic currents of the film together.

Cutting between images of reptiles (the main character’s accident is said to have stimulated a dormant part of our brain inherited from our cold-blooded forebears) and metal objects (conductors of electricity), Isii quickly piles up the tactile relationships until they come to seem one and the same. The scales on the neck of an iguana, the grooves in a tattooist’s electric needle, the patterns on a corrugated metal floor: the character of Dragon Eye Morrison (played by Tadabobu Asano) is built out of this visual procession. Just as in Woman in the Dunes, where the camera lens zooms in ever closer to the grains of sand, attention to the visual characteristics provide the substance for the story. Speed the film up in your mind’s eye, it seems to urge, compare and contrast their natures along with their coarseness or grain, and you’ll see the relationships are more than surface ones.

The most important element is of course electricity. Japanese filmmakers, live action and anime alike, have clearly paid particular attention to the fact that the modern world in all its particulars is an electric age, their chosen mediums unthinkable without it. The eyes of storyboard artists and background painters always drift upward, to the spirograph of cables tucked under the projecting roof, the cat’s cradle of wires stretching over the intersection of even the sleepiest village. In the anime Serial Experiments Lain, the main character is an awareness evolved from the accumulated discharge and ever-expanding network of circuits. Morrison eventually manages to hold down a proper job as a reptile investigator, spending his days skulking through alleyways or ducking into a crouch to explore drainage tunnels, hunting for lost pets. But by night, he must shackle himself to a slab to ground himself due to the build-up of electricity within his body. When that’s not enough, he turns to his electric guitar which provides the pressure valve for both the voltage and the attendant aggression.
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This anger management brings him some measure of stability, until the arrival of a nemesis, half his face covered in a metal Buddha mask whose body also seems a conduit for vast amounts of electricity. Like in Tetsuo, a confrontation is inevitable, but it remains to be seen what kind: both movies defy expectations in so many ways that the viewer is ready for anything. Even if the resulting scene borrows from the typical comic book playbook, the context couldn’t be more different: a super hero and super villain indifferent to those around them, demigods ignored by the general public, brought together to annihilate one another solely on the basis of recognition of a kindred soul.

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