Recently seen movies #109

January 15, 2009

Sogo Ishii – Punk Years 1976 – 1983

I decided to group these Sogo Ishii reviews into one post. Transformer has released two Sogo Ishii box sets in Japan, and while I currently can’t afford to buy the second one, I did manage to find money for the first one. The set itself is a landmark in dvd history. 6 movies on 6 dvds (including extras on each disc), plus bonus dvd with over three hours of extra features (such as ’Ishii Sogo & Bacillus Army Project’ last live concert), a 160 page booklet, original soundtrack cd for Asia Strikes Back, and a film cell. The set features all of Ishii’s films till 1983, except the Panic in High School remake (1978 ) and Burst City (1982). These movies are not included as other studios own them. I will review them later.

The original Panic in High School (1976) is an 8mm short clocking at 16 minutes. A student goes insane and comes to school with a shotgun. Ishii shows the development of the situation and the arrival of police, but doesn’t include characterization. The almost complete lack of dialogue further supports the ”news report” type of feeling.Technically the pic is low grade, but packs a lot of interest value as the starting point of one of Japan’s most remarkable directors. Ishii was 19 years old when he directed this debut film. He later remade the story into a feature length film in 1978 with Yukihiro Sawada, under Nikkatsu’s finance.

In his second film, Isolation of 1 Divided by 880 000 (1977), Ishii triples the length (43 min) but also improves quality on several areas. The biggest surprise, however, is Johann Sebastian Bach, who finds his way into the speakers time after time and refuses to make way for the punk mastro’s more typical tunes. But Ishii has ear for classical too, as he syncs music with the visuals while following a crippled young man living alone in big city. At times it feels more of a collage of images than a traditional film, but it’s an impressive and rather beautiful piece nevertheless.

Attack! Hakata Street Gangs (1978 ) is a feature length Ishii’s film that is more facinating in depicting its own time than as a story driven movie. The film doesn’t shine technically, but does offer an interesting, almost documentaristic view of a Japan that is not so often seen in movies. While realistic gang films are nothing new, directors like Kinji Fukasaku usually tell more cinematic stories set in higher levels of society. Ishii’s camera descends to the grassroot level and shows the small time street gangs that operate in the less wealthy neighborhoods in smaller cities far away from Tokyo or Osaka.

Perhaps Ishii’s most important film and one of the key Japanese movies of the 80’s, Crazy Thunder Road (1980) is a punk tuned love song for all the crazy bikers and rebels. A motorcycle gang is about to close down as the time of wild riders is considered to be over. But the young hothead Jin (Tatsuo Yamada) disagrees. He’s ready to fight the whole world alone. Looking at the quality of the film as well as some action scenes that put bigger studios productions into shame, it’s almost impossible to belive this was a film course graduation work by Ishii. The Toei executives found Ishii’s 16 mm work impressive enough to blow it on 35 mm and give it a well deserved cinema run.

After this cult classic Sogo Ishii returns to short form with a 33 minute chase movie Shuffle (1981). A killer runs from the police, and the viewer runs with him. Especially the beginning can be a bit hard to endure as the camera is moving at the same speed as the actors. Some breaks are offered in form of flash back scenes. The 16 gone 35 mm visual output is mostly black and white, with the visuals corresponding to the characters’ physical state and feelings (the image getting more twisted and blurred as they get more exhausted). Not an easy film, but an interesting and at times very hard hitting experiment.

Closer to a 30 minute music video than a movie, Asia Strikes Back: Remix Live Version (1983 / 2005) takes place in an underground military base where a small team of soldiers with psychic abilities continue their fight. Liking Asia Strikes Back comes down almost entirely to the viewer’s musical preferences. Unfortunately I like neither the original soundtrack nor the 2005 remix live version. Nevertheless, once again it’s obvious Ishii is a follower of his own path and not quite like any other filmmaker. Notice that there’s no dialogue in the film, only on screen texts in English.


Panic in High School (1976) – 2,5/5
Isolation of 1 Divided by 880 000 (1977) – 3,5/5
Attack! Hakata Street Gangs (1978 ) – 2,5/5
Crazy Thunder Road (1980) – 4/5
Shuffle (1981) – 2,5/5
Asia Strikes Back: Remix Live Version (1983 / 2005) – 1,5/5


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