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Ahead of its UK release, the Japanese filmmaker reflects on his anarchic 1980 cult classic, Crazy thunder road
It is called “the holy grail of Japanese movie releases”; founding influence on cyberpunk cinema; and one of the most important works in the history of Japanese independent cinema. But for more than four decades, Sogo Ishii’s biker gang battle royale Crazy Thunder Road has been almost invisible in the West. Everything changes on February 21, 2022, when Third Window Movies gives this anarchic 1980 cult classic its first physical release outside of its home country. Be prepared – it’s going to be a wild ride.
Set in crumbling concrete ruins in a dilapidated near future of Japan, Crazy Thunder Road is the story of a grunt biker, Jin (Tatsuo Yamada), caught off guard when his gang leader throws in the towel. As the gang remains vulnerable to assimilation by far-right rivals, the young thug’s treacherous path is carved out over scorched asphalt and neon lights, with a deafening rock and roll soundtrack guiding his way. The ensuing film captures the warring gangs in all their black leather and blade-wielding glory as they clash in places like “Battle Royale Square” and “The Death Match Factory” before reaching a climactic showdown between bazooka and battlesuit.
When we talk on Zoom, Ishii looks stony and skinny, wearing a stiff black jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. He recounts his youth spent hanging out with rock musicians in the bars of his hometown of Fukuoka in southern Japan: “It was the Mecca of rock music at that time,” he says. And if he will move to Tokyo at the age of 19, this non-conformist environment will remain so thereafter.
Despite enrolling in Tokyo film school, Ishii was not interested in entering the industry in the traditional way. “The punk movement started in 1976 in the UK, and people like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were the same age as me,” he recalls. “They were my main inspirations. In punk, it’s not a question of technique – it’s a question of instinct or impulsiveness… You have to express that by doing something, and for me, that was cinema.
Ishii put this mentality to good use during his studies, filming the teenage anarchy short film High School Panic in 1976, then co-directed a feature film remake two years later. When he handed in his thesis project in 1980, the young director reclaimed school material to shoot an ambitious and apocalyptic feature film. Crazy Thunder Road turned out to be such raw and exciting work that major Japanese studio Toei chose to pick it up for national distribution. “I’m going to blow up every man in this town,” vengeful Jin said in the movie. madmax-style highlight. The film, likewise, became a counterculture sensation in cities across the country.
Ishii’s mentality and energetic directing style contributed to the film’s success, as did the on-screen subjects. “[Lead actor] Tatsuo Yamada was the lead member of a rock-and-roll musical theater troupe,” Ishii recalls, “and I heard he was homeless because of his gambling problems… He’s a really wild man. Lone wolf. The real deal.”
Elsewhere, fiery gangs show up menacingly with their motorcycles and shanks through countless animated scenes in Crazy Thunder Road. Given the film’s student budget, it’s no surprise to learn that these intimidating extras were often not actors but actual members of motorcycle gangs – the events depicted in the film, as Ishii describes them, resembled more to a “distorted” version of reality. “The biker gangs, or bōsōzoku as we call them, were a big thing in Japan at the time,” he says, describing how police often tried to restrict their movements and culture. “When they’re alone they can be nice, but when they’re in a group they can get really violent. A lot of bōsōzoku joined the National Front – they recruited all the gangs. I twisted that a bit [truth] a bit to put it in my film.
This plot is at the heart of Crazy Thunder Road – but how did the director manage to convince so many hoodlums to appear in his film? Simply put: “We had no choice. I was going… to these biker rallies to recruit them to be in the movie with their bikes as extras – because we didn’t have bikes ourselves.
There’s also the setting: with looming factories, Day-Glo graffiti, twisting metal wastelands and large clouds of gray dust, it’s the post-industrial setting of Crazy Thunder Road which provides much of the film’s atmosphere. This sharp look would herald the dystopian aesthetic of the cyberpunk genre that emerged in the following decade in films like The Terminator, Akira, and Tetsuo: Iron Man. But at the same time many Japanese films of the genre were understood as anxious commentaries on Japan’s booming economy and its striking technological mastery, Ishii claims his vision grew out of something far more personal. “It was too clean, too orderly,” he says, of the great megalopolis of Tokyo. “I found it uncomfortable to live with. I started dreaming of dumps and brownfields – I find these kind of places so beautiful.
One of the most important locations used in the film therefore ended up being an oil complex which was used to shoot scenes full of sparks and fires. “I didn’t really think back then, but it was so dangerous now that I look back.” Luckily, for the sake of the movie, no one told 23-year-old Ishii otherwise. “There were only four of us,” he said of the tiny crew he had assembled. “I don’t think anyone thought we were making a movie!”
The film’s soundtrack is as riotous as the bold title suggests – from the incendiary guitar riffs that punctuate the film’s neon title sequence to the spaced-out dub and feverish proto-punk heard afterwards. Much of the music used would foreshadow Ishii’s emergence as a music video director in the years that followed, as well as the completion of his apocalyptic punk feature, Split city, in 1982. But it was also this very aspect that would stop Crazy Thunder Road in international distribution for more than four decades.
“The main problem with Japanese independent films of this era is music rights,” says Adam Torel of Third Window Films, who took on the unenviable task of cleaning up the film’s music in order to release the film. “That’s why great Ishii movies like August in the water and The crazy family can’t go out there. And while he claims it wasn’t necessarily a complicated process (rather just a relatively expensive process), he also points out the rigidity of the copyright system in Japan. “Find out about JASRAC (Japan Society for Authors, Composers and Publishers Rights),” he says. Dizzy by e-mail, pointing to an article published by The Asahi Shimbun in 2019. The first paragraph describes how a housewife who took violin lessons at a music school for two years later turned out to be a spy sent by Japan’s biggest copyright organization. “They’re like the yakuza for music,” Torel concludes.
Ishii’s name would have been much more prominent in the West if these issues had been easier to resolve (Quentin Tarantino at least hailed him in the credits of Kill Bill), but as the godfather of Japanese cyberpunk cinema, his place in history is untouchable. Though even that aspect of his legacy might have been more evident had two abandoned ’90s projects taken off.
“There were two films I was going to do with William Gibson,” says Ishii, referring to the visionary cyberpunk novelist whose 1984 book neuromancer would like later became a major influence on The matrix. One of them, he said, was New Rose Hotel, based on a short story set in the same universe as Neuromancer. “The project was canceled because some actors were attached before I started, and I really didn’t get along with them.” He smiles when Dizzy asks who they were – but doesn’t move. The film was eventually completed by king of new york director Abel Ferrara in 1998 – it starred Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Asia Argento.
The second abandoned project seems even more fascinating: “I don’t really remember the details”, says Ishii, “but it was going to be called Cyber Cowboys.More than just a headline, this would have been a goth rocker’s wet dream: “I was going to throw Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende NeubautenNick Cave from bad seeds, and Peter Murphy of Bauhaus,he says, pointing to associates from his music industry leanings.
While those ideas were left on the back burner (or, perhaps, in the bottom of a junk heap), the director continues to deliver provocative work in Japan today. With titles like Angel Dust, Electric Dragon 80.000v and No one is alive? Among his latest highlights, the chameleon director insists his next project – currently in post-production – will not disappoint. “It lasts three hours,” says the director enthusiastically. “And it’s like a psychedelic version of Federico Fellini 8 1/2, where the film crew, including myself, becomes the cast.
“It’s quite different from Crazy Thunder Road”, he concludes – but that’s really not the point. As long as Sogo Ishii’s engines are revving, there’s always a reason to buckle up.
Crazy Thunder Road will be released on February 21, 2022 via Third Window Movies