Shinya TsukamotoJapanesevampiresTomorowo Taguchi
The Adventures Of Electric Rod Boy
Medium: short film
Year: 1987
Writer/director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Keywords: SF, vampires, low-budget
Actor: Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, N. Senba, Tomorowo Taguchi, Shinya Tsukamoto
Format: 47 minutes
Website category: Japanese SF
Review date: 28 August 2013
On first viewing, I thought it was review-proof and that the only thing I could do was describe it. Second time, I got it.
Hikari is being bullied because he has a small tree growing out of his back. No, wait, it's an electricity pole. When a girl called Momo saves him from the bullies, he shows her his time machine and then travels 25 years! (He appears to be human rather than alien, by the way. He's a bit of a nerd. There's no immediately obvious significance to the electricity pole and I think his time machine is home-made, although that's a guess since where it's really come from is the scriptwriter's backside.)
Anyway, our hero's been eaten by a flying metal cabbage and is now in the future. He accidentally beats up three stage performers from a heavy metal concert, who'd been attacking a girl with a book tied to her head. This future is wacky, although also very, very cheap and prone to stop-motion animation with live objects, like Jan Svankmajer. That's how they do car chases, for instance. Anyway, Book Head Girl's name is Dr Sariba and she explains that her assailants were members of the Shinsengumi Vampire Gang that took over the world fifteen years ago. They were able to take over because a cloud called Adam Jr has been hiding the sun and they're planning to detonate a nuclear device (also called Adam) to create eternal darkness and make the world forever theirs.
Adam has been plugged into a girl called Eve since her birth. The vampires have been waiting all this time for her to reach puberty.
This is even sillier than it sounds and it looks like something your little brother might make if given a Super 8 camera. The vampires look like drag queens, which is appropriate since I think that two of them are gay. There's a flying animated soft toy that vomits up its own stuffing. There's a penis bug robot monster and a naked woman.
You might be wondering why I watched this. Well, maybe you're not, given my track record. I am, though. The answer is that it's by Shin'ya Tsukamoto.
Tsukamoto is the creator of the definitive Japanese cyberpunk film (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) and an international cult director. As it happens he's also a successful actor, playing for instance the camera-toting protagonist in Takashi Shimizu's deeply wrong Marebito and the puppetmaster Jijii in Ichi the Killer. He started making films at age fourteen and then at college he started a theatre group that also included Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka and Tomorowo Taguchi. This had actually been one of those stage productions, which Tsukamoto then turned into a film because he wanted to make the most of all the effort they'd put into building the sets.
Anyway, Tsukamoto is a huge figure in Japanese cinema. He's won awards at film festivals all over the world, including the PIA Film Festival's Grand Prize in Japan for this very movie. (You can stop boggling. PIA is there to discover and support new talent, so from that point of view they made a gold-plated, if brave, choice.)
Bearing all that in mind, what does this film offer beyond no-budget nonsense? Answer: lots.
It's a deceptive film, because it's easy to let yourself be blinded by the extreme stuff. This is partly due to overacting villains who look like Frank N. Furter, a frenetic shooting style and in-your-face special effects that aren't even supposed to be realistic. At first glance, it doesn't look like something worth taking seriously. However it's also literally hard to watch, in that you'll miss stuff if you're not paying close attention. Tsukamoto is liable to do huge story points as near-subliminal inserts in a manic cyberpunk montage on acid. There's a sex scene I completely missed on my first viewing, for instance.
However if you're prepared to work hard, you might discover that Tsukamoto's written a robust, muscular plot that's turning The Terminator inside-out, while adding more layers. (Also, briefly, Alien.) The relationship between the two leads is well paced, despite the crazed visuals, and the film even slows to a near-stop in the middle for a moving death scene. That speech worked. "As I screamed, covered in ash..." Admittedly it's confusing when the dead character returns to life to get killed again, but I presume that's another plot point I missed. (Well, either that or a blithe disrespect for continuity.) I also admire the fact that Tsukamoto kills off the bad guys early-ish and then spends the rest of the movie addressing his lead characters' relationships, fates and eventually an intricate emotional ending that's at once sad, happy, goodbye, hello, self-sacrificing and a romantic celebration.
There's also humour. I laughed at Electric Rod Boy's "sayonara" on being told he's got to save the world.
There's "fate of the earth" superhero chosen one stuff. I love the fact that Electric Rod Boy's superpower is saying sorry. There's lots of animation, including some particularly daft closing credits.
It's also interesting as cyberpunk, if you can wrench your head far enough to contemplate that. It looks cheap and stupid, yes, but that's the same underground style as the ground-breaking Tetsuo, except not in black-and-white. (That would be Tsukamoto's next film after this.) Japanese cyberpunk isn't the same as our Western version, which one imagines as being written by William Gibson and set in a super-cool near future with hackers, AI and megacorporations. Japan's cyberpunk, on the other hand, is simply set in Japan. This film is shot on regular Tokyo streets and has home-made sub-industrial tech, presented in a sensory overload style. The violence is silly, but it's blurring the boundaries between life, death and the machine. (The vampires add something to the mix here too.) It's putting the "cybernetic" in cyberpunk, in a way the genre usually isn't.
This is one of those films that surely can't owe anything to influences, except maybe Sogo Ishii. It's beyond influences. Instead it's an influence on others and soon its writer/director would be reinventing an entire genre. It's challenging you in pretty much every way that Tsukamoto can think of, although as it happens his main challenge is to your ability to take the film even remotely seriously. However by the time you've reached the end, you'd surely have to agree that there's a lot of story in here and a fierce but playful determination not to take the simple road.
"Whenever the world is in crisis, an Electric Rod Boy is born."