Eastern Premise #69 – Crazy Thunder Road

In this weeks instalment of Eastern Premise Jason Julier takes a look at Sogo Ishii’s Kuruiz Sanda Rodo.

Such has been the chaotic week for Eastern Premise with the Edinburgh Film Festival and the Stone Roses at Heaton Park, it felt appropriate to inject a frantic nature into this week’s column. There is no better candidate than Sogo Ishii’s Kuruiz Sanda Rodo, more appropriately known as Crazy Thunder Road, released in 1980.

Ishii is a director who has already featured in Eastern Premise, namely his masterful Angel Dust #52 that heralded his return to filmmaking. If we were to compare his career to an animal it would be chameleon, as he often changes his credit name and his work varies from feature length releases to short films; he refuses to be predictable. In fact, his career can be separated into two distinct parts with his initial films fuelled by a frantic punk ethic from his student days as a former punk musician. A startling debut in the form of Panic High School, was the conceived as a student and the Nikkatsu Studio was so impressed that they asked him to director a feature length remake just 1 year later. Think about that for a moment; a major Japanese studio offering a young student filmmaker the opportunity to revisit his work.

The 80’s are often overlooked when considering Japanese cinema, as compared to other decades the temptation is to label the period disappointing and hampered by financial restrictions and a studio system in transition. However Ishii is one of several interesting directors to emerge from this decade, although his opening career salvo was as short as it was bright this reflects the character of Jin within Crazy Thunder Road.

The second half of Ishii’s career arrived with the release of Angel Dust. This marked his return after a 10 year absence mainly due to the domestic failure of his 1983 feature Family Game. A more mature director was apparent, gone was the energetic tussle of his student and punk influences and a more refined metamorphosis had taken place.  This week we’re going back to that captivating anarchy influenced, rampaging period where Ishii was a star the ascendency.  Crazy Thunder Road is Ishii’s graduation film for the Tokyo based Japanese University and it was released theatrically despite its 16mm origins and, to put it politely, it’s rough edges. These characteristic touches form part of Crazy Thunder Road’s appeal and were propelled even more to the forefront when the film was struck on 35mm film for its cinema run.

The film is about the internal struggles within a rockabilly biker gang and their place in society and their relationships with one another. It is clear that the vibrancy and energy of youth is slowly dissipating from the core leadership of the gangs, particularly the Mabiroshi crew. Their leader, Ken, has decided to settle down with his girlfriend and it is into this void that Mabiroshi member Jin propels himself as the only worthwhile replacement. Other gangs feel the same way about their future in Japanese society with a major meeting of the leaders called. Tired of avoiding the police, the membership is visibly worn out by the demands of their hell raising lifestyle.

Jin and his inner circle do not intend to take their foot off the pedal, in fact the total opposite as they embark on a wild spree of biker madness that threatens the existence of other the groups. Conflict, struggle and death are the only signposts on their road trip and unsurprisingly these destinations do arrive. Their mainly nocturnal shenanigans are enhanced by Ishii’s razor sharp and inventive editing that refuses to adopt any status quo we’d normally associate with a Japanese Studio release. Adding fuel to the fire is the punk soundtrack that reflects his knowledge of the Japanese punk scene and core contributors.

In what may come as a surprise the favourite scene for Eastern Premise is devoid of all of these elements. The bar room scene with Ken and his girlfriend is a key moment after the implications of his retirement become clear. Ishii displays this personal period of reflection by dispensing with dialogue and using a silent film approach with title cards summarising the obvious emotions at work. It is as startling as any Jin adrenaline sequence and totally unexpected. This method refocuses the viewer and engages them with a very personal moment where a leader walks away for love. The aftereffect is clear and perhaps unfulfilled until the second coming of Ishii’s career; this director is a talent beyond mere punk and violence.

The other force at work in the film is Japanese nationalism and this right wing organisation is far more organised and financed than any of the biker gangs. It is seen by Ken as the ideal outlet for Jin and his rogues to vent their anger and harness their energy in a new direction. Their message is to restore Japan from its industrial wasteland to the major power it deserves to be and see violence as a viable method to achieve such aims. This backdrop explains the Mad Max style and comparisons with Clockwork Orange as a bored Japanese youth fight back.

Whether Jin could ever be controlled is open to debate. He is a charismatic character and one that attempts to live life to its fullest and the final moments are remarkable and bring a symmetry to the film as a whole. The closing battle sequence is hampered by the lowly budget and acting talent or lack of actually! However it lingers on in the mind, partially because of its relentless and over the top nature. If there was a way to go out then there is an undeniable attraction to Jin and his final choice despite the amateurish trimmings of the film as a whole.

Crazy Thunder Road is far from Ishii’s best film and is currently unavailable and Eastern Premise can almost 100% guarantee it will never receive a release outside of Japan. The work of this director does however continue to be increasingly appreciated and Third Window Films will be releasing his latest film, Isn’t Anyone Alive?, later this year.    


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