Gakuryu (formerly Sogo) Ishii fans rejoice! Ishii has just released a new film and through some unexplained mystery the Japanese DVD/Blu features English subtitles. A true miracle if I ever saw one. While those don't come cheap, it's well worth the investment. Soredake [That's It] is a semi-throwback to Ishii's early punk films, though it's more than a simple piece of nostalgia. Soredake blends Ishii's Sogo and Gakuryu personas and the result is a film that feels both familiar and refreshing at the same time.
Those who expected Gakuryu to completely abandon his punk roots after changing his name were proven wrong after just 3 films under his new identity. While I can't comment on Shanidaru no Hana (a film that, hopefully just for the time being, remains mostly hidden from the West), Ikiterumono wa Inainoka was a big change of pace from Ishii's earlier films. It felt like a truly new direction for the godfather of Japanese punk cinema, but clearly the attraction to punk was simply too big to resist.
The name Soredake was taken from a song by Japanese punk band Bloodthirsty Butchers, a track that served as the main inspiration for this film. It in part explains why the story is a bit more muddled than it should be. The first part of the film is mostly spent figuring out what bits belong where in the overall storyline and how everything connects. Then again, Ishii's films were never just about plot, so if that's an issue than it's a good first indicator that this film may not be your cup of tea.
Soredake revolves around a homeless kid whose birth certificate was sold off by his own father. The kid finds out his certificate is held by some local thugs, so he barges out to steal it back from them. Not the smartest of ideas of course, before he knows it half of Tokyo's criminals are on his back to take back what he stole from them. The first half of the film involves a lot of running (an Ishii favorite), the second part sees the boy and his assembled crew come up with a plan to strike back and right what's wrong.
A large part of the film is shot in sprawling black and white, with just a tiny hint of sepia to add some extra flavour. It's not the gritty, noisy black and white Ishii used in his older films though, instead the image is razor sharp, sporting deep and lush contrasts. A little past the halfway mark Soredake switches back to full color, which takes a couple of scenes to get used to, but thanks to the mad editing, maverick camera work and some interesting visual effects (like cartoony images and overlays during the finale) the film retains its visual prowess.
Knowing Soredake is in part a return to Ishii's punk period and knowing the film is based on a 90s punk song, it's not that hard to figure out what the soundtrack sounds like. It's not as dense as the music in Electric Dragon 80.000V, but it's still a hefty wall of sound that may deter some people who prefer a more subtle soundtrack. That said, if you can't handle the vitality and audacity of punk rock, this probably isn't your type of film to begin with. It's not the best soundtrack Ishii ever used, but it's still a lot of fun.
Gakuryu Ishii may be somewhat of a niche director, that never stopped him from working with the coolest actors in Japanese cinema. Definite highlight was the pairing of Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase in Electric Dragon 80.000V, but the cast of Soredake isn't half bad either. Go Ayano, Jun Murakami and Shota Sometani are all great, Erina Mizuno plays one of her best roles so far and Kiyohiko Shibukawa is continuing his lucky streak. He pops up in all the right productions these days and he is quickly becoming one of the most familiar faces in modern day Japanese cinema.
It's virtually impossible to pin Soredake down in one single genre. There' a rather big crime angle to the story, with hints of mystery running throughout the first half of the film. The second half is more action-oriented, while the mood remains pretty light from start to finish. There are even some superhero-like things going on near the end, followed by a couple of minor mindfucks. It can be quite a challenge to get your head around it all, but somehow Ishii manages to keep it all tied together.
Soredake is a blast. Energetic, mysterious, fun, wild ... it's just one big entertaining mess. The film looks great, sounds great and the actors are all on top of their game. It's up there with Ishii's best, but fans of Ishii's Sogo persona should take note that it's a little different from his earlier work. Even so, there's no reason not to give this one a try, as Soredake is one of those niche films that deserves a warm, loving and caring cult audience.