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Tokyo Dragon (Kaneko Shusuke 2000)


Tokyo Dragon
[Tokyo Ryuu]

Genre: Apocalyptic Emergence of an Ancient Power

review in one breath

Tokyo and the surrounding Kanto area has been under a torrential downpour for weeks and there is little prospect that the rains will stop anytime soon. As the streets flood and general civic services grind to a halt, a sense of panic slowly builds, as electrical and computer systems begin to fail under the persistent humidity. The health hazards caused by the rampant mildew and uncollected garbage have caused even the television news stations to contemplate false forecasts predicting sunny days ahead. But the storm only grows larger, as if it were a living organism, swirling in an increasingly visible spiral pattern directly over the heart of Tokyo. At the same time, very far away at the remote Japanese island of Okinawa, a monstrous presence has stirred deep below the ocean's surface amid ancient religious ruins.

It's hard to believe that in a country approximately the size of the (United) State of Montana that such regional and cultural diversities exist. But this is undoubtedly the case for anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting Japan. Not only do regional dialects differ substantially (arguably far greater than, for example, Texas versus NY "accents") but also diet, dress, and cultural history. Of particular distinction among Japanese is the remote southern island of Okinawa whose overall history is so distinct from the Japanese mainland's that it is generally considered a quaint vacation spot whereby one can experience a different culture.

For this reason, perhaps, Okinawan religious intuition is occasionally invoked within Japanese films to create an ancient, more authentic ambiance. Compared with the highly polished religious notions of classical Japanese tales, generally culled from the Heian period, Okinawan traditions provide a much clearer window into primitive sensibilities.

Tokyo Dragon is steeped in Okinawan religion, in particular a sect derived from an ancient Chinese worship of the "Dragon God" (Ryuu Kami). At epochal cycles, the Dragon God wakes to quench its thirst for water. In the remote past, the waking of the Dragon was accompanied by elaborate ceremonies culminating in human sacrifice upon a specific stone monument in the heart of ancient Edo (Tokyo). This time, the Dragon God has selected the young Okinawan, Arioshi Mizuchi, to becomes its sacrifice. In a desperate attempt to save her life, Mizuchi seeks out the help of Kuroda Ryuujin, whose grandfather was a famous diviner (fuzushii) possessing the sacred stone of protection ("omamori") from the Dragon God.

Kuroda has vivid, horrific memories of his being trained by his grandfather on the island of Okinawa. Moving to Tokyo following his grandfather's death 20 years prior, Kuroda inherited his "omamori" and has continued to provide services of divination. When a terrified Mizuchi arrives at his doorstep claiming to be pursued by the Dragon God seeking to kill her, all of Kuroda's training and past must rise to meet this critical challenge.

While Tokyo Dragon undoubtedly starts out a bit slow due to heavy dialogue attempting to "explain" all the cultural presuppositions, which in this case includes Chinese-infused Okinawan notions of the Dragon God and the general principles of Ying Yang divination (which even for Japanese audiences constitutes a dive into the deep end of the pool), once the audience is up to speed on the general rules of this game, the storyline action and visual effects kick in and continue to crescendo until the Dragon God is ultimately appeased. (!)

Tokyo Dragon is clearly a straight-to-video production (aka "made for television") and thus many scenes involve cramped, obviously studio-encapsulated settings under a very heavy rainfall. However, it also employs a high degree of polished and memorable (actual) aerial and ocean landscapes in its depiction of Okinawa and Tokyo, and has some very impressive visual effects, such as the submerged ancient temples off the Okinawan shoreline, the incredibly dismal and overcast Tokyo skyline, and those increasingly terrifying glimpses of the nearly elusive Dragon God violently undulating overhead.

This developed into quite an entertaining and engrossing action story, though at the offset, I thought I was in for a major dud. Seeing an unsubtitled VHS version, I would strongly recommend that you locate a subtitled version to enjoy this fully (even if you understand Japanese quite well). There is so much Chinese and Okinawan culture infused here that it is often quite hard to understand. For example, the Okinawan dialect is so thick that they have to use *subtitles* to translate it into mainland Japanese (!). But this was a fun movie and provided some fascinating depictions of (purely fictitious?) ancient religious sensibilities.

On a small concluding note: While the Dragon in Chinese culture is generally viewed as fortuitous, the ancient Shinto texts, the Kojiki and Nihongi explain the emergence of the Dragon God (Ryuu no Kami) as a pestilence whose siblings include the God of the Sword and the God of Darkness. These formidable pestilences are born after Izunagi (the Shinto God of Masculinity) attempts to slay his child, the God of Fire whose birth has caused the death of his wife Izunami (Shinto Goddess of Feminity). And FYI: All "hell" breaks loose, according to the Shinto texts, when Izanagi enters Hell ("Yomi") to meet his beloved, departed Izanami.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Some interesting glimpses into Chinese and Okinawan religious sensibilities, especially in terms of the "Dragon God" referred to in ancient Shinto texts. Although this Dragon God is literally out for blood, no onscreen blood mingles with the constant, heavy downpour of rain over Tokyo.. Alas, this Dragon God hasn't yet learned to truly appreciate the supple virgins being sacrificed to it. Alot of Ying Yang stuff going on here, involving the need to pry a shrieking tai-chi kids' eyes open to look at the frothing grin of a flame-engulfed dragon. Deep undersea ancient temples which suddenly speak to you in a foreboding voice should also be listed here. And lets not forget the neon divine drinking straw!

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