Thirsty Like the Wolf 

Drinking games, zombies, pompadours and fire: the wonderful world of Guitar Wolf

From the Hokkaido forests to the Okinawa island, Japan is home to the world's most wildly driven, detail-obsessed rock & roll bands and fans. And when they want to get utterly trashed, as they often do, they fire up the 1999 movie Wild Zero and commence a drinking game that keeps the Sapporo flowing long into the night. The simple rules of the game neatly sum up the movie: Players must take a swig every time someone says "rock & roll," combs his hair or takes a drink; every time fire shoots out of something; and every time someone's head explodes. A conservative count finds about 50 such instances over the movie's 100 minutes, so many of the players won't stay conscious for the finale. Naturally, the grueling alcoholic endurance test is so popular that it's now an optional feature on the American DVD release of the movie.

Hovering over the proceedings like gutter-punk godfathers, the members of Japanese trash-garage trio Guitar Wolf guide a young hooligan named Ace through a sudden zombie infestation that threatens to seriously disrupt his leather-jacketed, cycle-roaring rock & roll lifestyle. The film opens innocently enough, with Ace in front of a mirror, greasing his museum-quality rockabilly quiff up toward the heavens (with a comb -- gulp!). His bedroom is a bizarro Hard Rock Café, plastered with photos and posters of the flip-side rock pantheon: no Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones, but plenty of Johnny Thunders, Gene Vincent, Joan Jett, Iggy Pop, Link Wray and the Ramones.

Although it's more sonically unhinged than those bands at their wildest, Guitar Wolf's been pogoing on the shoulders of those giants since its 1993 debut, Wolf Rock, which included an uncredited cover of Wray's "Rumble." Just to make its point, the trio has revisited the song three times since, along with originals like "Link Wray Man."

As for Joan, "Jett" (soon shortened to "jet") functions in Wolf-speak as a kind of all-purpose adjective for the insane spirit of rock & roll. Almost every one of Wolf's seven studio albums includes at least one cut with "jet" in the title, from the straightforward "Jett Rock" to the geographical "Nagasaki Jet," from the anthemic "Jet Generation" to the unlucky "Jet13." Wild Zero is billed as a "Rock'n'Roll Jet-Movie," and the band's Web site touts it as "Japanese Greatest 'Jet' Rock'n'Roll Band."

That's hard to argue. From its early, ultra-lo-fi boombox recordings to the (extremely relative) polish of its more recent releases, Guitar Wolf's gnarled, buzzing aggression has served some first-class catchy tunes. Singer/guitarist Seiji (a.k.a. Guitar Wolf) channels nasty lead hooks and caustic two-chord riffs from a dimension far too rockin' for any of us to dare venture there, while bassist Billy (or Bass Wolf) and drummer Toru (yes, Drum Wolf -- congratulations, Einstein) meld into one fuzz-bottomed, cymbal-crashing rhythm beast. As with electronics, baseball and automobiles, the Japanese have again taken an American innovation and done it better.

But back to our feature presentation: After a visually electrifying urination scene in a rock-club bathroom -- okay, maybe not that electrifying -- Ace combs his hair again (gulp!) and heads out into the club, where Guitar Wolf is thrilling the youth of Japan with "Jet Generation." Shots of the bandmates sweating their asses off and Ace smiling and enraptured are intercut with clips of some bald, wiry S&M weirdo repeatedly punching a prostrate woman in the face. Turns out said weirdo is in the employ of the club owner, a man known as the Captain who is undoubtedly one of the most finely drawn characters in recent cinema. With his Peggy Fleming wig and his super-short shorts that lace up the sides, his predilection for pill-popping and his mincing, quivering menace, the repulsive Captain is impossible to ignore.

Guitar Wolf (the whole band) bursts into the plush decadence of his hideaway, demanding a fair shake for rock & roll. Before it's all over, the Captain loses the tips of a couple of fingers, the band stuffs the Captain's pill stash into their leather jackets, and Seiji makes Ace his blood brother. He hands the trembling youth a glittering whistle, telling him to blow it if he ever needs Guitar Wolf's help. With a quick swig on a beer (gulp) and a cry of "Rock & roll!" (gulp), Seiji rides his flame-shooting (gulp!) motorcycle into the Japanese night, heedless of the shotgun blasts fired by the extremely miffed Captain.

We're at least half a dozen drinks into the game by now. And this is all before the zombies show up. Then the movie really gets moving. Alas, zombie-related delays keep Ace from catching the band's rip-roaring performance of "Roaring Blood" ("My memory is in the middle of a roar....This is the only place I'll ever die!"). But Ace does meet a virginally cute girl named Tobio at an Esso station, where the staff has mysteriously vanished. They flee the inevitable zombie attack and hole up inside some kind of warehouse, where Ace collapses in tears, wailing, "I'm not like Guitar Wolf. I can't do anything myself. I can't even play guitar -- I'm so uncool!" Tobio's sensible response is to strip nude, whereupon Ace can't help but notice her penis and testicles. Dude looks like a lady! But when the uptight Ace panics and shuts himself in a utility room, an apparition of Seiji admonishes him for his squareness: "Ace! Love has no nationalities, borders or genders! Do it!" Filled with newfound bi-curiosity, Ace runs to her, but she's wandered off into the night, too heartbroken to worry about a silly little thing like a zombie attack. The lovers are later reunited at the corpse-strewn Esso, but only after many undead heads explode (chug!).

The stylistic jumble, the manic pace, the flamethrowing intensity, the sense of humor, the belief in crazed rock & roll as the ultimate source of power: All are in perfect tune with the band's records. Although the cover imagery may change from album to album -- cut-and-paste punk on Wolf Rock!, the Tokyo-billboard look on albums like Planet of the Wolves, the '70s-headbanger pose on last year's Loverock -- the Guitar Wolf sound rarely deviates, except to draw even more blood with even more aggro and fuzz. In a world where the intelligent rock listener is expected to crave newness for its own sake, it's easy to completely miss the point and whine that Guitar Wolf's records "all sound the same," which marks you as a pinhead supreme who deserves to listen to the Mars Volta for the rest of your miserable days. For a band with this much raw energy and songwriting invention, drawing so effortlessly on decades of scuzz-rock mayhem, fumble-assed attempts to "progress" would be a crime against humanity. As Seiji reminds Ace, and the rest of us: "There are no boundaries in rock & roll. Believe in rock & roll!"

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