Burst City more than lives up to its title—it’s a gloriously out-of-control mess of a film that has more going on per frame than any five other movies that come to mind. Part punk rock concert film, part teen / youth exploitation picture, part gangster-violence drama, part biker-gang story and part underground / indie moviemaking monstrosity, it’s been one of Japan’s best-kept movie secrets for decades, and is only now finally available in an edition that shows off why it’s commanded such a reputation for so long. Love it or hate it, it’s unique: it spends every moment of its running time doing its damndest to scour your senses flat, and you have to admit it does that in a way no other movie can remotely match.
The film is set in a shantytown occupied by human refuse of all kinds: criminals, drug addicts, madmen, prostitutes and pimps, creeps and thugs—but especially punk rockers like the Roosters (and their in-film competition, the Rockers and the Stalin), who gather every night and play ear-searing concerts to audiences that are even crazier than they are. They drag-race with competing crews, get high, get drunk, get wild; they’re mostly party animals whose worst crime is not being able to see anything outside of their little circle of pleasures. They’re contrasted vividly with a local yakuza outfit, hired muscle who are being brought in to ensure that a nuclear power plant gets built nearby and goes online, on schedule.
No one gets a formal introduction in the movie—in fact, barely anyone even gets a closeup. People just sort of rush out of the seething crowds in front of the camera and eventually become important, like the punk rockers themselves, who only differentiate themselves after they’ve figured into a few scenes. Other faces swim out over time, too—a local pimp and his woman, whom he feels tenderness for even though he’s basically put her into a life of sexual slavery; a man-and-boy biker duo who are strongly reminiscent of the Feral Kid character in Mad Max (widely cited as a massive influence on the film); a gruff leader of a gang of local misfits and freaks, who gives the biker pair a surrogate home; a smirking police sergeant; the dyed-hair leader of the yakuza, who makes his big stirring speeches to his men like he’s reading from cue cards.
What plot that exists emerges mostly from the sparks these people throw off as they collide. The yakuza gang hires in the misfit crew as their ditch-diggers (they find out that the Feral Man can do a fair steam-shovel imitation with his bare hands), but it’s a one-way deal: they bulldoze the misfit’s hideout and enslave the Kid for their own sadistic fun and games. The punks clash violently, again and again—they storm each other’s stages and destroy each other’s instruments—but when the cops arrive, they both realize they hate the cops more than each other. The last thirty minutes of the movie are one giant unbroken scene of mob violence where everyone clashes in the shantytown during an impromptu punk festival, most everything gets blown up, and comeuppances of one kind or another are delivered.
The most important things about the movie are not the plot or even the characters, but the look and the feel of the whole production. I remember David Lynch once saying in an interview about how he wanted to make paintings by biting the canvases; there isn’t a shot in Burst City that doesn’t constitute some kind of sensory attack. The saturated colors, extra-grainy film stock, super-shallow depth of focus and roaring soundtrack all pile on top of each other and fight for supremacy. By the time I ejected the disc, my eyes and ears were ringing for minutes on end, but that was exactly what Ishii wanted to do, and he does it to nearly the exclusion of everything else in the film—including narrative coherency or sympathetic characterization.
Much has been made of how Burst City is a kind of punk-rock take on a post-nuke environment—Mad Max being the name dropped most often—but to me it has more in common with the teen-rebellion exploitation movies of the Fifties and Sixties. All the kids wanna do is party down and play surf guitar, while cops / teachers / generic authority figures gnaw their lips and crack down on anyone trying to have fun. In fact, I searched the movie in vain for any explicit post-apocalyptic references—the “wasteland” of the film is better described as a slum or “Bidonville”, a punk version of the garbage dump in Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka’den.
Burst City was directed by Sogo Ishii, he of Gojoe and Electric Dragon 80.000 V, and for people only familiar with him through either of those movies it most closely resembles Dragon—although imagine that film with all the static or slow-moving parts sliced out or telescoped and you’ve got something that approximates the frenzy of Burst City. Ishii’s earlier films—including Crazy Thunder Road, another low-budget gang-violence punk masterpiece—all have the same warp-speed flavor to them, but after a hiatus through most of the Eighties he came back to the camera with a much more stately and modulated style. Gojoe melded both of those sensibilities: the battle scenes were frighteningly hyperkinetic, but the sequences in between were meditatively calm and made the contrasts between the two all the more startling.
Ishii was, quite literally, a film-school punk: he shot his first movies as collegiate projects and was even asked to remake one of them (Panic in High School) with a bigger budget and a professional director’s help under the auspices of exploitation kings Nikkatsu. Unfortunately Ishii didn’t have the creative control he wanted, and the end result was more Nikkatsu’s than his. He “borrowed” his school’s film equipment to make Crazy Thunder Road on his own money, and that 16mm shoestring project was even picked up by Toei and put into theaters. The whole thing came out of his own pocket and almost bankrupted him, but as with Burst City he was able to hire in friends who were themselves bikers and punks to fill out the roster.
Ishii then went on to shoot bread-and-butter projects like music videos for punk bands (The Stalin themselves, among others), and when Toei later came calling to do another feature film with a big budget, he leaped at the chance. Tom Mes’s liner notes for the Burst City DVD go into the whole story in detail, and the insane pace of the finished product reflects Ishii’s own heedless attitude: he was like Junior with Daddy’s credit card, running wild but having such a great time that the fun is downright contagious. He also hired in some interesting talent: “Protest music god” Shigeru Izumiya (he of Eijanaika and his own largely-unseen experimental SF project Death Powder) shows up not only to contribute music here and there, but to provide set and costume designs.
I first heard about Burst City through the bootleg circuit, for a long time the only source for just about every major Japanese indie / underground movie—and many from above-ground, but had no U.S. distribution because they were too “Japanese”. The mere description of it made it sound like something I would not only want to see but cherish and admire, and after seeing it I am pleased to say that I was right. It’s one giant scream of uninhibited elation from beginning to end, and amazingly ambitious in more ways than one.
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