By Matthew Fullerton.
Though a commercial failure on its release in March 1982, Burst City has, in recent years, reached cult status, primarily for its elements of Japanese cyberpunk, which make it a “landmark” for this genre of cinema, and for its blending of styles.”
Give the punk a camera and the freedom to choose a cast and crew of punks and let’s see what happens. That premise seems to explain the beginnings of the professional career of director Sōgo Ishii (known as Gakuryū Ishii since 2012). He was still a high school student when he made his first film, the self-financed and produced short 8 mm Panic High School. The film soon caught the attention of a major studio – Nikkatsu – which then provided funding to have it turned into a feature-length that Ishii, now an eighteen-year old college sophomore, would co-direct (1978). Over the next four years, Nikkatsu competitor Toei would distribute Ishii’s university graduating project, the punk biker flic Crazy Thunder Road (1980), and finance and distribute his rollicking cyberpunk-ish Burst City (1982).
A reputation as an insider of the Japanese punk scene gave Ishii the street cred that the studios, in serious decline in the seventies, were willing to take a chance on: his self-made films encapsulate the spirit of jishu eiga, those volunteer, self-made films made by young, aspiring, creative yet untrained, filmmakers and often characterized by punk attitudes, ideals and fashions. Ishii and jishu eiga filmmakers differed from older Japanese independent directors such as Nagisa Ōshima (In the Realm of the Senses 1976) and Kinji Fukusaku (Battles Without Honor and Humanity 1973) in that they were underground in the truest sense of the word, and Ishii’s breaking into the industry in his late teens, without training and the all-important years of apprenticing, is symbolic because it would pave the way for later jishu eiga filmmakers, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata 2008) and Sion Sono (Suicide Club 2001). Over the last four decades or so, Ishii himself would carve out his own cinematic path, making a number of unique short and feature-length films, including the coming-of-age science fiction movie August in the Water (1995).
Though a commercial failure on its release in March 1982, Ishii’s third film, Burst City (Bakuretsu Toshi Bāsuto Shiti) has, in recent years, reached cult status, primarily for its elements of Japanese cyberpunk, which make it a “landmark” for this genre of cinema, and for its blending of styles. Part musical, concert film, dystopic fiction, youth gang and rebel movie, Burst City demands reappreciation, and Arrow, a company specializing in restoring and distributing cult classics, took up that task in September 2020 with the release of the film in high definition Blu-ray. The package also includes revealing interviews with Ishii and Yoshiharu Tezuka, Burst City’s lighting director, respectively, and an informative booklet containing an accessible essay from writer and researcher on Japanese cinema, Mark Player.
Critics of Burst City might find it difficult to decipher because of its barely-in-focus shots, shakiness, graininess, underexposures, slow shutter speeds, and such, as well as the many narrative strands. Once you cut through the visual-technical and textual chaos, however, the story is interesting, and a suitable one for the punk and cyberpunk genre.
Set on the edge of Tokyo in an industrial slum consisting of abandoned warehouses and factories and a derelict main street that is reminiscent of the South American town in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Burst City is more than just a work of fiction. Its inclusion of real punk bands and actual punk rockers, notably frontmen Takanori Jinnai, Shinya Ōe and Kō Machida, a writer (Jūgatsu Toi), and a wrestler (and future Takeshi’s Castle henchman Umanosuke Ueda) in main acting roles makes Burst City just as much an essential audio-visual document of the Japanese punk era. In a nutshell, it is about two rival punk bands, The Battle Rockers – a blend of two actual punk bands, The Rockers and The Roosters – and Mad Stalin – portrayed by the actual band The Stalin – and their respective fans feuding on stage and in the crowd while yakuza industrialists maneuver at taking over their community to develop it into a nuclear power station. Instead of directing their wrath and aggressions at the profiteering gangsters, the punks turn against each other, and the scene devolves into a battle of the bands with actual violence.
The many manic concert sequences and raucous, at times non-sensical, interludes involving dancing, car-racing, celebrating, fighting and so on, give the viewer the impression that the filmmaker and his team were not always working with a tight script. But as Tezuka points out in his interview, Ishii had intended a mainstream, entertaining film, and eventual budget problems on set would force him to sacrifice a chunk of the script and fill in gaps with abstract shots. At the same time, the actors clearly had faith in whatever script Ishii and screenwriter Mitsuhiko Akita had hashed out prior to filming because the director gets intense, often masterful, performances out of both his amateur actors and his professionals. Notable performances include Akaji Maro, one of the only professional actors with a major role, as community leader and organizer Sakada, and poet and singer Shigeru Izumiya as the eager-to-please chinpira Kuronuma. The tragic love story that plays out between Izumiya’s character and a young punk prostitute builds to an intense and violent, yet jarringly convincing, climax. Similarly, the close relationship between Crazy Big Brother (Toi) and Crazy Young Brother (Machida), steeped as it is in mystery, is very intriguing. It’s these two strong relationships that seem to frame the narrative and give the film the structure that it sometimes lacks.
The two interviews – one with director Ishii – “The Punk Spirit of ’82” – and the other – “Bursting Out” – with academic and independent filmmaker Yoshiharu Tezuka, in the special features are valuable in that they contextualize jishu eiga and how Ishii fits within the movement. The biographical details provided in “The Punk Spirit of ‘82” are fascinating, especially those relating to Ishii’s beginnings in film, such as his poor upbringing in Fukuoka City and how he, a largely self-taught filmmaker, had little faith that his films would ever be accepted by a major studio. Tezuka, in addition to sharing his own experiences working on the set of Burst City, including the struggles of filming largely at night, provides a thorough history of jishu eiga and stresses how Ishii is a symbolic figure in Japanese cinema. Though the two interviews inform, there is little in the way of supplementary stills, screen grabs and footage from the film or the film set to support the ideas expressed by both Ishii and Tezuka and to fully engage the typical viewer.
Mark Player in his booklet essay, “This is not an Explosive Movie. This is a Movie Explosion”, also does a fine job of contextualizing Burst City by piecing together the Japanese societal elixir to which the film was likely a response. This includes young and restless Japanese questioning the conservatism of the country’s “economic miracle” and growing more and more skeptical of the utopia that their parents felt they had contributed to creating from the ashes of World War II. Player links the movie, and jishu eiga in general, to other pop culture phenomenon that arose as a reaction to the above, such as dōjinshi (self-published manga) and bōsōzoku, motorcycle gangs whose cultural influence is more than tangible in Burst City. All of these movements and artists and their creations, combined with an “anyone can do it” attitude permeating different arts and media, would shatter traditional Japanese ideas of what is “artistic talent”.
Player also merges nicely a discussion of the punk scenes that came into being, not only in Tokyo’s Roppongi, Shinjuku and Shimokitazawa districts, but also in towns and cities in the Kansai region (Kyoto and Osaka, primarily) and Ishii’s hometown of Fukuoka, a scene known as mentai rock, which produced the likes of The Rockers and The Roosters. With this dynamic in mind, it is easy to see Burst City’s narrative as a highly dramatized microcosm of the punk movement and the element of tribalism associated with it.
In addition to the interviews and the essay, the booklet contains a complete Ishii filmography and the obligatory list of cast and crew. Unfortunately, the young woman who played the tragic character of the prostitute, an essential role in the narrative, is, for some reason or other, not mentioned in the male-dominated cast listing. Other than that oversight, Arrow has provided a well-packaged and a well-deserved celebration of Burst City, specifically, and the jishu eiga movement and the Japanese punk scene in general.
Matthew Fullerton is an educator and part-time academic (Dalhousie University) in Atlantic Canada. He researches and writes about the cinemas of Japan and Tunisia, two countries in which he used to live, work and study.