Burst City

BURST CITY (1982) is more of an immersive experience than a movie. It’s very light on plot, and I couldn’t tell you any of the characters’ names, and only what a couple of them were up to. But I thought it was great as sort of a travelogue to a dystopian near future as imagined by the early ‘80s Japanese punk scene.

It’s about the gangs and punk bands in a very filthy and crowded slum. They live in wrecked buildings and abandoned factories, covered in graffiti, strewn with junk, wreckage, the occasional mannequin. They sit around on the floor, playing instruments, watching a TV, giving commentary through a megaphone. One such place is presented with a title card that says “BATTLE ROCKERS SECRET BASE.”

Some of them have drag races and work at garages, but quit that job because they’re “much too artistic” for it.

One thing I like about futuristic dystopias and post-apocalypses is that people seem to drop societal expectations and be more wild about expressing themselves with fashion. Obviously much of that is tribal, maybe it’s just adopting a new set of rules. But it’s gotta be kinda fun when you’re free to stop giving a shit what people think and start wearing face paint and spikes and chains and stuff.

In this case we got the punk guys with their leather jackets and ‘50s inspired style. They can have crazy hair dos, bleach blond, weird makeup. We got some Yakuza type guys here called the Kikukawa Clan, who still wear suits and ties, but even one of those guys has a web tattoo along his hairline and wears a feather earring. And there are bikers who wear lumpy helmets and armor. Some of them seem to have cybernetic additions. One guy smokes holding his cigarette in a weird mollusk-like claw. And they eat chunks of meat wrapped in newspapers.

Women are not treated well in this world. Actually, you don’t see that many of them. But one part of the plot I did follow is the part about the aforementioned feather earring guy pimping out his girlfriend to an “important client.” She always looks so sad and he keeps telling her it will only be “a little bit more.” When she finally stands up to this “client” and calls him a sicko he kills her. Fortunately the rest of the movie isn’t as sad or fucked up.

A bunch of Japanese punk bands of the time, including ones called The Roosters, The Rockers and The Stalin, star in the movie. I can’t say I know a single thing about their scene, and even American punk hasn’t been my thing outside of a 2 year window around middle school and some residual fondness for the Dead Kennedys, but man does it work perfectly in this movie. They’re often performing and there’s usually some rock ’n roll on the soundtrack when they’re not. Two of the bands seem to have a rivalry. One of my favorite sequences is when the leather jacket guys are performing their song “Wild Beat in the Supermarket” and another band, identifiable by their bright red handkerchiefs and/or ski masks, rush the stage with wooden bats and start beating the shit out of them. After a while the drums start up again and I thought for a second the drummer decided to just keep going, but then I realized this other band was bum rushing. They take over the show until cops show up. Then the red guys slip away and the people who originally organized the show take the blame.

It’s kind of funny because you’re surprised to learn this late in the game that there even are cops in this world. They’re pretty normal ones but their cars say “BATTLE POLICE” on the side.

One of my favorite things in movies is grainy 16mm pristinely transferred to blu-ray. Here I like to think it gives the proceedings a little bit of a xeroxed flyer texture. There are some shots that are undercranked, or black and white, or black and white with tinted red. But it’s mostly those little dots skanking around, adding even more dirty, chaotic energy to the proceedings.

The most noticeable stylistic feature is the beautifully messy handheld style. I’m not normally one for shakycam, but in this case it doesn’t feel like it’s obscuring anything, it feels like it’s putting you right in the middle of the action. In fact, strapping you on top of it. It’s a movie about noise and speed, and opens with footage of speeding cars that reminded me of the original MAD MAX. Cameras strapped to hoods, to motorcycles, even to a guy’s head – a closeup of his short mohawk blowing in the wind. I can’t be sure but I absolutely believe they had him really hauling ass on a motorcycle for authenticity.

When the first band starts playing, the camerawork is incredible. It’s in the pit and starts shaking around when the crowd does. Then it’s on the guitar strings, over the drummer’s shoulder, all the places that are most exciting to see. It’s like the energy of the music is so infectious it seeps into the camera. Cinematographer Norimichi Kasamatsu went on to shoot the Japanese UNFORGIVEN remake, among many others.

Most of the movie takes place at night, outside (I think), in weird places surrounded by wreckage and junk. It’s hard to know exactly where you are, where the crowd ends, which way you would go to get out. It really reminded me of the feeling I had as a younger teen going to punk shows, only kind of understanding what was going on around me, but trying to go along with it as if I belonged.

Later in the movie the red handkerchief guys are playing on the back of a truck, moving through a big crowd, taunting that they have to listen to them. They sing a song about “what a toilet of a world” and pig testicles and cow shit in their refrigerator. Later the Battle Police show up and the band throws a pig head and intestines at them. Unfortunately, the Battle Cops are armed with some kind of electrified nightsticks that shock the band (animated jagged lines around them) and they explode! The rival band sees this happen and pauses for a beat before the singer says, “Hey guys – let’s take it up a notch!” and start playing again.

Eventually things escalate to a higher level of Battle Cops who wear futuristic white armor and carry giant cannons. But nobody’s backing down. And they start blowing up buildings. I only learned from Wikipedia that this was all a protest against the nuclear power plant being built nearby. I thought it was just a vibrant night life of Burst City.

I went into this blind, but afterwards I learned that BURST CITY was part of a movement called jishu eiga (roughly autonomous film or self-made film), different from the previous generation’s independent film movement because it was no budget, no skills, amateur. He says this was low budget compared to a commercial film, but large for a jishu eiga, which obviously shows – this thing is huge! So many extras, so many vehicles, so many beautifully trashed locations.

Director Sogo Ishii had discovered rock from living near American military bases, and sang and played guitar in various punk bands. When he started college in 1977 he applied a punk ethos to making his own films, starting a collective called Crazy Film Group, borrowing cameras from the school and just going for it. Though he was only 18 when he made BURST CITY, it was his third feature! He’d already co-directed a mainstream remake of his 8mm short PANIC IN HIGH SCHOOL for Nikkatsu, and Toei had bought his second film CRAZY THUNDER ROAD. Jishu eiga was largely for people who wanted to make films but couldn’t get into the industry, but here was the industry trying to get into jishu eiga.

Later in his career Ishii had trouble getting funding for a while, so he started directing videos for Einsturzende Neubauten and stuff until he had a comeback. In the ‘90s he had an experimental noise band called MACH-1.67 with the actor Tadanobu Asano (THOR, MORTAL KOMBAT) and in 2000 he directed two movies I’ve heard of but not seen yet – GOJOE and ELECTRIC DRAGON 80.000 V. Okay, I’m interested now.

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9 Responses to “Burst City”

  1. Wow. Never expected a review of this.

    It’s every bit as visually impressive as you say. My thoughts don’t go much further than that, because I saw it with Ishii and his band providing live musical accompaniment all the way through, and while that was a fantastic experience it wasn’t really conducive to following the plot. I’ve got it on disc now, but still haven’t sat down and watched it properly. Of the other Ishii stuff I’ve seen, I like AUGUST IN THE WATER and LABYRINTH OF DREAMS best; those play in a quieter, more mystical register than his punk rock action stuff, but there’s some of the same sensibility there.

  2. Sadly, this one goes in the same category as BLADE RUNNER and REPO MAN for me: undeniably fucking cool movies that are absolutely intoxicating for ten minutes or so and functionally unwatchable after that. I love the hustle and admire the style, but man, I wish there was something tangible for a boring old narrative nerd like me to hang onto.

  3. @Matthew B that is really cool about your first time seeing this movie! What year?

    If you’re into this kind of thing & will tolerate a personal plug: a friend of mine just did a great translation of a book by Kou Machida (of the band INU) called Rip It Up. It’s a pretty stream-of-consciousness read, but if that’s not a problem, there’s plenty of lurid chaos to be found.

  4. psychic_hits: This was back in 1997, at the Vancouver IFF. Mach 1.67 did their concert while a bunch of Ishii movies played from multiple projectors — BURST CITY, THE MASTER OF SHIATSU, and I think CRAZY THUNDER ROAD.

    I’ve got a copy of Meshi Kuuna!, but I had no idea Machida wrote novels too. And apparently this one won the Akutagawa Prize? I’ll keep an eye out for it next time I’m in an English bookshop. I don’t see the translation on Amazon Japan yet, but that’s probably because it just came out.

  5. Japanese punk is insane. Probably the best known movie about that scene is WILD ZERO, a UFO/zombie/rock and roll love story starring Guitar Wolf. The movie is everything I love about rock and roll, and the band is great live.

    There’s an amazing book about the Japanese experimental rock scene by Julian Cope (that includes a band member hijacking a plane) but the title contains a slur.

  6. A word of advice to anyone who visits Japan and can’t understand why the indie record stores don’t carry those cool Julian Cope-style 1970s hard rock bands: They’re in the prog section. Yeah, I don’t get it either. Would comparable English or American bands be filed under prog rock? Black Sabbath? The Stooges? No, they would not.* But that’s where you’ll find their Japanese counterparts like the Flower Travellin’ Band or Speed, Glue, & Shinki — prog rock, or at least an adjacent section called “Japan new rock” or something.

    Took me, like, four years to figure that out.

    *Hawkwind? Well, maybe.

  7. @matthew B goddamn. That sounds incredible.

    And hey, thanks for your interest in my buddy’s book! Machida is a real renaissance dude, apparently…. Rip It Up’s a novella, and it’s printed as one of those smaller-size books that are common in Japan, so I’m unsure if it’s destined for actual bookstores. But I got my copy thru Inpatient Press’s website.

  8. I don’t know those other bands, but I would definitely call Flower Travelin’ Band prog. Though maybe that’s just because I wouldn’t know what else to call them.

  9. psychic_hits: It sounds like the kind of thing the local shops usually import, but we’ll see. I’ll go online if it doesn’t show up.

    Mr. Majestyk: I’d call the Flower Travellin’ Band heavy psych, maybe? Too much blues influence for me to think of them as prog. I guess it goes back to the start of the ’70s, where groups like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin were still called “progressive”; in Japan, where the louder local bands never entered the mainstream, that scene was smaller, and didn’t get reclassified into subgenres the way it did elsewhere.

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