Burst City Review
Sogo Ishii was twenty five years of age when he unleashed the seminal Burst City upon an unsuspecting audience in 1982. Prior to this he’d made several short films, with Burst City’s precursor Crazy Thunder Road - a 16mm full-length graduation project - being picked up by Toho distribution. His philosophy was simple: he’d make movies by himself and for himself. Little did he realise at the time just how influential his work would become.
With a film such as Burst City worrying over solid storytelling would be counter-productive, because this isn’t a piece of work that relies on a traditional narrative structure. Sogo Ishii’s breakthrough feature is about sensations; a metaphysical experience whereby music and sounds form the basis of a social divide, encased within the confines of a burgeoning eighties punk scene. Social commentary rears its head, given the fact that what we’re looking at are individual states of mind transcribed as song lyrics; it’s where Burst City truly leaves its mark, delivering its ideas and personal feelings via uncommon methods. These are punctuated by enigmatic punk and rock songs, brought forth by an eclectic mixture of bands, hand-picked by Ishii, an enthusiast of the punk scene himself. Members of The Rockers and The Roosters, Inu, Machida, Stalin, 1984 and even Battle Rockers (the latter of which were created for the sole purpose of the film, but later enjoyed their own success) are amongst those who lend their powerful vocals and explosive physical presence to an overall high-octane apocalyptic scenario.
Fighting society with music; it’s long been a staple component of the rock and punk scene and none are more serious about sticking it to the man than these young and rebellious performers who show us just what real rock is all about, with Ishii even going so far as to have Battle Rockers trample over a Beatles poster as they head onto stage during the film’s opening sequence. In addition to this they all act of course, and impressively so I might add, although it must be said that there is a natural aproach to their screen presence.
Ishii doesn’t just stick to showcasing delirious concert footage. He breaks away from this during several intervals with a story that’s loosely connected to these anthems, although anarchy is most certainly the main focal point with warring gangs and police interventions. He flits back and forth between the Battle Rockers and Kikkawa Clan’s secret bases; concerts backed by masses of adoring fans and groupies (six thousand extras were ushered in to create such widespread mayhem); and introduces us to a wild assortment of quirky and insane characters, some of whom possess bizarre metal limbs or simply wear salvaged scrap from the heaps ’round back of where they live. He looks at a seedy underside where exploitation is rife, such as prostitution, drugs and mafia denizens, but he also highlights the dire consequences of each, hammering home valid points and showing us that no matter how glorified some of the actions that we see appear to be, they’re just actions placed on an entirely different levels. He achieves in showing us reality as well as self appointed fixations on certain aspects of life.
For a film made with a miniscule budget Burst City impresses with its sheer size and scope and it’s with its visual splendour that we can instantly draw other parallels and note post inspirations. Unsurprisingly Ishii keeps an energetic pace throughout, and this is a feature that clocks in at almost two hours in length. My fascination in Japanese cinema started back when Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo began doing to the rounds and as such that’s a film that I hold very dear. While Tsukamoto certainly reinvigorated the Japanese movie scene toward the end of the eighties it’s clear that even he wasn’t producing entirely original ideas, although he evolved them into another entity entirely. Pre-dating the Cyberpunk scene by a good five years Sogo Ishii was already tapping into other possibilities and experimenting with lenses in ways that wouldn’t ordinarily find a place in strict film making schools. His freestyle approach which proudly displays abnormalities and signifies amateurish qualities actually end up aiding the overall nature of the film; a melding of fictitious and factual moments that are conveyed in gritty realism, a sort of pseudo documentary if you will. Burst City takes place mostly in a gigantic constructed set that was built just outside of Kawaguchi City in the Saitama prefecture. As such the film is an entirely industrial picture that’s cold and grey, coming to life at night where it’s infused with frequent rocking and Ishii’s stunning use of speed-editing that today would be instantly recognised in the works of Miike, Tsukamoto and a host of western directors. In addition he plays with several mediums and manipulates images with daring use of colour; transforming tones from scene to scene by diffusing the palette and bringing us stark and gritty juxtapositions as black and white and colour photography seamlessly merge into each other. It creates a manic assault on the senses as Ishii displays his psychedelic punk roots, while art director Shigeru Izumiya creates a perfectly apt toilet of the world.
Discotek Media presents the first of their Sogo Ishii line up on another fine disc. Accompanying the release is a special insert written by Tom Mes. As mentioned later on in the disc Discotek intended to release Burst City as a two disc special edition, with disc two being the soundtrack CD. Sadly they couldn’t get permission to include it, which is a great shame because it’s a fantastic sounding collection of songs. Anyway…
Burst City is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement. Obviously we’re not dealing with brilliant source materials, this being filmed on 16mm and then converted to 35mm. The image contains a lot of natural high grain and exhibits a little softness; perfectly normal attributes which have been nicely carried over, likewise black levels aren’t particularly deep but colours are very stable, with nice flesh tones and prominent amounts of neon lit spaces. There is only one real concern: a slight amount of digital noise that’s visible on static black. Otherwise Ishii’s film looks probably as good as it did over twenty years ago.
Sound options consists of an original Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track. While you can’t expect the film to sound amazing it’s dynamic enough by way of its music and certainly won’t disappoint purists. Dialogue is fine, although there are a few moments here and there that sound somewhat subdued, which I suspect is inherent to the original source anyway.
Optional English subtitles are included and these are great, not only being nicely times and easy to read, but also in that they translate every one of the songs throughout the feature. Ah, some of those lyrics….
Extras on this release are fairly light and it appears as if some were designed to accompany the much hoped for CD soundtrack inclusion. The main feature consists of some very good text notes from Hijiri Oshima, taken from the original soundtrack CD release. It’s spilt into three sections which can be viewed individually or as one piece, starting with background info on the film and then going on to provide notes about the songs and bands with complete lyric translations for each song. Finally there’s a little talk on the origin of “See Saw”. Also included is a photo gallery consisting of approximately sixty five images (assortment of colour and black & white), while trailers for Burst City, Electric Dragon 80,000V and Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs rounds things up.
I have to say that it’s no easy task putting into words just what makes Burst City one of the finest experiences that one can enjoy in the confines of their living room. Charged with a magnificent soundtrack and imbued with maniacal performances that highlight a significant moment in time, it’s clearly a film that defined a generation and inspired future ones. A must-see for anyone interested in music and perhaps even more so the movement of modern Japanese cinema.