By Tom Wilmot.
Shinya Tsukamoto, Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa are just a few of the names that come to mind when thinking of acclaimed Japanese cult filmmakers in the late twentieth century. However, without the work of another incredibly influential auteur, we may not have these directors as we know them: Sogo Ishii. Distribution of Ishii’s films has been all but non-existent in the West, despite them laying the groundwork for a new wave of 1980s independent filmmakers in Japan. Fortunately, Arrow Video have come up with the goods, delivering the definitive edition of what is arguably the quintessential Ishii film, Burst City (1982).
The film covers a series of intertwining events that take place in a post-apocalyptic looking location on the outskirts of Tokyo. Hordes of young misfits gather to denounce the monotonous lifestyle of “economic miracle” Japan, rock out to their favourite bands and cause havoc. Punk bands battle it out, both musically and physically, as they and their followers partake in drag races and partying. Throw in a troupe of cybernetically enhanced labourers, shady mobsters in cahoots with the police, and an odd pair of axe-wielding bikers, and you have a recipe for pure punk chaos.
The clear influence of the punk scene on Burst City is evident early on, as a documentary-style concert prep preludes an explosive opening credits sequence that has more in common with an MTV music video. The film features real punk bands from the time of its production, whose presence, along with an army of dedicated fans, brings a level of raw authenticity. The intimidating scale of the film alone, with some 6,000 extras used in total, is enough to keep you on edge throughout as the explosive finale is a free-rein indulgence of pure, cathartic mayhem.
While more punk than cyberpunk, familiar elements of the latter are scattered throughout, with a run-down industrial look, eccentric futuristic costumes and anti-authoritarian message. There’s even an element of the big bad corporation in the form of the yakuza types looking to build a nuclear power plant on the desolate site that the societal rejects call home. The influence the film had on the Japanese cyberpunk movement in later years is plain for all to see, with the striking aesthetics serving as a blueprint for cult classics such as Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989).
Everything about the young Ishii’s approach is a stray from the norm, as he and his team of amateur filmmakers break conventions to create something wholly unique. The director guides us through the film’s filthy dystopian world with a frantically moving camera, and utilises pacey editing and undercranked shots to craft some wonderfully experimental sequences. A relentlessly loud and energetic slice of a rebellious lifestyle, the movie is both a fair representation of and a love letter to the punk subculture of the era.
All of this carnage can be enjoyed with the original lossless mono Japanese soundtrack, or with an audio commentary from film expert Tom Mes. A seemingly endless fount of knowledge for both Japanese cinema and history, Mes discusses the sorry state of the country’s studio system at the time of Burst City’s production, the role the film played in the cyberpunk movement at large, and where the movie sits amongst the rest of Ishii’s extensive filmography. Mes also introduces us to some of Ishii’s collaborators on the film, many of whom, such as art director and assistant editor Junji Sakamoto, have gone on to become well-respected figures in the modern Japanese film industry.
Helping put the film into context is a new interview with academic and Burst City lighting technician Yoshiharu Tezuka, who opens up about the chaotic production and gives us an idea of what it was like to work under Ishii. Tezuka also provides valuable insight into the jishu eiga (self-produced films) movement that emerged in Japan during the late 1970s and early 1980s, discussing the significance of Ishii’s success, which served as an inspiration to other aspiring filmmakers who were unwilling to slog through the stagnant studio system. This is further explored in Mark Player’s accompanying booklet essay that highlights the “anyone can do it” attitude of Japan’s punk scene and how this married perfectly with the rise of the jishu eiga movement. Ishii’s connection to these two influential subcultures allowed him to make a film that embodied the spirit of both, and was, as Player puts it, very much a ‘product for its era’ rather than just of it.
Arguably the biggest draw to Arrow’s package, however, is a brand-new 56-minute long interview with Ishii himself. The director touches on his influences as a young filmmaker and, if the state of the production wasn’t already clear by now, talks about the utterly bonkers shoot for Burst City that saw him falling unconscious and bleeding from the ears before entering an intense editing process. Ishii discusses his distaste for what he considers to be the unfinished final cut of the film and shares his initial large-scale ambitions for the project, which at one point involved the desperado punk gangs coming into contact with a gigantic UFO! One can only dream of what the director might have accomplished with a larger budget. Ishii also touches on entering a new phase in his filmmaking life, having changed his name to Gakuryu in 2012. However, while humble and soft-spoken, there’s still a tinge of the rebellious punk Sōgo in this interview, as the director matter-of-factly labels Burst City “a middle finger to the film industry as it stood”.
Almost forty years on, Burst City remains as abrasive and chaotic as it was at the time of its regrettably unsuccessful release. The film is an engaging and aggressive assault on the senses that was truly vital in the development of the cyberpunk scene in Japan, and a significant part of a movement that paved the way for many of the country’s most celebrated independent filmmakers. With this much-needed release, Arrow Video offer a complete package with valuable extras that tell the story behind this mad film and allow you to appreciate just how extraordinary it was for its time. The disc serves as a welcome Western introduction to Ishii’s work and will hopefully lead to further releases of some of the director’s other similarly influential and uncompromising projects.
Burst City is out on UK Blu-ray from Arrow Video.