Burst City is an anarchic rock opera on speed. It’s one of the most unique movies I’ve seen, frequently doesn’t make a lot of sense, is alternately bizarrely fun and maddeningly boring, and always incredibly energetic.
Directed by Gakuryu Ishii (aka Sogo Ishii), known for his concert films and proto-punk aesthetic, Burst City is sort of like Mad Max meets Tetsuo: The Iron Man meets Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets meets Sid and Nancy. Or imagine the trash-punk of Hobo with a Shotgun injected with a little bit of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Okay, enough of the hybrid comparisons. It’s tough to really tell you what Burst City is about. Here’s what I know: at some point in some dystopic future (or maybe it’s just supposed to be the 80s), Japan is overrun with glam-punk rockers, corporate suits that disobey the law, cops with no morals, and of course prostitutes. None of these people seem to really like each other. They all like to yell a lot. And no one wants to obey anyone else’s laws. Seriously, I’d have a damn hard time writing a real synopsis of this film.
To his credit, Ishii utilizes a whole mess of techniques, ranging from fast and slow motion, to freeze frames, to a slowed shutter, to varying film stocks that seem mostly dominated by grainy 16mm. I’d wager that a good amount of films now considered “cyberpunk” owe a huge debt to this picture.
Ishii’s strategy is the old Billy Wilder screenwriting mantra: “grab ‘em by the throat and don’t let ‘em go.” Except his doesn’t refer to the script (somewhat unfortunately). It refers to the constantly moving camera and the beyond-rapid editing. This all culminates in a riot scene to close the film that is so. damn. long that it gets annoying. I didn’t time it, but it has to be 20+ minutes.
You know why some war sequences or action scenes are successful? Aside from visual interest I’d bet on two reasons. First, there’s a strong anchor of sympathy (read: who we root for). Second, there’s an arc to them, including climax and all, where the action drops soon thereafter.
The problem – and concurrently the gleeful fun – with the ending chaos of Burst City? We know a few people we don’t like, but it’s pretty hard to figure out who we should hope wins. And even more so? There’s absolutely no highs or lows. It looks like Ishii just told all of his actors and extras to run, scream, pretend to hit each other, and then he ran in with the camera. I honestly think that’s what happened. The soundtrack is a mess of muted punk and poorly mixed screaming and foley. The action is indiscernible and lacking any clear direction.
But still, the pure energy of this film, and how ludicrous it all is takes it to a place that few others can say they’ve achieved. I referenced Throw Away Your Books, because there is certainly something in Burst City that recalls that youthful energy of some of those Japanese New Wave films – Fukasaka, Oshima, and Terayama all come to mind – but filtered through a lens that has seen that movement rise and flicker, and has had to deal with a changing industry. Burst City is an angry film with a comedic bent. It’s angry in a ‘restless-youth’ kind of way, but also in a ‘where is Japanese film going’ way? Gone is Oshima’s dogmatic approach, and in its place is the relentless, overwhelming rush of furious bedlam. When Tetsuo dropped in 1989 it wasn’t important only for its low-budget approach and its introduction of a metal-punk (why does everything have to have ‘punk’ as a suffix?) imagery, but for being so darn angry. Burst City feels the same.
Here are a few of the looks of the film. Burst City ranges from beautiful, softly lit, shallow depth black and white that could be pulled from a Pennbaker concert film. These moments are calm and quiet:
To an earth-toned costume design. These characters could be from the prison colony in Alien 3 or Robocop. Very eighties, very found-design:
To near-classical, dramatic angles, with a warmer, more saturated tone:
To the general chaos, where the camera moves more than it cuts, finds what it can in front of its lens, doesn’t care too much about focus and rages about as much as the kids in the film (yes, that’s a pig’s head in the first still):