Bakuretsu Toshi, 1982
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 had 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 the feature 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 himself, an enthusiast of the scene. Members of The Roosters and The Rockers, 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, convincingly so, with a screen presense which oozes naturalisitc qualities.
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 powerful anthems; anarchy being most certainly the main focal point with warring gangs and police interventions. He flits back and forth between the Battle Rockers and the Kikkawa Clan’s secret bases, with concerts backed by masses of adoring fans and groupies (six thousand extras were ushered in to create such widespread mayhem), introducing 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 entirely different scales. He excels 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 parallels to other works of fiction, from Mad Max to Tetsuo. Unsurprisingly, Ishii maintains an energetic pace throughout and this is a feature that clocks in at almost two hours in length. 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.