A film of more adjectives than sense, Burst City (爆裂都市, Bakuretsu Toshi) is a Japanese dystopian punk rock musical of disenfranchised youth displaced by the machinations of the bureaucracy who wish to build a nuclear power plant on the outskirts of Tokyo in the derelict industrial site where the gangs currently live, forming bands, playing gigs and racing their cars.
Written, directed and co-edited by Sōgo Ishii (石井 聰互) and shot on 16mm for around fifty million yen, a sum described as “not so huge” by Ishii, Burst City was released in Japan in early 1982 and now makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Arrow Films, a document of its angry time and a stepping stone to the cyberpunk movement which emerged later that decade and took much of its inspiration from Japanese culture and style.
The opening shots of overlapping images of rolling cityscapes at night recalling Koyaanisqatsi, released the same year, the slow walk to the stage of the first band the explodes the style, an amalgam of seventies glam rock and eighties edginess, eyeshadow and drawn-on cheekbones, a frustrated generation expressing itself in extreme fashion modelled on alien cultures.
With studded leather outfits and weapons drawn from Mad Max and autoshop obsessed dance numbers and murders an extreme interpretation of Grease, from their secret bases the Battlerockers and Kikukawa Clan engage in skirmishes for dominance, the narrative not so much fractured as completely shattered, a wanton disregard for cinematic convention which permeates every aspect of the film.
Much of the location work shot on a former industrial site closed over pollution concerns, there is no structure, every scene taken beyond excess into the extreme, not in terms of content but duration, Ishii filming on three cameras and every scrap of footage of indulgence and nihilistic abandon seemingly strung together without purpose or direction.
Ishii discussing in the accompanying interview the “jishu eiga” school of filmmaking – “no budget, no pay, no skills” – in his commentary Japanese film expert Tom Mes introduces Burst City as “one of the best Japanese films of all time, certainly one of the most impressive ones in terms of style,” but it is safe to say it may be an acquired taste with many feeling much was lost in translation.