Mention cyberpunk and 1982 and most fans of science fiction cinema will immediately think of Ridley Scott’s iconic film Blade Runner. In Japan, however, you might just think of Sogo Ishii’s Burst City. Released the same year, it is represents a pivotal moment in Japanese city and remains a cult favourite.
The film actually represents an enjoyable contrast to Ridley Scott’s celebrated masterpiece. While Blade Runner is much more ‘cyber’ than ‘punk’, and carefully assembled with an eye for design, Burst City is essentially its polar opposite: so ‘punk’ that it hurts. The cast are predominantly members of punk bands, the extras are all punks, and the action regularly interspersed with punk rock performances. The sets were loosely assembled on an industrial estate, where much of the cast and crew would camp out between each day’s shoot.
Burst City is a landmark in Japanese independent film, because it was the first low-budget independent film (known locally as ‘self-made film’ or ‘jishu seisaku eiga’) to be picked up by a major distributor. The 1970s had been a difficult decade for Japanese cinema, and the rise of edgy, independent films provided something of an energising boost in the 1980s.
In a near future Tokyo two men ride around on a motorcycle and sidecar, seeking to avenge a murder. Meanwhile the gangs and rockers of an old industrial estate discover that a crime boss is planning to sell off the land to build a nuclear power station. The narrative in Burst City is slight, because the film is far more focused upon the punk bands that make up their cast.: chiefly, Fukuoka’s the Roosters, Kyushu’s the Rockers, and Fukushima’s the Stalin. Music forms such a core element of the film that it effectively functions as well as a concert film as it does a dramatic one.
The film is shot fast and loose on 16mm film, with plenty of handheld camera work. The editing is chaotic and aggressive. It is the energy behind Burst City that makes it so watchable. It foreshadows an entire decade of similarly loud, abrasive cinema – notably Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It carries a genuinely punk sensibility as well: both the yakuza and police appear to serve the same masters, and crack down on the young punks with equal effort. The performances are broad, and often amateurish. To be honest it would feel inappropriate for it to be anything else.
One subplot stands out. It depicts a young sex worker pushed by her pimp into satisfying the sadistic desires of one yakuza in particular. While generally unpleasant and a little exploitative – elements feel at least partially inspired by the exploitation films of Teruo Ishii – the sequence shows a more in-depth presentation of character, and foreshadows a much strong director than Sogo Ishii perhaps appears to be here (the two Ishiis do not appear to be related).
Burst City is packed with great music, chaotic photography and editing, and a proper do-it-yourself and anti-authoritarian spirit. Its original theatrical trailer actually describes it best. ‘This is not a film about rioting,’ it says. ‘It’s a riotous film.’ There is so much energy infused into every frame, captured like lightning in a bottle. This is one hell of a ride.