Sogo Ishii is considered by many to be one of the godfathers of modern Japanese cinema. Filmmakers such as Shinya Tsukamoto, Takeshi Miike as well as many others have been influenced by Ishii's work. Now, one of Ishii's groundbreaking early films, Burst City, is finally available on DVD.
Much like the punk revolution that he covered in his films, Sogo Ishii was essentially doing the same thing with his approach to filmmaking. Shooting on anything he could get his hands on, Ishii independently made 3 shorts and a 70 minute feature before exploding onto the Japanese film scene in 1980 with Crazy Thunder Road. Studio execs from Toei were so impressed with Ishii's student film, that they bought the rights and put in theaters. After quickly finding critical acclaim and financial success, Sogo got funding for his next project and third feature, Burst City.
Writing this review, I find it hard to explain the experience of viewing Burst City for the first time. Being such an unconventional film comprised of hyperkinetic sound and visuals, words do Burst City little justice. Set in semi post-apocalyptic dilapidated future, Burst City is void of any real traditional lead roles. Instead the film focuses on battling punk bands, rival gangs and the happenings in a pseudo shanty town. The closet central characters Burst City has are two drifters, one wearing Mad Max like armor and other his crazy mute sidekick. The two open the film by arriving in "Burst City" and close the film by leaving in their sidecar equipped motorcycle. During their visit to "Burst City", punk bands physically and sonically battle each other on stage, drag racing contests run into the early morning, shady gang dealings transpire and then there's the fighting. Lots and lots of fighting. So much in fact, that the final scene supposedly used 6,000 extras to achieve the film's climax.
What makes Burst City so exceptional is Sogo Ishii's brilliant, unrestrained use of the camera. The energy he manages to create throughout the film can largely be accredited to his creative camerawork. Everything from the wild camera mounts, daunting tracking shots, insane camera angles and super shaky hand held shots give Burst City a unique look, especially for the time. Probably the closest comparison to Ishii's visual style I can think of is some of Sam Raimi's early work. On top of all the camera ticks Sogo applies, the rapid fire editing of Burst City makes Michael Bay's movies look like child's play.
Of course the other device which propels Burst City is the energetic Punk Rock soundtrack. Both the songs performed on and off screen truly create the "backbone" of the film, compensating for the lack of story and dialogue. Ishii assembled members of many of the prominent punk bands at the time to help contribute to the film's soundtrack. Members of the bands from "The Roosters", "The Rockers", "Inu" and "Stalin" also acted in the film. In particular the band "Stalin", the Japanese equivalent of the "Sex Pistols", played the red clad enemy of the "Battle Rockers".
The unsung hero of Burst City is it's phenomenal production design. The run down industrial wasteland which most of the film takes place in creates a very convincing atmosphere for its inhabitants to occupy. The actual "Burst City" shanty town itself is meticulously detailed and reeks of realism. In fact at times, parts of Burst City almost feel like a documentary. Ishii's gritty shooting style and "out of control" filmmaking matches up perfectly to help create this illusion.
Video: Presented in a widescreen anamorphic transfer 1.85:1, Burst City's looks like it should. Shot on 16mm and using little if any lighting, much of Burst City is dark, grainy and washed out. Black levels are not particularly good and the film lacks fine detail. There is some dirt present on the film, but the overall quality of the print masks the majority of it. Most, if not all of these flaws are from the source material itself. With that being said, Discotek has most likely delivered the best looking version of Burst City that they possibly could.
Sound: Just like the transfer, the quality of the soundtrack is limited by the original recordings. The Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack at times sounds good and other times sounds horrible. Dialogue is thin, distant and empty, while most of the music comes off sounding muddy with little range. It's a shame that the music doesn't sound better considering how integral it is to the film.
Subtitles: The optional white English subtitles included on Burst City are exceptional. They are very easy to read, and I don't recall any spelling or grammatical errors. I also must mention that Discotek thankfully took the time to subtitle almost every song included in the film.
Extras: Unfortunately, the extras are rather limited on this release. There are trailers for Burst City, Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts and Zero Woman Red Handcuffs. All have optional English subtitles and the Burst City trailer is anamorphic, while the other two are not. Next is a "Photo Gallery", which is actually quite good. Many of the scenes from the film look fantastic as 35mm stills and really show the difference in quality from the actual film. Next there are three text based sections, "Background on Burst City", "From the Soundtrack" and "See Saw". All three pieces are very informative, that is if you don't mind doing a little reading. In the "From the Soundtrack" selection, it's explained that Discotek tried to get the rights to the CD soundtrack to include with this release, but were unable to secure them. Finally if you're up for some more reading, Tom Mes from the midnighteye.com has contributed fantastic liner notes about Sogo Ishii and Burst City.
Truly a one of a kind film, Sogo Ishii's Burst City is every bit as impressive as it was when released in 1981. Fans of modern day Japanese cinema would be well advised to give this film a look, as its influences are still being felt today. Burst City is also a hidden gem for film lovers that want to see something they've never seen before. Discotek has done a wonderful job with their release of Burst City on DVD. It's a shame they were unable to gain the rights to the soundtrack, but sometimes you can't have your cake and eat it too. Highly Recommended.