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In Tokyo, in some unknown year, Yakuza industrialists move in on a slum with plans to build a nuclear power plant. The residents of the slum are mostly teenagers, and all of them seem to belong to one of two major gangs (each with their own punk rock band). Some of them work day jobs, including a group of bikers who allow themselves to be hired on to help in the construction of the power plant, but most of them resent authority, quitting square jobs the moment the powers-that-be threaten to trample on their rebellious attitude. As the Yakuza's effort to construct the plant becomes increasingly oppressive, a war breaks out between the punks, the Yakuza, and the police, culminating in a chaotic "battle of the bands" where the entirety of the slum rises up in an anarchic, explosive riot.
Burst City is an incredibly divisive piece of filmmaking, at once capturing the anarchic spirit of fiercely independent, youthful Japanese filmmakers and musicians, while also straying far enough from the traditional idea of narrative and storytelling that its appeal is naturally limited to a very niche audience. So much of the film's vibrance and value is of the time capsule variety, with writer/director Sogo Ishii (now known as Gakuryu Ishii) packing the film full of actual punk musicians who were on the cutting edge of popular culture when the film was made back in 1982, and the movie looks great, scraping together an extremely cool post-apocalyptic aesthetic on a a tiny budget, echoing and even topping something like the look and feel of the original Mad Max. Still, "plot" and "character" are hard to come by, and not in an especially experimental or surreal sense.
The best way to look at Burst City is arguably provided by the title itself. The film is not so much a story as it is a mood board, a wild and crazy jumble of ideas and style splattered across the screen like a Molotov cocktail. Recognizable characters briefly materialize -- a motorcycling duo featuring a man with a metal plate on his head and another who speaks only in screams, a pimp and his emotionally fragile girlfriend, the Yakuza bosses in charge of building the plant -- before disappearing into a hallucinatory, impressionistic primal scream of music and action. To be clear, Burst City is neither consistent enough to be called episodic, nor is it especially surreal (like, say, David Lynch), it's just uninterested in telling a story the traditional way, which is respectable as part of the film's overall ethos, but nonetheless makes it frustrating to watch (perhaps because of those occasional reminders that there is something to follow, if the viewer can keep it all straight without names or much of an overall plot arc) -- writing a summary of the story for this review was actually kind of a challenge.
Instead of story, Ishii packs the films energy into its spirit, which is certainly rousing. The film may not look like a polished studio blockbuster, but it never looks cheap, generating energy through wild camerawork, stylish lighting, impressively-staged action and crowd scenes, and impressive costumes, props, and found production design. The film's overall look and feel is so coherent and well-executed that it sometimes feels like a documentary from an alternate universe (accentuated by the grainy 16mm film stock). The film came out the same year as Blade Runner, a major influence on the accepted look and feel of cyberpunk, and it could be cut from the same cloth, with neon-tinted visuals, and men in repurposed 1950s suits and ties mingling with leather-jacket punks in dingy back alleys. During the film's lengthy closing sequence, which descends into complete incoherent chaos, stormtrooper-like riot cops appear in futuristic armor riding techno-tanks, ready to put their bootheels into punks' faces.
The final sequence represents both the best and worst of Burst City. On one hand, the film's class war congeals a bit, with the police hauling out the hoses to spray the residents of the slum, while the two bands play against one another at opposite ends of the street, undeterred by the threat of violence. In an especially punk rock move, the lead singer of one of the bands hurls the head of a pig into the crowd, seemingly at the police. At the same time, aside from song lyrics and one brief, impassioned speech, it's probably possible to count the lines of dialogue in the entire final 30 minutes on two hands and still have fingers left over. There's an essential vitality to the sight of the bands playing even as the police send more and more men, but the actual fire and grit of what these people are fighting for gets lost in the madness. It's a primal scream, but about what, and against whom? The yakuza? The cops? Society in general? The energy is infectious, but the answer is unclear.
Burst City arrives on Blu-ray in one of Arrow's traditional transparent Amaray Blu-ray cases, with the thicker spine. On the default side of the reversible sleeve, there is a new illustration by Chris Malbon, which offers up a Struzan-esque collage of moments and characters with a punk-ish aesthetic. On the other side, there's an original Japanese poster design, featuring the cast of characters in black-and-white above a monochromatic blue image of a gloved hand brandishing an axe. Inside the case, there's a card advertising Arrow's streaming platform on one side and an upcoming release on another (David Lynch's Dune), and a booklet with an essay by Mark Player, Sogo Ishii's filmography, and notes on the transfer.
The Video and Audio
The booklet doesn't shed much light on the provenance of the 1.85:1 1080p AVC presentation on the disc, noting only that it was provided by Toei. Mes' commentary also mentions that it was approved by both director Gakuryu Ishii and cinematographer Norimichi Kasamatsu. Burst City was shot on 16mm, and the usual limitations to 16mm apply, including increased softness, heavier grain, and weaker delineation during dark scenes. Compression seems decent, and colors are relatively nice, although they run a little cool -- whether or not this is a slightly modern affectation (even with the director and DP's stamp of approval), I have no idea. Sound is an LPCM Japanese Mono track, which sounds pretty good for what it is, coming to life during the film's many concert sequences, as well as a couple of sequences with car action. Dialogue sounds decent, and the track is free of distortion and other damage. On both the audio and video front, this is a solid presentation that captures the grittiness and low-budget nature of the original production. English subtitles are also provided.
Three major extras are included on Arrow's disc. Japanese film expert Tom Mes provides an audio commentary that is rich with history and trivia about the making of the film and the careers of all of the major players (with a particular focus on how it fits into Gakuryu Ishii's career), as well as history and trivia of the Japanese film industry and the impact of the film. This track is nicely supported by the two video extras. "The Punk Spirit of '82: Sogo Ishii on Burst City" (56:28), which sits down with the director himself, who quietly reminisces about his entire career. Text prompts fill the viewer in on the questions, and then Ishii appears (seemingly culled from a couple of separate sessions), speaking at length about his desire to make films, the challenges he encountered, whether or not he thought the audience or industry would embrace his methods, the punk scene in Japan, the way they used found production design and extremely low-budget handmade costumes and props, shooting action (including an intense story about a stunt on a different production where someone almost died), and more. It's a very informative interview, although Ishii is a very soft-spoken man (especially for having created such a crazy film), and so the interview can be a little dry. "Bursting Out" (27:08), an interview with scholar, author, and fellow filmmaker Yoshiharu Tezuka on jishu eiga (which says essentially translates to "volunteer") movement (which also comes up in Ishii's interview) and the production of Burst City. He talks about how the lack of opportunity for young filmmakers helped birth a generation of filmmakers who created movies with almost basically no resources, with productions relying entirely on passion (hence the name). They worked using Super 8, and even created their own film festival that helped congregate their work in a single place to help get the word out, and which would turn around and support winners with the financing for future films. He then segues into chat about Ishii's interests and goals with the movie, the making of the movie itself and the struggles of working on such a shoestring budget. Some of the information here is also covered in Mes' commentary, Ishii's interview, and Player's booklet essay, but Tezuka is an engaging speaker, and he fleshes out some areas that the other two supplements do not, so the piece is enjoyable regardless. Ishii's interview is in Japanese with English subtitles, and Tezuka's is in English.
The disc rounds out with a photo gallery. An original theatrical trailer for Burst City is also included.Conclusion
The audience most primed for Burst City is probably the one represented within it: Japanese punks of the 1980s. For those viewers, this new edition of the movie will no doubt be a treasured addition to their collections. Newcomers are urged to proceed with more caution. With that caveat, the disc itself is recommended.
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