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JapanFocus
'Burst City' a Punk Classic
[DVD Review] Ishii Sogo's groundbreaking film receives a long overdue DVD release
Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)     Print Article 
Published 2007-05-02 05:16 (KST)   
Discotek's Region 1 DVD of "Burst City (Bakuretsu toshi)" (1982) is their most significant release so far. Reaching back to the 80s, long before the PSC (Pointless Sadako Clones) syndrome, Kitamura Ryuhei and limp "live action" versions of 60s and 70s manga classics have overtaken Japanese cinema, Discotek has uncovered one of the country's most influential -- and yet most difficult to access -- independent genre films, Ishii Sogo's unbridled paen to the chaotic energy of punk rock.

©2007 Discotek Media


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t City" is one of those films in which things seem to happen as they go along, instead of following a coherent narrative. The film has something to do with a group of punk bands, led by the leather-clad Battle Rockers (played by two real-life bands, The Rockers and The Roosters) and their red-garbed arch nemesis Stalin (another real-life band), performing outdoors in a shantytown soon to be forcibly taken down by the Kikugawa clan, the idiotic local yakuza, and the riot police, working for a construction company who want to clean up the town as a site for a nuclear power plant.

Of course, the badass rockers are not about to vacate the premises without putting up a good fight, and burning a few circuit boxes in the process. Meanwhile, two mute vagrants decked in metal punk armor (a la "Mad Max") with a shared secret history join the squatters and unemployed factory workers, and a town girl is forced to prostitute for a sadistic yakuza by her "boyfriend."

Watching the film from today's vintage point of view, we cannot help but notice just how much younger Japanese filmmakers, such as Tsukamoto Shin'ya ("Tetsuo the Iron Man") and Miike Takashi ("Dead Alive"), have been influenced by this rough-hewn trailblazer. Characters with machine parts protruding from their limb and eye sockets, bands and groupies dressed in every imaginable type of garbs, sporting a sort of grunge-Harajuku look at one moment and almost comically in-your-face, Egyptian-pharaoh-meets-Andrew-Dice-Clay punk fashion at another, gangsters with crew-cut mops and cheap suits and the riot police in futuristic Star Wars costumes vie for the viewer's attention, clashing with one another in a cacophony of noise.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about "Burst City" is just how much of it is a straightforward concert film. Very little editorializing is evident in the substantial chunk of footage depicting their performances (at one point, Stalin's frontman Endo Michiro throws a freshly chopped-off pig's head at the riot police) and the spectators in the impromptu mosh pit. Their songs are actually quite catchy and do more than an adequate job as incidental music.

©2007 Discotek Media

Director Ishii Sogo ("Angel Dust," "Electric Dragon 80,000 V") jam-packs the movie with every low-budget filmmaking technique one can imagine, from "surgical" track shots that spasm like a frog's leg with an electrode attached to it, to Buster Keaton-like cranked-up action scenes. Sure, the lighting is murky, the sound sometimes comes across as canned, and acting is undeniably amateurish, but the film's sheer infectious energy and director Ishii's skills keep us entertained.

"Burst City" is also infused with Ishii's characteristically mordant but genuine wit. Many filmmakers, Japanese or not, make characters recite pretentiously (at times moronically) out-of-tune dialogues or make them do something funny in inappropriate situations, and insist on calling such antics "black humor." (Even luminaries like Coen brothers are guilty of a few of these embarrassing moments) Ishii is not one of them. When a driver who just got flattened in a chicken race crawls out of his upturned vehicle, makes sure his wraparound shades are still in place before fainting dead away, there is no smirking acknowledgment toward the viewer's direction. The scene simply makes perfect sense in terms of that particular character.

There is no mistaking, of course, where the director's sympathies lie in terms of his characters. Himself a punk rocker for more than 20 years, Ishii mercilessly tramples on the romanticized image of yakuza (Kikugawa clan is rightly portrayed as a tentacular appendage of the military-industrial complex, a sort of cancer cells mobilized to infect healthy organs in the social body) and flips the bird at the mainstream notions of a "good commercial movie." "Burst City" is perhaps the only non-documentary film I have seen, other than Alex Cox's "Sid and Nancy," that captures on screen not only the explosive energy of the punk music but also its rebellious, screw-you attitude. No, it's not for all tastes, and God knows it's not a Disney film, but there is no other film quite like it?no other film as crazily inventive in such an aggressively grungy way and dangerously anarchic yet almost delicately molded to be a cohesive motion picture experience--anywhere or any time.

DVD Presentation:
Discotek Media DVD. NTSC. Region 1. 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen. Audio: Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0. Subtitles: English. Retail Price: $ 24.95. Street Date: June 26, 2006.

Considering the film is more than 20 years old, and made in a guerrilla fashion with eight-millimeter camera, the visual is not too bad. The film is sometimes overwhelmed by grain and flares, but this is obviously the problem with the original film stock, not transfer. Like many Japanese titles imported from Region 2 disc, the transfer has weak levels of black, and the dark scenes have more than a few instances of moire effect. Overall, it's quite watchable, although it is obviously no demo disc. Regarding audio, again, do not expect anything fancy or dramatic, as the original sound equipment was probably pretty cheap, but Dolby Digital 2.0 channel does its job in getting across the infectious music. And thankfully the dialogue is not mixed too low, good enough for a Japanese speaker to clearly make out heavy Southwestern accents some characters sport.

©2007 Discotek Media

English subtitles are well done, a tad overly enthusiastic in a few scenes. The cusswords are, shall I say, far more colorful in English than their equivalents in Japanese. There are also some strange deletions, such as a Kikugawa gangster's monologue about the "vermin" infecting Japanese cities ("We should spray some insecticides" is translated as "It needs to be destroyed"). On the other hand, the subs do a great job in communicating subtle characterizations in the Japanese dialogue, such as the Kikugawa boss' totally inane speech to his "troops."

Extras include a generous photo gallery, theatrical trailers, and an excellent liner note by Tom Mes entitled "Punk Manifesto: Sogo Ishii's Burst City." Mes provides a wealth of details not just about the film in question but also its real-life musician cast. The only part that made me scratch my head was his argument that the mute biker couple in "Burst City" somehow represents Yoshitsune and Benkei from the kabuki classic "Kanjincho." (Ishii did make another brilliant film about these medieval characters, "Gojoe," as Mes points out, but still...) I have no qualms, however, about Mes' claim that "'Burst City' is a true missing link in the West's knowledge and appreciation of Japanese cinema."
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Kyu Hyun Kim

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