To describe the plot of Sogo Ishii’s Burst City (aka Bakuretsu Toshi) implies that it both has one (it does, at least in a loose sense), but moreover that it gives a shit about having one or about following it (but we’re going to give it the old college try, anyway). In a post-apocalyptic Japan, a duo on a motorcycle (the bike and characters appearing to have been cut from The Road Warrior) show up in a town. A couple of punk bands play some songs and essentially perform in their own music videos. Some better-dressed yakuza types plan on taking over the land the city is on, and their leader likes having rough sex with a young hooker (seemingly the only one in the stable of a quasi-pimp, who just so happens to also be a henchman for this gang and in love with the hooker). There’s some music, some rioting, and some more music. Honestly, that’s the best I got.
This is one of those films which is best looked at with some degree of remove. It is also one I think I appreciate far, far more than I actually like as a form of entertainment. Ishii is much more interested in being kinetic than being coherent, and many of his scenes are filled with indecipherable, nausea-inducing, handheld shots of swaths of people, lights, and things blurring past in a flurry of motion. I believe that the director would like nothing more than for his work to be resistant to interpretation. Unfortunately, this is an impossibility, and I will tell you why I believe this to be the case (those of you with a natural disinclination to care for my more analytical approach to film may want to go read something else at this point). My view is that the process of production (we’ll limit ourselves to films for our purposes here) in and of itself forces its creators’ perspective onto the finished product, consciously or unconsciously. Everything from shot choice to editing style to music selection tells the viewer something from the producer. It is a form of communication (direct or indirect) between two parties (or more with things like fan edits popping up these days) via the intermediary of creative media.
Of course, this engenders something of a vicious circle, because for as much as a filmmaker may be trying to communicate an idea, philosophy, what-have-you, the viewer also imprints his/her viewpoint on the piece. So, even though a director may use a certain type of shot or lens for a scene, the viewer may not necessarily read it the same way it was intended. This is not a flaw in the process or an overreaching for the sake of making a point, per se. As I said, it is communication. If I say to you, “My, it’s a lovely day today,” you may respond, “It is, isn’t it?” or “Go fuck yourself,” or any other myriad replies, and my reply to that would naturally vary, and so on and so on. By that same token, If I showed you a shot of a person very small in the frame standing in a field that stretches for miles, you may see that as being indicative of the insignificance of humanity in an incomprehensibly vast universe, or you may see it as an indication of the distant, icy, and enigmatic personality of the person, or you may see it as a moron standing in the middle of a very large field. These ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive, though, and the more elastic the visual idiom, the more readings that can be overlaid on it. And so the conversation goes. But back to Burst City…
Ishii’s film is all about energy. It is meant to be experienced, not simply viewed. So you have elements of Post-Apocalyptic films. You have elements of Art/Experimental films. You have elements of Performance films. You have elements of Teen Rebel films. These elements sometimes fit nicely side-by-side, and sometimes they don’t. But tying them all together is the idea of rebellion. Almost everyone in the film is under the thumb of some type of authority, and they are just waiting for the lid to blow off, so they can regain some control (though their actual interest in being someone in control of others is slim to nil). So the members of The Rockers band not only can’t hold down jobs, but they just don’t care to, because their superiority comes (at minimum, partly) in the rejection of norms (“We’re much too artistic and advanced to work for the likes of you”).
Similarly, while squatting at a dilapidated factory, Future Man and Wild Boy (what I have dubbed the Mad Max style characters, since I couldn’t find any decent credits listing any characters’ names) are told by the Hobo Leader, “This place belongs to all of us, understand?”. The division between social strata is clear, and it reaches its natural conclusion as expected. It also indicates a predilection for groups of people and the power they inherently possess over individuals. Aside from the extensive use of closeups (which demonstrates a fetishization of post-industrialization as well as a fetishization with the human body, both of which are encapsulated by Future Man and his little buddy), there are very few shots in the film which don’t feature large groups of people, whether they are acting as a unit or as a chaotic, human sea of discord.
I don’t know the history of music videos in Japan, but much of Burst City feels very much like a collection of clips from the early days of MTV (which for the younger amongst you actually stands for “Music Television”). Even if Ishii or anyone else hadn’t seen any of those early videos, they do a remarkable of capturing the aesthetics and conventions of them. I keep thinking of the second music segment in the film (following directly on the tail of the first one), which plays out with the band walking through the streets singing their ditty while bystanders bob their heads to the beat and even take part in singing along. The more I think about it, the film is largely reminiscent of the old Friday Night Video Fights, where two music videos would be shown, viewers could call in to vote for their favorite (for, I’m sure, a nominal fee), and then the winner would move on to the next week’s match. If only Sogo Ishii had thought to do the same thing (or even gave a shit to, I’m sure), he could have made a mint doing the same with the bands in this film. Who knows? Maybe he could have burned the money during a riot scene in his follow up film.
MVT: The energy of the film is what everything centers on, but it also proves enervating over a lengthy runtime. It becomes sensory overload. The filmmakers may have discovered a perpetual motion machine, but I don’t think they should have left it cranked up to maximum for the whole film.
Make Or Break: In the midst of the chaos and the riots and the violence, there is a little love scene between two characters in an industrial-set (natch) shower. The emotions between the two feel genuine, and it’s touching considering the circumstances of the characters. But whether that’s because the scene is so divergent from everything else in the film or not is difficult to say.