If your answer is, “they’re all dystopian action movies,” you’re halfway there. Yes, these cult classics all imagine a world where society has collapsed and only the strong survive, but the adventures of Snake Plissken look like a walk through Central Park compared to a little-known Japanese sci-fi film that’s finally getting the U.S. release it deserves after 38 years in the darkness.
As the product of a genuinely post-apocalyptic nation that was still recovering from the fallout of nuclear decimation in World War II, Burst City might just be the most potent dystopian movie of all time. Everything else is just second-best.
You’ve probably never heard of Sogo Ishii’s 1982 cult movie— because it’s never really been given a life overseas until now. But this culturally rich sci-fi remains hugely significant in the history of Japanese cinema. A prototypical cyberpunk flick, it laid out the stylistic blueprint for the late ‘80s indie filmmaking revival just as Japan veered towards a decade-long economic winter in the ‘90s.
Opening with a thunder-speed blitz down a neon-lit highway, captured by a motorbike-mounted camera, Burst City's entrance is as dynamic as they come. It's an intro that foreshadows that of Akira by several years — and that's not the only similarity with the 1988 anime classic. In fact, the two films share a strikingly similar premise:
In an industrial wasteland of dilapidated warehouses and crumbling concrete rubble, biker gangs wielding war-hammers and battle-axes dwell alongside spiky-haired punk bands in studs and chains. It's far from harmonious living, and there are conflicts around every corner. But when these near-future tribes are invaded by the bulldozers of the wealthy elite — bent on clearing them out to build a nuclear power plant — the masses band together to rise up against their oppressors. Their anarchic rejection of the ruling class is distilled perfectly into the film's final line of dialogue: "Don't fuck with me!"
The '80s were rife with tales such as these, from The Warriors' tribal gang warfare to the collapsed criminal society of Escape From New York; Burst City feels wholly of its time. In fact, if you squint, the dark and dusty landscape of Burst City actually looks like the future depicted in The Terminator — only instead of robots, it's the cast of Easy Rider engaging in battle. But what separates Burst City from these like-minded American films is twofold: it's outrageously stylish, and it boasts a far greater contextual significance.
Burst City is built on a number of defining traits from filmmaker Sogo Ishii, a Japanese renegade who willingly dropped out of his Nihon University filmmaking course in Tokyo because he wanted to make movies with his punk band friends. Utilizing highly kinetic editing, multiple shooting speeds, and a camera style that doesn’t so much observe the action as it does submerge itself in the center of it, Ishii's rebellious engagement of the world would make for pretty transgressive viewing in the early '80s.
This chaos is exacerbated by the use of frantic, guerilla-style documentary footage of punk bands The Stalin, The Roosters, and The Rockers performing live. These peroxide-haired, leather-suited punks are depicted as the future of civilization — but the performers, along with crowds of extras and the filmmakers themselves, actually lived on set during the drawn-out night-shooting of Burst City. The futuristic shanty towns are palpable not merely because they look like the pits of a frenzied music festival, then, but because, for the most part, they actually were.
These provocative elements might sound superficial, but this intense vision of the future holds a potency in Ishii's home nation that could never be recreated in the West. Why? Because to this day, Japan is the only country in the world to have been attacked with nuclear weapons. Ishii and his companions were literally brought up in a post-apocalyptic society.
With this in mind, the themes and style of Burst City suddenly become much more pointed. The wasteland setting becomes a substitute for Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath of the atomic bomb attacks. The disruption of the shanty towns: an allegory for Japan's rapid modernization after World War Two, which saw poor communities displaced from city slums by greedy corporations. And the rebel bikers and punk clans on-screen mirror the real anarchic subcultures of the day, who refused to become the worker drones to fuel Japan's technological revolution. Ishii's vision in Burst City was, then, of a second apocalypse that would take place in the aftermath of the '80s bubble economy. And that bubble was already ready to burst in 1982.
The '80s were a catastrophic period for Japanese cinema. The advent of home video caused major disruption to the box office, and even legendary filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) struggled to get their films financed as the big film studios faced bankruptcy. Burst City didn't help the cause. In a punk style befitting the director, the film went over time and over budget — and ended up being a hastily-edited box office bomb. It wasn't until the end of the decade that Japan's independent filmmakers would find their feet again, as cyberpunk films like Akira and Tetsuo: Iron Man expanded on Ishii's vision just as the economy plunged into a decade-long recession.
Burst City, then, was the stylistic and thematic blueprint for Japan's filmmaking revival in the early '90s; it was a springboard from which directors like Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Takeshi Kitano could bounce back. This was a film that defined an era that Japan's film industry would rather forget. And indeed, the rise of the straight-to-video film industry in the late '80s would be a testament to the failure of major studio films like Burst City.
As film historian Tom Mes rightly states on the commentary track for the new Arrow Video release, Burst City was not merely historically notable — it's "one of the greatest Japanese films of all time." And though the movie's final act — full of brawling crowds, riot police, bazookas, and fiery explosions — make it particularly easy to signpost it as the Japanese Mad Max, this demise of Eastern civilization was, in fact, the foundation of an even greater one.
Burst City is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video starting November 10.