Gakuryū Ishii makes two kinds of movies: films of great and resonant silence, and films so loud the screen threatens to split up the middle. Burst City comes from the first phase of his career, when all his movies roared over you at two hundred miles per hour and looked like they were welded together in a junkyard. This isn't a "punk film" because of its climactic battle-of-the-bands, but because of the grainy, grimy, do-it-yourself, no-future attitude spewing out of every frame. It's also shapeless and incoherent, and doesn't so much end as just crash nose-first into the ground. Of course I loved it.
The punks, the godfathers, and the cops
Burst City plays like three kinds of movies dumped into a trash-masher and flattened against each other. First is a quasi-Mad Max storyline, where society is sliding into violence and lawlessness, and lone wolves on cobbled-together vehicles roar through the backwaters of civilization doing damage to whatever authority stands in their way. Second is a yakuza-corruption plot: a crime family has decided to make a major investment in the construction of a local nuclear power plant, in big part because they figure they can get labor on the cheap and not have to obey naughty little details like worker safety codes. Third is a punk-rock concert film / musical, as a couple of local bands get on stage as part of the protests in the shantytown that's to be demolished to make way for the power plant. (The punks hate each other only slightly less than they despise authority generally.)
Don't expect any handholding to get you through any of these story strands. Burst City doesn't explain what goes on; it just shows it, and expects you to make what sense you must out of it. No narrative needed to describe what life in Burst City is like; there's a handy musical number for that, complete with song-and-dance gang goons and punks (straight from Tokyo's own punk scene) chorus-lining past the camera. When there's dialogue, it's only for color or flavor. You can tell what the biker-gang heavies think of the yakuza recruiting them for virtual slave labor by the way the former glower at the latter. And you can tell what the key history of one character is by way of a surreal flashback where we see everything we need to know in a few blurry but unmistakable images.
It's essentially silent-film storytelling, the same technique Ishii used years later in Electric Dragon 80.000 V. That movie had more title cards than actual dialogue, but even without them we always knew what was up. Burst City's story is far more hairy than the other movie's simple guy-vs.-guy beat-down plot; most everyone in it is at war with most everyone else in some form. By the two-thirds mark, story's been thrown out the window anyway, in a headlong free-for-all of riotous violence that's so propulsive I feared my monitor might wrench itself loose from its mount and headbutt me. And when it ends, it's not with a whimper or even a bang, but a primal rock'n'roll scream and burning tire rubber. It fits.
Ishii didn't have a formal career in filmmaking; he broke in and squatted. With the Japanese movie industry building in so many roadblocks against directing as a career, he elected instead to just grab a camera and get to work. He made his first movies with friends in high school and college, hijacking every resource he could get his hands on to complete those projects. One of them, his biker-gang mini-epic Crazy Thunder Road (still not seen outside of Japan apparently due to music clearance issues), got snapped up by a major studio, blown up from 16mm to 35mm, and put into theaters. It made money, and gave Ishii a chance to work with Toei on a project that actually had a budget.
That project was Burst City, and with 50 million yen (about $400,000) to burn, Ishii very nearly lost control of the project. "My original plot," he related in an interview on the disc, "had a huge UFO that could fit all the humans on Earth inside it. This alien ship comes to Burst City, and a fight ensues between the aliens and the gangs. ... It was a little all over the place." His stripped-down story still proved difficult to realize: they shot most of it at night in a massive abandoned factory in North Tokyo's Kawaguchi, making it hard to light scenes and hard to synchronize audio and picture.
Many of the improvisations Ishii and crew brought to the film weren't about some self-conscious adherence to a punk aesthetic. They were sheer desperation. With the filming budget exhausted, and with some narrative scenes still not in the can, Ishii bridged the remaining gaps in the storytelling with experimental imagery, along the same lines as that infamous concluding episode of Evangelion. When Ishii got kicked out of the place where he was living, he and friends used connections at NHK's editing studios to finish editing the film there after hours, sleeping in the restrooms, burning 55 gallon drums of midnight oil to meet the film's set-in-stone release date.
"In my mind, the film is still unfinished," Ishii said, but without regrets. "I had no ambition of creating something perfect. More important was making something that was fast, cool, and a bit of a mess." The "cool" came from the copious counterculture street cred in the film's crew and cast. Aside from then-famous punk outfits like The Stalin, The Rockers, and The Roosters, Ishii also recruited protest-music-idol-turned-actor Shigeru Izumiya as both a key performer and as the film's chief production designer. (For even more of Izumiya's hammered-together production designs, check out his utterly bonkers experimental SF/horror project Death Powder.) Actors from Shuji Terayama's experimental theatrical company appeared alongside extras recruited straight from punk clubs and biker gangs.
If the film is "a bit of a mess", does that mean I would have preferred something more organized and formal? Maybe, if only because a more coherent movie would be a little easier to pitch to others. (The Mad Max movies work not just because of their violence and energy, but their powerful and direct storytelling.) But the messiness goes with the territory, that of what has been called jishu-eiga, the "volunteer" or "self-made" cinema from Japan's underground, where people with little skill but great enthusiasm make movies any way they can. In other words, a punk attitude, one about making the best with whatever's lying around and not letting anyone else tell you how to make it work. It's an attitude summed up in the movie's last line, one that serves as its overall rallying cry as a story, too: Don't—fuck—with—ME!