Nuclear Punks Run Amok: Gakuryu Ishii’s Burst City


Nuclear Punks Run Amok: Gakuryu Ishii’s Burst City

By Margaret Barton-Fumo

A near-perfect display of punk ethos.


Made when he was barely out of film school at Nihon University, 25-year-old Gakuryu Ishii’s first studio-produced feature, Burst City (1982), issued a fresh lob of spit to the face of Japan’s struggling film industry. Aggressively paced throughout, Ishii’s throttling film/genre hybrid was, unsurprisingly, a commercial flop. Set in a bleakly futuristic, industrial city, Ishii—then going by the name “Sogo”—weaves musical performances into a fractured narrative involving a nuclear power plant construction site, yakuza developers, and a motley group of tweaked-out vagrants sporting metal appendages. Local punk bands tear it up at nightly “protest” concerts in underground clubs with bouts of drag racing in between. Meanwhile, a yakuza henchman burns a few bridges; pimping out his sad girlfriend to his boss and exploiting his old friends at the construction site. The film and its actors appear gloriously hopped up, hurtling nonstop toward an inevitable end-of-film melee.

Ishii’s previous hit, the Toei-distributed Crazy Thunder Road (1980), was more polished in spite of its humble production values—it was his senior thesis film, made on a negligible budget with a volunteer cast and crew and using borrowed equipment, which allowed Ishii to direct the film on his own terms and assert complete control. Toei then produced Burst City, providing him with plenty of money and resources, along with a firm release date. Ishii directed the film as only he knew how, improvising wild shots with an inexperienced crew and hundreds of extras while allowing his non-professional actors the freedom to freak the fuck out. Unsurprisingly, he was unable to complete the project in time, resulting in a hastily cut two-hour collage that in hindsight is even more “punk” than intended. The pacing is relentless, like a hyper-extended music video, with criss-crossing plot lines and dizzying effects.

He taught himself how to direct in the same way that punk musicians fumbled with unfamiliar instruments, using the tools at hand to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo (or whatever)

Ishii is often cited as the progenitor of cyberpunk-style filmmaking, exemplified by Shinya Tsukamoto, who attended the same film school in Tokyo and later directed the Ishii-inspired Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). Many of Ishii’s acolytes (Tsukamoto in particular) adopted his technique of “undercranking,” or filming at less than 24 frames per second to create a choppy, sped-up effect. In a 2005 interview for Midnight Eye, Ishii said that even the collaborative process of filmmaking was often “too slow” for him, and that his frequent use of fast motion comes from a “desire to express ecstasy. … an escape from the clutches of reality into pure time and space.” The opening of Burst City is just that: shot from a camera mounted to a speeding vehicle, flashes of a barren cityscape blur into an abstract collage of neon lights and concrete, with intermittent glimpses of metal, leather, and close-ups of spiked hair.

It’s worth noting that Ishii wasn’t much of a film student; he simply used the school’s equipment to perform his own creative experiments. He taught himself how to direct in the same way that punk musicians fumbled with unfamiliar instruments, using the tools at hand to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo (or whatever). At the time, Japan was just entering into what would later be called the “lost decade” of its film industry, marked by the steep decline of the national studio system. The country was experiencing economic prosperity while the government was advancing conservative social values, creating a breeding ground for bored, pissed-off punks. Ishii was one such misfit, thoroughly embedded in his local music scene, the loosely organized “Mentai Rock” collective based in the Hakata ward of Fukuoka City on Kyushu island.

Hakata was the site of several American naval bases, which led to an influx of American rock music into the area, inspiring the three best-known punk groups from Fukuoka: The Rockers, The Roosters, and The Mods, all of whom appeared in Ishii’s early films. The Mods figured prominently in Crazy Thunder Road, while members of The Rockers and The Roosters combined to make the fictional central band of Burst City, “The Battle Rockers.” Led by the charismatic frontman Takanori Jinnai, The Battle Rockers spend their days squatting in a ramshackle clubhouse and their nights wreaking havoc onstage, challenging opposing bands. Also hailing from Fukuoka was Shintaro Sugiyama, the bass player from The Stalin, a Tokyo-based hardcore punk band. The Stalin appear in Burst City as themselves, appropriately dressed in red, at one point pissing on the audience and tossing a severed pig’s head and intestines at angry riot cops. It’s a beautiful scene that replicates the band’s antics, which attracted national news attention, and included projectile vomiting, self-mutilation, on-stage sex, and other delightfully repulsive behavior. (The Stalin were sufficiently extreme to win the respect of the groundbreaking, punker-than-punk noise act Hijōkaidan, with whom they performed repeatedly around this time.)


The featured bands in Burst City were all in line with the Tokyo punk scene, which affected a strong American influence in both style and musical content. The Battle Rockers flaunt a lot of studded leather with pomped-up macho glam tendencies, while their music blasts catchy hooks that sometimes border on rockabilly. The Stalin are a bit edgier but still Westernized, with sublime lyrics about fridges full of rotting meat.

Osaka hosted a difficult-listening music scene that was much noisier and more avant-garde than the contemporary one in Tokyo, part of a “Kansai Scene” where influences more likely to run towards free jazz, prog rock, and the experiments of the Los Angeles Free Music Society. Along with Hijōkaidan, this milieu would produce Solmania, Yamantaka Eye, and eventually Boredoms, artists with a more self-serious frame of reference than that of the Tokyo rockers, favoring so-called performance art over the traditional theatrics of spitting and pissing on audience members. None of these bands appear in Burst City, but the Osakan influence is evident in Ishii’s aesthetics. Along with Tsukamoto, he was one of the best directors to translate industrial music into a filmmaking style. On screen and in its soundscapes, Burst City is all clanging metal, crumbling warehouses, abandoned factories and windy smokestacks. Ishii’s distinctive style of undercranking, combined with his rapid-fire edits, drains the characters of their humanity, while his cyborg bikers and drag racing punk-mechanics inhabit a world dominated by machines. Combined with the anarchic energy of the bands on screen, Ishii’s unrelenting style adds a post-apocalyptic, sinister nuclear vibe that predates Alex Cox’s punk masterpiece Repo Man (1984). A few years later, appropriately enough, Ishii directed Halber Mensch (1986) a documentary/performance film following the uber-industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten on their tour through Japan.

Burst City is a fantastic, raggedy display of punk ethos. It’s what the squares would call a “wild ride,” taking the urgency of a DIY 7-inch record and dilating it to the length of a double LP. Truly devoted punks combine anarchy with nihilism, as Ishii does here with a continuously spiraling, caustic energy. His experience as a studio-backed director was fleeting, as he was unable to secure funding for another ten years. Burst City is what happens when you give an ornery punk some serious money to make a movie with his friends; a blatantly confrontational, cinematic middle finger. Swallow some poppers and see it on the big screen if possible, or watch it straight and feel better the next day.

Margaret Barton-Fumo is the host of "No Pussyfooting" on KPISS.FM and the author of Paul Verhoeven: Interviews (UPM). She is a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and has written on film and music since 2005.