Crazy Thunder Road (1980) by Gakuryu Ishii

Violent biker gangs clash with fascists in this high-octane action film. When the leader of the Maboroshi biker group, Ken (Koji Nanjo), decides to leave to be with his girlfriend Noriko (Michiko Kitahara), his position is taken up by the fiery Jin (Tatsuo Yamada). Jin soon finds himself in a struggle against the rival Dokuro gang, who see Ken’s retirement as a chance to gain ground. Jin is later recruited by Takeshi (Shigeru Izumiya), another former leader, to join his ultra-nationalist group, campaigning for the youth to join their cause. Chaos ensues as the Maboroshi and Dokuro gangs fight amongst each other, with kidnap, drug use, violent brawls, and a nihilistic punk-rock attitude.

Written and directed by Sogo Ishii as a graduation project, “Crazy Thunder Road” is a film that perfectly captures the attitude and atmosphere of the subculture of biker gangs. The world of the film emerges fully formed, with hideouts, gang affiliations and rivalries, and the interpersonal relationships of the members having an air of believability. The plot of the film is fairly loose, with the largest part of the film driven forward by the excitement of engine-revving, high-speed chases, and street fights, all culminating in a shoot-out. Ishii’s direction keeps us close to the action, with creative camerawork putting us in the middle of the violent maelstrom of youthful masculinity. The soundtrack of rock songs underscores the sense of kineticism and an anti-authoritarian tone. The rough language, drug-use, and brutality, show a darker side of youth that remains relevant in every generation. The run-down industrial locations, graffitied squats, and brutalist architecture speak to a world that is crumbling around them, reflecting the hopeless attitude of the characters.

Ishii’s references to the ultra-nationalist wing, who recruit disaffected youngsters to their cause, is an interesting political statement. The characters are looking for something to fight for. It is a great exploration of post-adolescent masculinity, its fragility, its pride and its heart. The film depicts this rebellious phase perfectly, neither condemning or condoning the actions of its protagonists, but offering a look at what drives them.

Burst City (1982) by Sogo Ishii

A wild joyride through the heart of the punk subculture of the early 1980’s, “Burst City” offers a snapshot of the rebellious spirit of a generation. The film revolves around a number of punk gangs and their struggles against the police, each other, and the development of a new nuclear power plant. Every night these leather-clad young men and women gather to rock out to punk bands, take drugs and drag race. Meanwhile, two vigilantes on a motorbike and side-car, drive around looking for revenge for an earlier murder; and a man pimps out a young woman to wealthy businessmen.

“Burst City” plunges us into the heart of the riotous, chaotic heart of the punk movement, capturing and embodying the essence of anarchism, youthful exuberance, violence, and excess that typified it. The plot, such as it is, takes a back seat to a montage of exciting moments, whether it is people engaging in racing their tooled-up cars or the musical performances of several popular punk bands such as The Roosters, The Rockers, and The Stalin. It feels at times much more like a documentary than a film, a collage of characters and scenes that come together to present a complete picture of the period. Sogo Ishii’s direction embraces the spirit of the punk subculture, with a dizzyingly active camera often fighting its way through the action, flashing lights, speeded up footage, and raw energy and creativity mirroring the energy of the subjects. The punk aesthetic exudes from every frame and the rough way the plot and scenes hang together only adds to its charm. The music provided by the punk bands involved also offers a raucous, passionate rage to the film.

As a cultural documentary, “Burst City” offers us a look at a startling and era-defining time. Anti-authoritarian youth sub-cultures found their most strident voices in the punk movement. The shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still hung over post-war Japan, morphing into the activism against nuclear power and nuclear weapons through subsequent decades. Ishii’s film does not delve too deeply into the values and politics of its protagonists. Though we see them fighting with the power plant developers and the police, this seems to be largely down to them being seen as natural enemies, rather than an in-depth discussion of the rights and wrongs of their position. In one amusing scene we see a group of punks asking each other what day it is and what they should be doing, their supreme goal to bring down the goverment and authority forgotten in a haze of alcohol and fatigue from nightly revels. The film seems to both promote their values, while also criticizing their lack of meaningful contribution to society. Likewise, we see this moral ambiguity in the treatment of women. While the young woman forced into prostitution is raped and abused by the businessmen. her horrifying ordeal stands in stark contrast to the mixed-sex congregations of the punk band audiences, and the genderfluidity of their fashion and make-up choices. We also see the drug use affecting the scene, with people lost to the needle, while others enjoy more harmless pursuits. The punk scene is shown as one full of contradictions, with violence and agression sitting alongisde youthful joie de vivre and a search for fun and community. If you want to understand what the punk movement was about and what it meant to those who lived through it, this film offers a warts-and-all portrayal of the scene.