Bullet Ballet (1998)

Shinya Tsukamoto says that his films lie between “experiment and entertainment,” and this is as good a description as any for the kind of films this director produces. Bullet Ballet is one of Tsukamoto’s more grounded films, compared to the horror / surrealist fare he usually creates. Despite this, Bullet Ballet is still a very odd film, shot in black and white with fight scenes that are jarring and somewhat brutal, and a nihilistic tone to the proceedings that give the film a somber mood between the action.

Bullet Ballet begins with the unseen death of Kiriko (Kyoka Suzuki), our protagonist Goda’s (Shinya Tsukamoto) girlfriend, who has shot herself with a Smith & Wesson Special that she has mysteriously acquired. Unable to understand why she has done this, he becomes obsessed with obtaining the same type of gun that she used to kill herself. Gradually abandoning his job as a commercial director, he attempts to locate a gun on the black market, during which he runs into a group of young punks, who torment him as a matter-of-course. Of particular note is the female gang member Chisato (Kirina Mano) who has apparently already met Goda and left a bite-scar on his hand when he stopped her from being hit by a subway train. She, somewhat like his deceased girlfriend, apparently has a suicidal streak and repeatedly flirts with death. The gang, which operates out of a club, becomes embroiled in conflict with another local gang, and Goda’s repeated encounters with the group ensure his involvement, especially later when he finally acquires a gun.

It’s worth mentioning that Japan has far stricter gun laws than the United States, hence Goda’s difficulty in finding and purchasing said weapon. Shortly after obtaining the gun, there are several scenes where Goda is essentially engaging in an extreme gun fetish, where close-ups of the gun are interchanged rapidly with scenes of explosions and war, and culminates with him branding himself. These scenes fall in line with Tsukamoto’s usual style, being surrealistic and borderline sexual in nature (namely the scene where Goda slowly places the bullets into their chambers, the audio jacked up so that we can hear each bullet sliding into place). The last half of the movie has plenty of quick cuts and heavy violence between the gang members, and through these conflicts Goda and Chisato form a connection stemming from their despondency and incompatibility with the world around them.  This comes to a head when Goda, Chisato, and the remaining gang members find themselves confronted with the imminent threat of death looming on the horizon.

Longtime collaborator Chu Ishikawa provides his signature industrial soundtrack, which really shines when it is paired with the previously mentioned gun fetish scenes. Though not as impressive as the pounding soundtrack for Tsukamoto’s earlier film, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, it is more than adequate in backing the seedy Tokyo streets where the film takes place. Tsukamoto’s choice of shot locations are almost always the grungy back-alleys and derelict buildings, which combined with black and white photography make for a distinctly bleak, almost noir-like setting.

Though Bullet Ballet does tend to suffer from the wandering nature of the story and a somewhat unclear narrative at times, it’s still a solid film that, while not as fantastical or bizarre as some Tsukamoto’s other films, works well owing heavily to the stylistic choices of the director.

-Adam

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