Bullet Ballet Review
Ever since his debut film: Tetsuo packed in audiences across the globe, Shinya Tsukamoto has been at the forefront of the international film scene. He followed up this cyber-punk debut with his first studio production: Hiruko the Goblin, which wasn’t as well received in the west despite it being an enjoyable horror comedy with more than a few nods to the likes of Sam Raimi and John Carpenter. His next two projects: a sequel to Tetsuo and Tokyo Fist fared better internationally, but his fifth theatrical release: Bullet Ballet split audiences right down the middle. A real shame considering it’s one of the more emotional and interesting films Tsukamoto has produced!
Arriving home from work one night, TV commercial director Goda (Shinya Tsukamoto) is shocked to discover his long-term partner, Kiriko (Kyôka Suzuki) has committed suicide. He later finds out that she was looking after a gun for a friend, then for seemingly no reason at all decided to blow her brains out. Unable to cope with this tragic turn of events, Goda becomes obsessed with the idea of owning a Chief’s Special handgun - the same model Kiriko used – but to do that he has to find a way around the country’s gun laws. Whilst wandering the streets of Tokyo looking for a handgun dealer, he stumbles into a dank side-alley and bumps into Chisato (Mano Kirina), a waif-like gang member who Goda rescued some time in the past when she nearly fell into the path of an oncoming train. His reward for that gesture was a deep bite on his hand, yet Goda finds himself strangely concerned for Chisato’s welfare and he attempts to admonish her for how she reacted when they first met, but instead ends up beaten and robbed by Chisato’s punk friends, led by Goto (Murase Takahiro). After this encounter Goda becomes drawn to the fatalistic Chisato and his pistol obsession becomes inexplicably intertwined with Goto’s gang, until events start to spiral desperately out of control for all involved.
The title may be Bullet Ballet, but it’s more of a Bullet Brawl! Set in a cold and menacing urban metropolis, this ballet is loud, aggressive and tinged in nihilism, and while Tsukamoto’s distinct style may feel a little distant and disorientating at first, Bullet Ballet is a very raw and emotional character drama. The plot itself is extremely minimal with the internal turmoil of hte characters driving the narrative forwards, begging the viewer to psychoanalyse its subjects. Naturally this means the film will fall flat on its face if you can’t relate to its leads, but Goda, Chisato and Goto are brilliantly fleshed out individuals who share enough common traits for their lives to become inevitably intertwined. Goda is a pretty tragic figure who seemingly was both successful in his career and happy with his home life, but the suicide has snapped him straight out of complacency. Feeling Kiriko must have been unhappy within their relationship, that he must have failed her in some way and failing still to figure out how, he is seeking a form of empowerment in the Chief’s Special handgun.
In Goda’s mind the gun will not only empower him so he can take on Goto and his gang, but it will also provide a link to Kiriko’s mindset when she turned the same type of gun on herself. As his obsession grows this sense of empowerment warps into something totally extreme – in one particular sequence he’s fantasising about getting hold and firing a handgun, but the devastation he imagines this causing is completely unreal, houses falling down, mortar bombs leveling battlefields. It’s clear that, as an idividual who has previously led a sheltered life away from war and gangs, Goda’s idea of the consequences of violence has become heavily romanticised – so much that it has become a worthy and indeed the only possible form of expression for the mental anguish he is going through.
Goto is a low-level street punk who is also looking for a sense of empowerment. A classic self-loather who works as a Salaryman by day, he seeks worthiness through confrontation. Early on he visits a local Yakuza boss to pay his respects in an important scene that establishes not only Goto’s role as a street thug, but the general ethos of the Yakuza that inhabit Bullet Ballet’s world. Here in a local boxing gym a group of gangsters laud over the boss’ son, who appears to be the rising star of the gym, and the older men reminisce on their own youthful toughness back in the day, much like the boxer in front of them. Indeed throughout this film, just about every one of Goda’s Yakuza peers are seen bragging about their previous fights or proudly displaying their battle scars, revealing that these men seek violence as a means of proving themselves as competent and worthy males within their society.
In contrast to Goda and Goto, Chisato’s romantic idea of violence is aimed inwards and takes the form of fatilistic masochism, whichseems to be the reason both men are drawn to her so much - particularly Goda, who not only needs a figure to care for and rescue, but also seeks insight into Kiriko’s self destructive mentality. The interaction of these three characters and how they shape and define each other’s lives ensures that the emotional core of the story is as solid as a rock.
The other major presence in Bullet Ballet is Tsukamoto’s tight and muscular direction, combining some stunning cinematography and choppy editing to create a vision of Tokyo that is hellishly unique. The exterior camera-work is quite alarming, mixing manic hand-held sweeps and pans with rapid cuts that make it difficult to fully take in the whole environment around the characters. The result is an intense feeling of claustrophobia, as if the city of Tokyo is wrapping itself around its inhabitants like a concrete boa constrictor. Similarly the dank and grimy locations combined with intercuts of cold slimy metal pipes give the impression of a menacing industrial metropolis, and the frequent, heavy rainfall evokes a sense that the characters are being worn down drip by drip by the very environment they inhabit, which is symbolised early on with a shot of a cockroach trapped under the drip of a leaking tap in Goda’s apartment. Likewise the decision to shoot in stark black and white immediately drains the world of any warmth and subjectively places us into the warped mentality of the protagonists. But it’s not all bleak imagery, as the story progresses and the first slightly positive changes in the characters occur, some of Tsukamoto’s compositions are quite astounding, his use of daylight and backlighting in particular creates a wonderfully ethereal mood.
The toned-down docu-real style could be the reason western critics were slightly disappointed upon Bullet Ballet’s festival appearances back in 1998 as I’d imagine a good proportion of viewers were Tetsuo fans hoping for a frenzied ride akin to his surrealistic debut. It’s possible they were lulled into a false sense of familiarity during the opening act when Ballet’s style seem’s to hint at escalating insanity to come, but as the story progresses a more introspective and mature character study emerges. In fact, after Tokyo Fist and this feature, Tsukamoto’s been consistently making more human dramas like Gemini and A Snake of June, so in essence Bullet Ballet could be considered the quintessential Tsukamoto film. Either way, it’s a must see for any fan of the director’s work.
Presented Anamorphically at 1.76:1, Bullet Ballet has a soft, grainy appearance that suggests it was shot in 16mm, so bearing this in mind its clear the film is never going to look pristine on DVD, but Artsmagic have done a solid job. Usually they like to boost contrast and add a tonne of Edge Enhancement, but for this feature they’ve certainly gone a little easier on the latter, with only mild halos to be spotted from time to time, although as expected from such a grainy image, some mosquito noise creeps into the static shots of the Tokyo Cityscape. Contrast and brightness levels are perhaps a teeny bit high and low respectively, but it’s hard to say for sure because Tsukamoto might have wanted a harsher Black and White image than usual. Either way, contrast and shadow detail remains consistent and solid throughout. Compression is very good and print damage is minimal, with just the odd random fleck appearing infrequently and although the transfer is interlaced, there were no composite artifacts. Overall I’d say Bullet Ballet features one of their better transfers of recent months.
Presented in what I like to call “Artsmagic Surround” this is another Japanese DD5.1 track lacking discrete channels. Fortunately in Bullet Ballet’s case, the film has probably never played theatrically in discrete surround, and they have done a slightly better job with the mix this time by managing to raise the volume level of individual sound elements across specific channels to create a faux surround soundstage, however I have no doubt that the mix would’ve have been better in DD2.0 Surround form. Still, this gripe aside the film sounds pretty good, the looped dialogue is clear and distinct with only some minor tearing occurring once or twice during louder dialogue exchange. The bass is punchy, adding weight to the action scenes and keeping the aggressive score firmly in check.
Optional English subtitles are provided, with no spelling or grammatical errors I can recall.
Tom Mes returns to provide another excellent Feature Length Audio Commentary, where he imparts a wealth of information on Tsukamoto’s approach to filmmaking and the progression of his career from amateur 8mm productions in his early teens, up until the present day. He also provides a thorough analysis of the characters and themes in Bullet Ballet, and how they fit into the director’s filmography as a whole, so budding film geeks or academics should find the commentary essential listening. Next up is a cracking Interview with Director Shinya Tsukamoto, which at 34mins in length packs in quite a lot of information thanks to Tsukamoto’s engaging and insightful responses. He articulately discusses the conception, shooting, editing and critical response of Bullet Ballet and provides a thorough analysis of the themes and characters, whilst also giving us a brief overview of his career to date – starting all the way back to shooting his first 8mm films as a young teenager, definitely a must see! The rest of the extra materials are the usual fluff Promotional Materials, which in this case is a scan of either a poster or leaflet that is too small to truly appreciate, two short Bullet Ballet Trailers (presented in Anamorphic Widescreen) and Cast & Crew Bio/Filmogrophies.
Extremely stylish and somewhat brutal, Bullet Ballet is by no means a feel-good film and I’m sure many viewers will struggle to relate to its central characters, but behind the bleak and depressing facadé is a surprisingly touching film about a group of lost souls trying to crawl their way out of the darkness. Tsukamoto has created an immensely rewarding film for anyone prepared to dig a little deeper than the impressive visuals.
As for the DVD: solid audio and video presentation combined with informative audio commentary from Tom Mes and lengthy interview with Shinya Tsukamoto ensure that ArtsmagicDVD’s release of Bullet Ballet is well worth the money.