Bullet Ballet Review

The following film review has been taken from an old and rough around the edges review I did back in 2005 for the original Bullet Ballet R2UK DVD

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Bullet Ballet was shot in 16mm B&W in suitably low-budget fashion so you’ve got a film that has always looked ultra-grainy and somewhat soft & diffuse, but all-in-all I have to say that Third Window have done a very good job of bringing it into the realms of digital High-Definition. The image looks beautifully naturalistic with big, thick dancing chunks of fuzzy 16mm grain everywhere and contrast and brightness set just right so you have a very expressive greyscale, with the caveat that black levels aren’t exactly inky and there also seems to be a slight fading of the print towards the left and right edges of the frame. Detail too is pretty solid: The inherent softness of the film’s cinematography means you won’t be feeling all of that 1080p definition, but you will definitely notice a step up from the previous standard-def releases of this film; and I’m happy to report that there doesn’t seem to be any artificial sharpening or noise reduction in play.

These recent Tsukamoto releases have been sourced from the director’s own original negatives, which seem to have been kept in excellent condition, but there is a little print damage retained in the source: Chiefly the odd black/white speck here and there and a few white scratches. As with the recent Tokyo Fist Blu-ray this is a BD25 release with an aggressively compressed AVC encode that averages out at around 23.6Mbps, which is a little lower than the Tokyo Fist release which had some issues with compression noise, but I guess Bulet Ballet with its soft B&W imagery proved a little easier to squeeze down as the compression in general is definitely an improvement over the Tokyo Fist BD. This doesn’t me the transfer is free from any noise though, there’s still a fair bit if you look for it!

The original Japanese audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 and much like the previous Third Window releases it’s a largely straightforward stereo presentation that effectively represents the rather low-scale nature of the film’s production. The main thing is that the audio sounds crisp and clear, with no hiss or hum attempting to reveal the age of the film. Dialogue is looped so it sounds unnaturally high in the mix and lip movements may be slightly out of synch with the dialogue at times (exactly as filmed), but that means you’ll never have a problem understanding what’s being said – IF you understand Japanese that is! Dynamics are strong and bass and treble are pretty solid for a stereo track – bass isn’t very tight but it is reasonably deep so Chu Ishikawa’s score is punchy enough.

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We've got a modest but not inconsequential set of options here:

Original Japanese Trailer [00m:55s] [1.85:1, Non-Anamorphic 480i/29.970fps MPEG-2, DD2.0, Eng Subs]
Standard-def presentation of a short trailer with removeable subtitles.

Music Video [03m:05s] [4:3 1080i/29.970fps AVC, Jpn DTS-HD MA 2.0]
As with the Tokyo Fist release we have a music video featuring music from the film performed by composer Chu Ishikawa and his band Der Eisenrost, but this time round it’s a proper music video with footage from the film set to music rather than a live performance of the band.

Bullet Ballet UK Trailer [02m:23s] [1.85:1 1080p/23.976fps AVC, Jpn DTS-HD MA 2.0, Eng Subs]
A higher quality UK trailer with non-removeable subs this time.

Director Shinya Tsukamoto Interview [22m:18s] [16:9 1080i/29.970fps AVC, Jpn DD2.0, Eng Subs]
The main extra feature on this release is a recent discussion with Shinya Tsukamoto himself, which is split across three individually selectable sections that sadly can't be played all-in-one: About Bullet Ballet [14m:37s], About Tokyo Fist & Bullet Ballet [03m:23s], and General Thoughts [04m:18s]. Now, if you’ve already purchased the recent Tokyo Fist BD release then you’ll know that the Third Windows interviewee asks some really excellent questions aimed at getting the director to explain most aspects of the film (the history, the major themes, etc) in depth, but if you have already purchased the Tokyo Fist BD then you’ll also notice that the final two segments (About Tokyo Fist & Bullet Ballet and General Thoughts) are sadly a duplication of the same segments on the former release!

If you don’t own the Tokyo Fist BD then basically the second section focuses on common themes between Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet, while the final section (despite being called General Thoughts) asks Tsukamoto to discuss the technical aspects & differences of film and digital filmmaking.

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8 out of 10
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out of 10

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