REVIEW: Bullet Ballet (1998)

Writer/director Shinya Tsukamoto made an enormous impact internationally with his low-budget 1989 tech-horror Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Shot in grainy black and white with a piercing industrial soundtrack, it rapidly became a cult hit around the world and attracted a fiercely loyal cult following. Tsukamoto’s subsequent films never quite captured the widespread attention that his feature debut did – and that included two Tetsuo sequels – but he remains a provocative and fascinating filmmaker whose work I regularly admire.

Bullet Ballet, released in 1998, is something of a jump back for Tsukamoto in terms of visual aesthetic and storytelling style. After expanding his style with Hiruko the Goblin (1991) and Tokyo Fist (1995), here he reverts back to the grainy black and white visuals, the aggressive musical score and the shaky, frantic camera work that made Tetsuo such an arresting film. The results are spectacular: Tsukamoto keeps the very best elements of his first film but combines them with a more complex and nuanced sense of story and character. I think this is the best Tsukamoto film that I’ve seen so far.

Goda (Shinya Tsukamoto) is a director living in Tokyo whose wife has shot herself – either by accident or intent – with a .38 “chief’s special” revolver. A distraught Goda rapidly becomes obsessed with securing a revolver of his own. That quest leads him into conflict with a disaffected gang of street youths as well as Chisato (Kirina Mano), a troubled sex worker with an apparent death wish.

This is cinema-as-punk-rock, filled with twentysomething thugs with attitude and a resentment towards authority. It’s shot with an often-times shaky hand-held camera, and harshly-lit graint black and white visuals. In many respects it is a take on Orpheus in the Underworld: Goda descending further and further into a world of criminals, thugs and gang wars, until he’s buried so deep he’s unable to get out. It’s an incredibly harsh vision of Tokyo, transforming a comparatively peaceful city in a dark nightmare of poorly-lit back alleys and marauding hoodlums.

The revolver that Goda is so intent on purchasing becomes a powerful icon throughout the film: guns are nowhere near as readily available in Japan as they are in the USA for example, and Tsukamoto correspondingly gives it enormous power within the story. The film’s climax demonstrates quite bluntly the damage a single gun can do to people. All too often a film will use handguns in a cavalier manner with bullets tearing up plasterwork as action stars dive for cover. Here each bullet counts. Here each bullets kills.

Shinya Tsukamoto does a solid job playing Goda, but it’s Kirina Mano who shines as Chisato, delivering a complex and deliberately contradictory performance that’s fascinating to watch. Tatsuya Nakamura is also very impressive as the drug-dealing gang leader Idei. ‘In dreams you can kill people and never get caught,’ he says in one particularly effective moment. ‘Tokyo is one big dream.’

This review was first published at The Angriest on 10 February 2015.

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