Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, 1998, 87 min. starring Shinya Tsukamoto, Hisashi Igawa, Sujin Kim, Kirina Mano, Kyoka Suzuki, Masato Tsujioka and Koji Tsukamoto.
Directed by the hugely influential auteur-director Shinya Tsukamoto in 1998, Bullet Ballet has until now been one of his most obscure and hardest to find movies, although thanks to Artsmagic, this movie is now getting the proper release it so richly deserves. From the outset, it's hard to describe this movie as anything other than perfect in every way. Words can't really express how astonishingly beautiful and visually stunning in imagery, style and symbology Bullet Ballet is - within mere seconds of the movie beginning.
In this incredibly stylish, dark and subtly violent movie, Tsukamoto takes a black look at three entirely disparate generations and finds each lacking. It's like a human food chain: the young characters in Bullet Ballet are mainly gang members or prostitutes, unmotivated drug-addled slackers looking to make easy money through crime and violence, and who have no morals, are utterly bored with life and have no future to look forward to except to grow up, if they're lucky, into salarymen; the middle-aged group are slaves to business, empty suits who are rich pickings for the youths to prey on, and who don't understand anything about society except keeping the boss happy; and the older generation, in which the youths class the hero of the piece, Goda (continually calling him 'ojisan', or 'old man', even though Tsukamoto was only 38 when he made this movie), who are so out of it they are completely irrelevant and utterly laughable.
Bullet Ballet has a stylised, unreal, grainy, heavily-contrasted look redolent of the true classics of 40's film noir, replete with femmes fatales, chisel-jawed heroes and evil villains, with stunning composition, kinetic action interspersed with amazing, pure silence and slowness, and incredible attention to detail in its use of close-ups. Just like his previous movie Tetsuo: The Iron Man, you could take every single frame of this film as a beautiful image on its own. And yet the style is occasionally so starkly frenetic, so fresh and exciting it's literally breathtaking.
There are contrasting scenes of such hyperactivity that it's hard to make out what's happening, as well as long, exquisite sequences of slow, loving detail - for instance, when the protagonist Goda finally gets his hands on a gun and simply sits and stares at it, turning the bullets over in his fingertips, then recreates his lover's suicide by gunshot in the exact spot she died in, reliving the death of the only thing which has ever mattered to him, it's not only pure and beautiful art, it's intensely moving and deeply desolate. And some of the slow-motion shots of fighting are literally as elegantly balletic as the title of the movie suggests.
Death and self-hatred are symbolised so starkly it's almost painful to watch - from the extreme close-ups of a cockroach in death throes, drowning under a dripping tap, to Tsukamoto's continual self-examination in cracked mirrors, pointing his own finger around in make-believe - the only gun available to him to keep on playing out his partner's suicide to try and make sense of a completely senseless situation.
Bullet Ballet, however, in addition to all its visual glory, also contains an emotional and personal depth that Tsukamoto's previous big-name movies, Tetsuo and Tokyo Fist, do not. It's a beautiful, bleak, despairing, deeply serious and often moving work which gives incredible insight into Tsukamoto's own troubled mindset at the time of this movie's production - which, interestingly enough, was completely financed and produced by his own film company, Kaijyu Films. Evidently Tsukamoto felt strongly enough about it that he wanted to keep 100% pure artistic control over the movie. His central character, Goda, is clearly trying to make sense of his own place in society's mainstream by removing himself from it, as his girlfriend already had done, and exploring the alien subculture of crime, which has previously had no meaning for him.
Shinya Tsukamoto is that rarest of beasts: an true visual artist who can transfer their pure aesthetic vision from traditional methods of expression into the cinematic medium.It's a definite plot departure for Tsukamoto to his previous movies, but Bullet Ballet is every bit as beautiful as anything he has ever made - possibly more so. It seems telling that he can work completely in monochrome and make his movie more richly textured and glorious to look at than many directors working with colour.
The quality of the acting here is kind of irrelevant, although all the performances are fitting and all are pretty well accomplished. But of course it is Tsukamoto's own central performance which not only provides the emotional tenet but naturally invests the work with a really personal view: and of course, he's a great and charismatic actor, which helps a lot too ;-)
As for the soundtrack, again it's not of much import here. As Tetsuo had a teeth-gratingly harsh industrial soundtrack that suited its look and feel incredibly well, so Bullet Ballet has a similar use of industrial music, but in a much more sparse and spacious way: it's only used during heavily kinetic fight scenes. There's much more in the way of dead air and silence, creating powerful contrasts when short passages of music are used.
"In dreams you can kill people and never get caught. Tokyo is just one big dream. It's a dream we're all trapped in."
An advertising executive, Goda, (played by Shinya Tsukamoto himself) on returning home discovers police swarming all over his apartment block: it turns out his girlfriend of ten years has been found dead, having committed suicide. It also transpires that she killed herself with a gun that she had been hiding for a secret criminal friend, who was also implicated in charges of cocaine trafficking. Goda has absolutely no idea his girlfriend was caught up in any kind of illegal activity, so he's absolutely heartbroken and suffers severe emotional and psychological shock and trauma.
However, in the very depths of his grief and devastated bewilderment, he becomes enslaved, obsessed by an idée fixe of owning his own gun, to recreate his lover's death, as he is utterly desperate to know how she got hold of the gun, and why she did what she did – what pushed her to take her own life. But, as a middle-aged salaryman, how would someone like him go about getting their own illegal firearm, if they're not actually involved in the subculture of crime?
Having made an arrangement to meet a colleague from his movie company that night, he meets Chisato, the beautiful young female leader of a gang of young hoods, in the corridor of a building. She calls in a gang of kids who mug him for his money: he's had dealings with this particular gang before, as they'd already mugged him, using Chisato's suicidal tendencies to trick him into trying to save her from throwing herself under a train, so that they could jump him. From this point onwards, as his only contact to date with the criminal underworld, his involvement with the gang begins in earnest.
At night, after having flashbacks of the policeman showing him the picture of the gun his gf shot herself with, Goda goes out trawling the streets, immersing himself further and further in shady dealings, even going so far as to ask drug dealers if they have guns for sale. He tries everything: even asking questions on internet bulletin boards, as well as attempting to make his own, which he does manage to do, but with no real success.
However, the next night, while he's out trawling the streets again, he spots Chisato and her band of thugs going into a club: in the meantime, they have become involved with the local yakuza syndicate. Seeking revenge for his own beatings and for his girlfriend, he chases Chisato, traps her outside, pulls out his own home-made horror and menaces her with it. At last empowered by his raggedy pistol (which has more than slight shades of phallic symbolism when he threatens her with it while it's still in his trouser pocket! (very recollective of Tetsuo: The Iron Man's (in)famous metal drill-bit penis, and another hint that Tsukamoto is treating the weapon like a fetish object here) he demands to know where the rest of the gang have gone. But she won't tell, and when the rest of the gang show up, he gets another beating.
Whilst he's lying bleeding, the gang also beat up a salaryman, aided and abetted by Idei the club owner, who gives Goda a kick in the teeth for good measure. Naturally, Goda shoots him. But of course, the stupid home-made gun is useless (symbolising Goda's powerlessness in these alien situations, in a world in which he simply doesn't belong) and Idei simply kicks him in the head again.
The next day, when Goda gets to work, he finds that someone's left him a message, saying that Chisato will be dead by tomorrow at midnight. Much against his better judgement, pretending that he doesn't have any feelings for the beautiful and horrible creature, he goes and beats up one of her gang members for information. Eventually the guy tells him that there's a rival gang around who are making death threats to them, and that the next night they're planning a big ruckus to try and kill them off.
Back at the club, Goto meets up with Chisato and Idei to plan the night's fight with the rival gang. Now for Goda, his need to find a gun is even more desperate: so he can protect Chisato, as well as avenge his lover's suicide. On his way to a place where he might be able to find one, however, he is accosted by a mysterious woman brandishing a pistol, who tells him that she'd been watching him, and if he does her a favour he can have her gun. But the favour is to marry her! It turns out she's an illegal immigrant who doesn't have a visa and permit to stay in Japan. Astonishingly, he agrees to it.
So at long last, Goda gets his gun: he recreates to the last detail his partner's suicide. This completely unhinges any last drop of sanity he has, and he goes insane playing out all kinds of fantasies, even pistol-whipping himself.
Whilst all this is going on, the gang are on their way to their big showdown with their rivals. When they arrive, they comprehensively batter the other gang, only to have them run off back to their base. When the gang catch up to them, though, an entirely unexpected saviour shows up: it's Goda, with his brand-new shooter, come to protect Chisato and the gang, with whom he has definitely formed some kind of weird emotional involvement. It's almost as though he has found a link to a more vibrant, real kind of life, rather than rotting in an establishment agency. But more importantly he is experiencing everything his dead love experienced before she died, trying to get to the bottom of exactly why she killed herself, reliving her situation again.
However, one of the rival gang members corners Chisato, and just as he's about to beat her with a baseball bat, Goda arrives on the scene. The guy hits Goda with the bat, but Goda shoots him in the leg. Idei comes along and sees the rival gang member Goda shot lying on the floor, and orders Goto to take Chisato, the rival gang member and Goda back to the club.
It seems that Chisato's gang aren't happy to have Goda running around 'protecting' them, and he's told in no uncertain terms to get lost. Unceremoniously, the gang dump him back at his apartment, and it's as if he's been taken out of their knife-edge world and dumped back into the emptiness and desolation of his own. And guess what? He's lost the gun too.
At that exact moment, he rips up Chisato's note to him about her getting killed at midnight, whilst on the other side of town, the gang, now armed with Goda's gun, are doing some pretty successful muggings - all of which show clearly that possession of the gun equals sheer power and control to the gang - but to Goda, it's the final solution to all his questions about what happened to his lover, and how it felt when she shot herself in the head.
So when Chisato comes to Goda personally and begs him to help her track down a mysterious hitman who is killing off gang members, he agrees. But how will he ever get his precious gun back from the gang? After all the time and effort it took to get it, Goda will do anything to make sure it doesn't get lost, to have it back in his possession again...
Bullet Ballet clearly follows on from his violence-glorification to the point of fetish tradition (shown so clearly in Tetsuo); however, that said, this movie does something Tetsuo does not: Tsukamoto almost offers a moral stance here. His message throughout the movie is that weapons, and by extension violence, destroys not only the victims, but also the perpetrators, not only in mind and body, but also undermines the very fabric of society, shown by the amorality of the three age-groups he depicts in entirely negative terms only.
Frankly there's really only one weak spot IMHO: the ending is a bit of an anti-climax, and doesn't really provide any answer to some really vital questions about Goda and the memory of his lover's death. After all, that is the backbone of the whole piece, and to abandon it in favour of a lesser subplot at the end seems a bit crazy to me. In fine Japanese tradition, it's left wildly open-ended – but in this case, it's almost as though the whole concept has been left behind, somehow, which is ultimately a little unsatisfying.
And whilst the storyline is undoubtedly confusing (not helped by the lack of actual dialogue), it is a remarkably cerebral movie, and leaves the viewer to make up their own mind about events, just as his previous work did. This means of course you have to really think about it and provide your own answers – the kind of hard work which isn't going to appeal to everyone. That said, the effort invested by any viewer will be rewarded a hundredfold.
The plot does boast shades of Taxi Driver at times, which is about the most cohesive parallel I can draw. But this movie must have influenced the work of Takashi Miike, almost undoubtedly: the character of the club owner, resplendant with flamboyant locks and draped in a glamorous snakeskin jacket, is definitely a proto-Kakihara from Ichi the Killer - hardly any wonder, since Miike cast Tsukamoto himself in the part of Jijii (short for 'ojisan' again – but I promise you, Tsukamoto ain't that old! ;-D) in that movie, possibly in homage to this particular film.
There are so few flaws in this movie that this review will no doubt sound like raving hyperbole. Well, amen to that: we here at Snowblood Apple get so few movies to write raving hyperbole about that it's a genuine and refreshing pleasure to be able to go bonkers about a film this glorious. If you enjoy drop-dead gorgeous visual aesthetics and dark, brooding drama with more than a touch of violence and social commentary, then I implore you to buy this movie and treat yourself to a visual and emotional banquet.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 9/10
Guns: lots and lots and lots and lots
Pointy Fingers Pretending to be Guns: even more than that!
Nail Studded Baseball Bats: just the one
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: no idea. It's all black and grey, you know! ;-)
Films in a Similar Style: Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Ichi the Killer, Tokyo Fist
*** Highly Recommended!***
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Bullet Ballet Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2004
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/ and http://www.artsmagic.co.uk - Artsmagic very kindly provided this movie to us for review, and are due to release the DVD in January 2005
http://shinyatsukamoto.info/ - an amazing unofficial fansite all about Tsukamoto and his movies, with lots of pictures and very indepth reviews
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/drama/bulletballet/bulletballet.html - a really thoughtful and incisive review, with some good images
http://www.thegline.com/dvd-of-the-week/2003/03-27-2003.htm - an excellent review at The Gline, replete with lots of ace pictures to boot
http://www.allocine.fr/film/galerie_gen_cfilm=20338.html - some nice big hi-res stills from the movie [French only]
http://www.asianfilms.org/japan/ballet.html - some useful print and cast information
http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/shinya_tsukamoto.shtml - a nice interview with Shinya Tsukamoto at Midnight Eye
http://www1.sphere.ne.jp/there-s/bullet/ - very comprehensive site featuring pictures and lots of information [Japanese only]