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Bullet Ballet
cast: Shinya Tsukamoto, Kirina Mano, Tatsuya Nakamura, Takahiro Murase, and Kyoka Suzuki

director: Shinya Tsukamoto

87 minutes (unrated) 1998
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artsmagic NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
"In your dreams you can kill anyone. Tokyo is one big dream."

Bullet Ballet is an inaccurate title, is, however, a twang of the good old ironic. First off, guns are near impossible to obtain, nobody seems to know either how to pull a trigger or take aim and the only exchange of fire lasts a cool few seconds, though it is small time amazing. A more appropriate title would be 'Pathetic Vigilante'. Hail the returning master of Japanese experimental extreme, move over Miike Mouse, Shinya Tsukamoto is back to show his hand. Seven years late it is none the less welcome and an easy trump. Concentrate on one game next time, Takashi, rashness will leave you with more films but fewer masterpieces.

The film opens playing it down, like some hybrid anaconda and viper, wrapping itself slowly around the viewer eventually to strike violently and violently strike again. The director also takes star billing in Bullet Ballet as Goda, a television commercials director whose wife commits suicide, a single bullet, from a gun of belonging to a mystery friend with street-gang connections. A small calibre hole in a window is there to remind him. Struggling to cope with his grief he recognises a gang girl Chisato (Kirina Mano) who had previously entrapped him with a tube suicide ruse and following her he is viciously mugged once again. His anger welling, he doesn't know exactly what he wants, vengeance of a manner, his own death, all he does know is that his wife's death is forever connected to the gangs and so must his own fate. As scarily cold and cruel as the young gangsters are, guns aren't easy to come by, the law comes down heavily on gun possession and the gang don't use them, callously dispatching rival gang members by other vicious means.

Goda shops for a gun. He learns how to find or make one from chat-rooms taking advice from 'John Wayne' and 'A better tomorrow'. Striking a deal for a Chief's special and five bullets from shady sources at a cost of 2.5 million yen he ends up with water pistol. To add insult to injury it's full of sand. In a thrilling montage we see him make his own gun, a fabulous piece of weaponry constructed for the film by Takahama Kan. When it comes down to it, the gun discharges only powder. A real gun does come his way, in exchange for a marital contract with an immigrant prostitute. In so doing it also comes the gangs' way. The violence that has gone before is considerable but the gun when used is, no pun intended, the trigger for the gangs' fate. By this time Goda's stubbornness has seen him, by the way, ingratiated on and initiated into the gang as they stand up to an assassin facing their 'final tomorrow'.

Ever the original, the greatest trick pulled by Tsukamoto this time out is proving how repellent and inhuman the gang members are only to insidiously have the viewer side with them, identifying with Goda. The presence of Chisato, all eyes and thighs, a perpetual black miniskirt, is to be lusted after as much as she is to be hated and she is the inexorable pull into this ugly life for Goda and the average hetero male film renter. When first Goda determines that he is going to kill her, we're not convinced he means it, no, not even then.

Death Wish was the title of an earlier vigilante film. Tsukamoto takes the theme and rubbishes it, takes the title and explores it. When on the trigger, or close to a dangerous situation, Godo is terrified, we see the fear in him, we hear his erratic breathing on the soundtrack and we are nervous with and for him. Tsukamoto prizes audio and vision. While he again takes care of the cinematography himself (and again the script, and the producing, and the editing) he calls on Shibazaki Kenzi to provide him with the required noises. The music shifts too, as appropriate, the composer Ishikawa Chu.

Previously, Tsukamoto has subjected us to a barrage of sound and images, quick cuts that slap the viewer about the brain; shakes us awake. There is less of that this time, but enough. As the film progresses so increase the riches in the details and the dialogue. Shooting up heroin is described as "a passport into outer space." On the subject of all possible futures for a girl entering the scene, her exploiter advises her "if you forget what it might have been it won't be so bad." Several of the gang members lead double lives, attack suits but are suits themselves. One brings up the fact that another could feed each individual gang member's data into a computer and calculate their every movement over the next two years. "That's what we call fate." The most chilling ideas come in word form. But let's not take due horror from the gang massacre and its grisly aftermath, a disturbingly dreamy blooding, yet not for the benefit of others. Each gangster is wrapped up in his own 'privately' committed atrocity, 'privately' because though the assault is committed as a group they are unaware of each other's activities in that moment. So many dark messages and yet Bullet Ballet rarely feels downbeat. The last scene is a splendidly cinematic touch, very original and one wonders how it has not been come by before.

If there is anything to fault the film on it is the black and white photography and the hand-held camerawork. The latter should be allowed as Tsukamoto was as good as the pioneer of the shaky-cam, but his films are frenetic enough without it. As to the black and white, it may return us to his first hit Tetsuo: The Iron Man, but you get the impression that Bullet Ballet was shot in colour and then had it foolishly removed. Tetsuo II: Body Hammer was one of the most colourful movies of the 1990s and to find Tsukamoto returning to monochrome is an unacceptable deprivation on our expectations and of what could have been (not the same thing). Had it been granted us in colour it may have been too much. I suspect there is a colour version out there, that this was not shot on black and white 16mm as has been suspected and that we may one day see it. Then some of the dialogue is false or scenes curtailed and convenient, particularly in relation to his rarely visited world in commercial advertising.

The film is not ruined by any of this; that simply is not possible, its brilliance is assured already. This film and its director are quite incredible. He's always worth the wait.

"No, mom. I'm not coming home for dinner."
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