-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
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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
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
"No, mom. I'm not coming home for