The Plot: Goda is your average Japanese salaryman. He has it all, a comfortable life, a nice secure apartment and a loving fiancee to go home to. All that changes one day when he comes home to discover the police at his apartment. Turns out there were things in his life he wasn’t aware of, like a reason for his wife to commit suicide. The blow turns him inside out emotionally, and he begins to search out how his wife was able to attain a gun – and ultimately how to get a carbon copy of the same one. Perhaps in order to attempt his own suicide, or worse. While searching, he steps on the toes of a gang of hoodlums who beat him in an alleyway but Goda has his ways and aims to get his firearm – and then seek revenge.
With Tsukamoto, there’s always a promise of originality. Frame by frame, shot by shot, everything is either something once invented by the director or wholly original. His style penetrates every second of his films and works as a character by itself. Bullet Ballet definitely follows in the vein of Tetsuo, with the gritty black & white and frightening city landscapes, but the themes, plot and point of the films are drastically different. Tsukamoto’s film isn’t simply a study on revenge, or dealing with the suicide of a loved one or any of the touched on areas, but it is a combination of all of these things. Like the director’s other work, the ideas expressed aren’t going to just pop out at you, to make an understatement. In my mind there are only hints at the whole “man versus machine” theme that dominates the majority of his work, with only the background bringing to life the industrial accent of the Tetsuo films. Really, at it’s heart, I think Bullet Ballet may be an ordinary love story. Albeit not quite as sane, or easily digestible, but it has all the makings of something bizarrely romantic. It all comes together in the concluding shots, but you’ll have to see it first to understand the characters. Bullet Ballet may not be one of the films everyone talks about when they mention the director, but really, it should be.
Tsuakamoto, from what I have seen of his films, is sort of what Sergio Leone would have been had he went insane growing up in the slums. Whether or not Shinya actually ever lived in any slums, or ever truly went insane, is beyond me but I can think of no other way a director could ever achieve the visual eye that the man has. If there is one reason to ever see a film by Shinya Tsukamoto in all of your life, it’s to see a truly visual director working in extremes. His films are harsh, and sometimes seem to bounce off the walls just from being so volatile and intense but there’s always that one man’s vision behind things that keeps it from falling into all out anarchy. Bullet Ballet is Tsukamoto delving into his bleakest views of society, but making sure to keep the worlds of bureaucratic salarymen and the punk gangs who roam the streets completely separate. The dead concrete plains and grotesque alleyways are not only part of these characters inhabitants, they are the characters. The desolate streets create these people as much as we would believe the characters helped to create them on their own. Every person is part of the process, and the destruction is all around them. Tsukamoto slowly blends these worlds as the film moves along, bringing the gangs to Tsukamoto’s apartment, into his life, but the audience gets the idea that eventually all of this nihilism will implode in on its self. Tsukamoto made an even more drastic pair of ‘worlds within worlds’ setting in his later film Gemini (with the slums actually seeming to be oozing with steam), but Bullet Ballet stays in tune with his earlier creations much closer and in my opinion is the superior film. I have read some passing comments that try and make it sound as if the first half of the film, with Goda on the search for a firearm, is the only part of the film with anything truly interesting to say – but I am of the opinion that the conclusion to the film is truly the meat of things, and the minutes leading up to it are the setting of the table.
It’s really hard to compare Shinya Tsukamoto’s work to anything other than his own filmography, because frankly there’s no one out there who has a style nearly as eclectic as his own. Sogo Ishii’s Electric Dragon 80,000 V. came pretty close, but even that film is in a category all it’s own. Tsukamoto is consistently pushing his vision and adding onto it with each subsequent film. Even if the themes are sometimes similar, he at least tackles the same topics in new and envelope pushing ways. Bullet Ballet could be seen as developing on the themes he first opened in Tetsuo, or it could just be seen as a stylistic basis with only a few recurring themes that work more as trademarks, it’s really up to the audience. It’s everything he is known for, and truly makes for a powerful bit of cinema. The damp metal on concrete scenery, the extreme sound effects and the pulsating music, all staples of the director are in full view. He delivers a film that is powerful, although not in a disturbing or life shattering form, just the sort of film that expounds on a genre of cinema. A form of existential, industrial cinema that is as controlled as much as it is utter chaos unleashed at moments you would never expect.
Bullet Ballet could be accused of being somewhat slow paced, but that in its self is no crime if the film is interesting, and Ballet will never have to worry about that. The story is continuous throughout, almost never losing track of the simple story it is trying to tell. The moments where Goda is trying to purchase/build a firearm are in my opinion the only pieces that could seem as if they are dragging somewhat, but they’re certainly important enough to include in the film. The story builds and builds until it’s emotional climax, something that may leave you exasperated. It is certainly a draining experience and this comes from the fluctuating pace. From beginning to end there’s a consistency to it that remains the same, but the brilliance of some scenes sometimes outshines others which is one of the negatives I might have with the film. Moments like one in an alleyway where we see Goda with a bullet clenched between his teeth, with a screeching sound effect blaring in our ears, takes me clear back to Tetsuo and leaves me a little disappointed that more moments of pure madness couldn’t have made it into the final cut. The bullet scene serves a purpose (drawing out tension as Goda awaits his rivals) so it’s hard to complain too much about what isn’t present; when the majority of the film is so very consistent. Partly a work of pure insanity, partly a washed out industrial love story; there’s no denying the directorial mark throughout.