Although it has the kind of title that puts you in mind of the gunplay heroics of John Woo and Chow Yun-fat, Bullet Ballet (1998) is the latest Shin’ya Tsukamoto release from UK Asian film distributor Third Window Films, complete with a new HD transfer supervised by the cult Japanese director himself.
Goda (Tsukamoto) is a thirty-something TV ad director who returns to his Tokyo apartment one evening to find that his fiancée has committed suicide for no discernible reason. But rather than dwelling exclusively on the enigma of ‘why’, Goda’s mournful obsession soon turns to the practicality of ‘how’ and he tries to acquire the same model handgun – a .38 ‘Chief’s Special’ – that his fiancée used to end her life. However, due to Japan’s strict gun control laws, Goda settles with trying to build his own and becomes embroiled with the Tokyo underbelly, where anarchic young thugs run wild. He homes in on a particular group who have mugged and humiliated him in the past. His obsession with destruction turns into a desire for revenge.
Bullet Ballet returns to the punchy monochrome look that helped make Tsukamoto’s first Tetsuo (1989) film feel like a nightmarish fever-dream caught on celluloid. The style embellishes the béton brut of Tokyo’s alleyways, underpasses and stoic apartment blocks, but also feels apropos to Goda’s stark mindset as he embarks on his odyssey of rage and self-destruction. These are typical themes in Tsukamoto’s filmmaking, where the protagonists – often emotionally deadened white-collar slaves – reacquaint themselves with their primal humanity, previously thought to have been lost to the crushing modernity of the sprawling metropolis. As in Tokyo Fist (1995), anger is the key to reconnection. However, Bullet Ballet sheds the last remnants of the fantasy violence that characterised Tsukamoto’s early work and still lingered in Tokyo Fist, leaving us with a film that is forged from grain, grit and lack of compromise.
What also sets Bullet Ballet apart from Tsukamoto’s other films is that his typical viewpoint of the repressed salaryman shares the stage with characters from delinquent youth culture, in particular the reckless Chisato (Kirina Mano), a tough young woman with a death wish, and gang leader Goto (Takahiro Murase), whose newly acquired day job causes the rest of the gang to question his street cred. The disenfranchised, no-future attitude of these petty criminals feels not only like a tipping of the hat to the early punk films of Sogo Ishii (a big influence on Tsukamoto), but also taps into the general pessimism of Japan’s out-of-shape economy during the 1990s. Tsukamoto has always been aware of his surroundings, but this seems to be the first time that he is drawing directly from the zeitgeist. Like New York City in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Tokyo is rotting away from the inside and is quickly becoming a playground for anarchy and mayhem. ‘In dreams you can kill people and never get caught. Tokyo is one big dream,’ says the drug-dealing patriarch Idei (Tatsuya Nakamura) to Goto, who has been coerced into shooting a stranger of his choosing in order to regain his honour.
Bullet Ballet is an exhilarating descent into this decaying urban labyrinth and the result is as brilliantly intense as you would expect from a Tsukamoto film. He frames his generational conflict within a fluid, jangly editing structure, reminiscent of the nouvelle vague, that cuts to the quick. But although the film nihilistically depicts a society seemingly on the brink of collapse, and boasts the tough and brutish aesthetic palette of a multi-storey car park, there is a delicate beauty waiting to be found amidst the ugliness. It is especially true in the film’s strangely edifying closing moments, where escape and embrace become an ethereal blur.
Watch the trailer: