Review: Bullet Ballet (1998)

It's easy to wax lyrical about Shinya Tsukamoto but he's a truly excellent film maker, something confirmed through the strength of Bullet Ballet.

If nothing else, Shinya Tsukamoto has a gift for conjuring dramatic titles. His films are no less dramatic than the titles would suggest, usually more so, and extremely violent too. In this case, Bullet Ballet is no different. It’s another sweaty, visceral, man-as-machine psycho-horror/drama that pulls no punches, and dodges no bullets. It’s easy to wax lyrical about Tsukamoto’s work – see here, here, and here for sickeningly sycophantic examples – but he’s a truly excellent film maker and a damn fine human being. The latter of these is difficult to prove but the former is certainly true, on the strength of Bullet Ballet.

Japan’s restrictive gun laws provide the inspiration for what occurs during Bullet Ballet, which also might go some way to explaining the fetishism that Tsukamoto holds for the object. When Goda (Tsukamoto) returns to find his girlfriend dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, he’s justifiably confused. It’s not like she seemed to lead a criminal lifestyle, so where could she possibly have got a gun from? His search for answers regarding his girlfriend’s death leads Goda deep into the underworld, becoming embroiled in a local gang of hoodlums and muggers.

It’s a given to say that Bullet Ballet is gritty, dark, and nasty, but there’s a maturity in the film that isn’t present in Tsukamoto’s previous films. Some moments actually appear to exhibit a semblance of warmth – these appear incredibly early on, but they’re warm nonetheless. No such thawing of the usual temperature he works at can be found in Tetsuo, or Tetsuo II, but it’s a trend that after this film Tsukamoto furtively started using more and more. His latest film, Kotoko, has it in buckets and its nice to see whereabouts in his oeuvre this trait originates from.

This is by no means the Care Bear Bunch, however. This is still extremely grim, and Tsukamoto makes clear to us that the gun Goda wields is intended as a sexual object, having made it himself and it featuring a much smaller barrel than those of the others we see dotted through the film. Goda is impotent, and his gun reflects this. It’s another facet of Tsukamoto’s pet theme, the link between humans and machines. He loves to blur that distinction, play with it, make it uncomfortable – it’s an uncomfortable film overall, and Goda really gets put through the wringer. It doesn’t end well for him, but then nothing ever does really.

It’s a fun, cult Japanese movie, part of the ongoing process of re-releasing Tsukamoto’s work by the team over at Third Window, with Tsukamoto himself supervising the Blu-ray print scanning process. The picture is as crisp as you’d hope it could be, and while the extras are relatively slim, there is a fantastic interview with the director himself which gives great insight into the method behind his madness. It’s a great package overall, and another reason why Third Window are currently the best team out there, if they keep offering up treasures like this.

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