Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

TETSUO director Shinya Tsukamoto makes a memorable return to chaos in black and white with 1998’s BULLET BALLET. Like the earlier breakthrough film, it is outlandishly violent and unstable, but in some respects, the director breaks free to move in a different direction. The former film allowed private fantasy to mutate the narrative and its characters, permitting jaded “salary men” to transform into giant robots and fight one another. BULLET BALLET, however, abandons the cyberpunk format for a more “realistic” slice of urban nightmare, although its examination of the protagonist’s twisted psyche is no less thorough or extreme in conception or execution.

Goda (Shinya Tsukamoto) suffers the suicide of his girlfriend as the film begins. A director of television commercials, he immerses himself with work. Late one night he spots a young woman lurking in an alleyway, whose friends assault and mug him. Following the incident, the emasculated career man becomes obsessed with buying a gun for the purpose of revenge, but finds it extremely difficult to secure one. Various attempts are thwarted. But after a local hood is murdered, Goda secures the revolver that he leaves behind, and falls into trouble when he becomes embroiled in gang warfare.

From the beginning, BULLET BALLET agitates the viewer: Tsukamoto’s camerawork is restless and edgy, and various visual devices such as objects lurking and moving (such as lamps swinging) in the foreground, come between ourselves, and the protagonists. The effect is twofold: we experience the characters from a distance so as not to identify with them, and are refused a seamless “entry” into the fiction. The stylistic approach, then, cultivates an active spectator, allowing creator and viewer to meet head on for a forthcoming deconstruction of troubled masculinity.

This deconstruction is brilliantly evoked by means of narrative repetition. Take, for example, Goda’s search for a gun. To begin with, he asks a colleague for advice, who promptly takes him to a toyshop. Undeterred, he pesters street corner crooks and pimps, one of whom charges the gullible Goda an extortionate amount, only to trick him by supplying him a cap gun filled with sand after a bag swap at a train station. Trying alternative means, he attempts to build a piece out of parts from a toy. But when he attempts to shoot young punk Goto it barely grazes his leg.

Goda, is played, and comes across, as a highly ineffectual male. His efforts to deal with Goto and his gang lead him to be beaten up and mugged in alleyways numerous times, and his inability to effectively pull the trigger thwarts the viewer’s expectations and prevents passive identification with a conventionally powerful or skilled hero figure. When he finally secures the revolver he is pushed to absurd lengths: he must marry an immigrant whore, before she gives it to him.

Goda’s infatuation is evoked as utterly outlandish. In the television studio his brewing fixation is evident when he edits together some telling images from newsreel footage: a close up of hands firing a revolver, followed by a reaction shot of a tank blast blowing up buildings. The relationship between the two images (bullet + explosion) shows that his desire for violence is all out of proportion to the situation he’s in. This remarkable sequence allows us see through the illusion (as a construction) and allows us to read Goda as shallow and fake.

The frequent use of toys as a motif shows that the characters are playing at being tough guys. Near the end of the film, both Goto and Goda are obsessed with the notion of just using the gun somebody, and they compete with one another to shoot a man. Goto is too petrified to fire whereas Goda memorably pleads, "Let me use it"! The characters antics lead to tragedy: Goto visits the boxer he idolises (a deadly human weapon) and shoots him to further his own fantasy. This leads to a showdown with his father, a war veteran, and hit man, and the scene is put across as a frightening and disorientating experience for both men.

Unlike most filmmakers, Shinya Tsukamoto never tries to veil his message beneath a more conventional framework. Conversely, the director-star adopts a free form, confrontational style whereby his agenda is explored through a wide range of images, situations, and characters. Although one commentator dismissed the film as “horribly overstretched”, it is rather a thorough and inventive work of art that confirms suspicions that Tsukamoto is perhaps the finest living purveyor of extreme visions.

Mathew Sanderson

Directed by Shinya Tsukamotu

Japanese with English subtitles
Japan / 1998 / 87 minutes / Black and White

Interview with the Director

Commentary with Tom Mes
Filmographies and Biographies
Promotional Materials

An Artsmagic DVD release

16:9 anamorphic presentation
NTSC Region 1 / Dolby Digital



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