10:00 - 6th January 2014, by Calum Waddell

Bullet Ballet

Another month, another top notch Shinya Tsukamoto re-release on Blu-ray. This time, the Japanese auteur of excess gets to see his 1998 outing Bullet Ballet obtain the full HD treatment. Of course, with a moniker like this, the unsuspecting viewer would be forgiven for expecting a non-stop orgy of spurting sanguine and John Woo-style shootouts. Yet this could not be further from the facts: Bullet Ballet finds Tsukamoto on restrained ground, and carries only minimal (not to mention minimalist) depictions of violence. The end result is both morbid and mesmerising: a no-budget, handheld, black and white, experimental oddity that veers into pretension, but also provides a disturbing descent into depression.

As with many of his works, Tsukamoto takes on the mantle of the leading role. In the case of Bullet Ballet, he plays Goda, a director of television commercials who works long hours and comes home one day to find that his decade-long girlfriend has killed herself with a locally acquired handgun. Upon questioning by the police, Goda has no answer for why she would do this - she was not on drugs, and she showed no outward indications of unhappiness. Consequently, he begins to question himself, and, eventually, the purpose of his own existence: what, exactly, did he do wrong to drive his partner to suicide?

This existential crisis takes a further turn after Goda runs into a street prostitute and gang member called Chisato (Kirina Mano), who frequently plays a game in which she teeters on the edge of train platforms whilst the locomotive comes dangerously close to her body. Goda recognises Chisato because he had previously 'saved' her from the very prank she delights in. She returned the favour by biting him and fleeing the scene. Chisato's gang spots Goda speaking to her and proceed to beat him up. After stealing what little cash he has on him, Goda is given an address and told to come by with more money. Should he tell anyone, his life will come to an abrupt close.

It is at this point that Bullet Ballet really shoots into full sprint.

Seeking a firearm of his own, Goda wishes to take his own life, but also intends to eliminate the brutish gang of thugs that Chisato belongs to. However, in the cold, concrete Tokyo streets that he inhabits, finding someone who can sell him a handgun proves easier said than done. His first encounter with a black market dealer provides him only with a water pistol. His second involves a pistol that fires duds - a factor that Goda only realises after he has broken into the gang's residence and taken aim (what follows is an especially brutal pummelling). Finally, Goda encounters a random woman from an unnamed Asian territory who seeks Japanese residence. She claims to have been following him, and asks that he take her as his wife, clearing up Visa issues, in exchange for a weapon that actually works. Goda accepts.

However, at this point Bullet Ballet takes yet another twist. Now armed with the means to actually realise his murderous fantasies, and to take his own life, Goda instead becomes drawn to the self-harming personality of Chisato - and those she surrounds herself with, including the ambitious middle class gangster Goto (Takahiro Murase). When this harem of hooligans are targeted for assassination by another, far more organised, group, Goda sets himself up as Chisato's protector. From here, Bullet Ballet reaches its conclusion, which is, perhaps, a little less explosive than fans of both Tsukamoto and 'Asian extreme' cinema might come to expect. Nevertheless, this is still an impacting and intelligent treatise on violence, impotence, patriarchy and even the numbing effect of televised viciousness and war on our senses (Goda, for instance, fantasises, pathetically, about unleashing atomic devastation).

Note must also be given to how Tsukamoto has chosen to film Bullet Ballet. Shot almost entirely by handheld means, the feature has a shaky-cam style that evokes the feeling of a documentary. This approach will not be to everyone's tastes - and, certainly, in comparison to his previous picture, Tokyo Fist, this is less stylistically 'flashy' - but the means suit the story. At times, Tsukamoto's camera feels almost intrusive: a fitting allegory for the director's own 'warts and all' portrayal of his depressed, and almost lifeless, salaryman. Yet, in the midst of this maudlin craziness, some dark, dark humour does surface. From Tsukamoto's failed attempts to find a gun, to the emergence of a desperate future wife, the random causality of Bullet Ballet - and the entire topsy-turvy world that it depicts - does offer the occasional chuckle.

With its grainy, gruelling visual style - Bullet Ballet has never been the greatest looking of movies. Expecting Tsukamoto's flick to look like the latest and greatest from Hollywood is unwise, but kudos should be given to Third Window for tackling such a niche title and giving it the upgrade that it deserves. Hopefully, in light of this HD restoration, it will not be too optimistic to expect future editions of Tsukamoto's Hiroku the Goblin, A Snake of June and Vital to surface on Blu-ray in the near future.

A ballet that offers little in the way of expressive and kinetic movement, this subdued story is still a satisfyingly morbid watch.
SCORE: 4/5
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