ArtsmagicDVD // 2003 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 3rd, 2005
"In dreams you can kill people and never get caught. Tokyo is just one big dream."
Like a strobe light attached to a jackhammer, Bullet Ballet pounds on the synapses with a sycophantic editing style that would give even the most hardened MTV-generation a headache. An experiment into violence and madness, ArtsMagicDVD brings Shinya Tsukamoto's avant-garde Asian title to the shores of North America in splendid style.
Goda (played by director Shinya Tsukamoto himself) is a simple advertising director who comes home to find his wife shot dead by a self-inflected gunshot wound. He tries to come to terms with the suicide as best he can, but he finds his thoughts lingering on the gun that killed his wife -- a Smith and Wesson Chief's Special. He goes to work thinking about the gun, and comes home thinking about it. He mimes gun motions in the mirror with his hands, and looks on the Internet for assistance in acquiring one. He tries to buy one on the street, but his naïvete and lack of street sense only see him get scammed by con artists.
When he gets mugged by a gang of street punks and left beaten up in an alley, Goda's desire for a gun grows even more intense. He even tries to build one out of spare parts and machined metal, right down to homemade bullets, which he tries using on the gang that accosted him with limited success. Goda's obsession for the gun now consumes his whole existence, and when he finally gets his hands on one, he rolls around on the floor orgasmically with it, scratching his body with the metal.
When Goda goes to attack the gang who assaulted him, he actually ends up losing the gun at their hands. The gang, thrilled at their new acquisition, runs rampant through the streets of Tokyo, attacking people at random. Goda suddenly finds himself in the middle of a growing gang war between two rival organizations, but all Goda cares about is recovering his gun -- even if it means joining forces with his enemies.
Bullet Ballet, on the surface, looks like every other Shinya Tsukamoto film: a weird nightmarish claustrophobic strobe-light Taxi Driver descent into madness and obsession, mixed with a healthy dash of Cronenbergian technological fetish to boot. Like Cronenberg, Tsukamoto creates unique movies that manage to be exactly the same as previous films, constantly exploring the same themes over and over, probing into the same dark corners, poking at the same festering wounds. A fiercely independent filmmaker in every sense of the word, Tsukamoto assembles his films calculatedly and deliberately, often over the span of multiple years, and accepts little to no funding from the studio system, choosing to control financing along with every other aspect of production himself. His films, among other things, are elegant and uncomfortable examinations of the discontents of modern Japanese society, explorations of the underlying technological dependence and violence lingering just below the surface of everyday life.
Tsukamoto's films are always compelling, confusing, and provocative, and Bullet Ballet is no exception. But unlike some of his more successful films, like Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Vital, A Snake Of June, and Tokyo Fist, this one kind of...sucks. Just a little. Worse, it is difficult to articulate exactly how this film manages to disappoint, since on paper, it works on exactly the same level as the films previously mentioned, perhaps even more eloquently. This is the kind of film that can be dissected, argued over, cross-referenced with social and political theory, Freud, Nietzsche, and all that wonderfully pretentious film school stuff, and that is certainly worth something. In terms of being a good movie from start to finish, though, Bullet Ballet is not.
Goda's descent into violence and madness not only makes for an insanely weird movie, but is also allegorical for the unspoken violence in big-city Japanese society -- the overly polite, structured, and rigorous culture giving way to anarchy and chaos that threatens to unravel each and every person. As with many of Tsukamoto's films, these anxieties and insecurities bubble to the surface and destroy his protagonists, and Bullet Ballet is no exception; Goda completely and utterly loses his shi -- ...err, I mean, his entire sense of self and identity. The last thirty minutes of the film could go twelve rounds with Lynch's Eraserhead in battles of esoteric weirdness.
Characters are violent in every sense of the word; they swear, they hit one another, and they are sadistic or masochistic (often both simultaneously). The metaphors are everywhere. Boxing plays a fairly large role in the film, as it did in Tsukamoto's Tokyo Fist; a perfect metaphor for inherent violence and destruction forced into the construct of civil, organized, and structured society. During a sequence where a person is shot to death, the police literally have to stop a throng of thousands of onlookers from breaking through the barricades, trying to catch a glimpse of the bullet-ridden body. The chaos is almost hilarious -- think of The Beatles landing in New York City in 1964 to get the idea. The desire for violence in Bullet Ballet in all shapes and forms is literally palatable, and it tastes like gunmetal oil.
But for all the layered allegory and theory, Bullet Ballet doesn't really connect as a film in any meaningful way beyond the intellectual masturbation material. Goda's actions are downright bewildering, and the ragtag band of young misfits (whom Tsukamoto says the film is really about) are walking clichés of anti-authority and punk rock -- like parodies of themselves, completely without motivation. The female protagonist, Chisato, is so bizarre and psychotic that she is simultaneously hilarious and detestable at the same time. Above all else, the film simply suffers from a massive inapproachability problem, so thickly layered in its ideology and metaphors that it tanks in the "pleasurable" and "enjoyable" departments.
Bullet Ballet is an exercise in high-contrast claustrophobic black-and-white cinematography, and the DVD captures the image with very pleasing results. The film has a soft and grainy look, an intentional artistic decision since Tsukamoto was going for a pseudodocumentary look to add realism to the picture; ironic considering the hallucinogenic quality of the final product. The DVD does a great job of capturing the tone of the film quite handsomely. It's definitely one of ArtsMagicDVD's better presentations, featuring a clean transfer, bright whites, and dark blacks despite the inherent graininess. The audio, a Japanese Dolby Surround 5.1 track serves the function of the film quite well, and carries the intense bass drops, pounding electronic music, and quiet introspective string melodies with ease. The channels are utilized fairly aggressively, but lack a certain sense of distinction from one another, partly due to the jackhammer style of the film, which simply accosts you from all directions. Bass response is good and dialogue is always clear -- overall, a very solid technical presentation.
As with many ArtsMagicDVD releases, Bullet Ballet comes with a commentary track by Japanese film author Tom Mes, who alternates between factual information about actors and locations, and thematic breakdowns and associations of the underlying philosophy of Tsukamoto's work. Mes has written detailed books on Tsukamoto and his work, and short of the director himself, there is nobody else you would want narrating this commentary track. We also get a candid and engaging 35-minute interview with director Shinya Tsukamoto -- with optional English subtitles -- discussing his career, his intentions, and numerous technical details about shooting Bullet Ballet. Other extras include promotional material, biographies and filmographies, and theatrical trailers.
Ironically, the crudely constructed gun is a perfect metaphor for the film itself: assembled from scratch, trying to create something with resonance and power, but ultimately ending up a crude simulacrum, an inferior recreation with none of the destructive power its creator set out to harness. Despite walking the walk, it pales in comparison to the artistry and emotional resonance of Tsukamoto's other works. It might not be a bad film overall, but Bullet Ballet is definitely a bad film for Shinya Tsukamoto -- he can do (and has done) much, much better.
Bullet Ballet fires wildly with all its chambers blazing, but for fans of "Iron Man Tsukamoto," it will feel like somebody switched up the ammunition with blanks. Though this probably isn't the film to win the director any new fans, if deeply dysfunctional psychological thrillers films like Pi and Taxi Driver get you all riled up with glee, then there is plenty to enjoy with Bullet Ballet. ArtsMagicDVD definitely did a good job with this film on DVD, so anyone still interested in some good old fashioned pontification and deconstruction should sign up immediately.
Not guilty, though only hardcore film nerds need apply.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interview with Director Shinya Tsukamoto
* Audio Commentary by Japanese Film Author Tom Mes
* Biographies and Filmographies
* Promotional Material