Visually, each of Shinya Tsukamoto’s films have their own differentiating look, while at the same time are unmistakably his. All his works are a manga come to life, with bursts of over-the-top, graphic imagery, with the energy of the moving image. Along with “Tetsuo”, “Bullet Ballet’s” use of black and white furthers the likeness of his films to manga: but instead quietly absorbing the images and texts from the page, they leap out at you and shake you to your core.
Goda (Tsukamoto), a somewhat timid and indecisive advertising exec, returns home to find his fiancée has shot herself in their bathroom. His life is devastated. But the key question on his mind is “how did she get hold of a gun?” To find answers, he takes to the streets, delving into the underworld of Shinjuku, approaching anyone, often foreign, he feels may be a connection to a source.
But, out of his depth, he soon finds himself the victim of con men taking his money for toys; as well as a failed attempt at some home engineering. Angered and frustrated, his further delving leads him to numerous beatings. But by chance, a foreign woman approaches him with a deal: marry her for a visa and she will hand over a gun to him. Immediately he agrees.
Seeking out the gang who repeatedly inflicted beatings upon him, he approaches them with his new toy, but is soon caught up in a gang war. Drawn to young Chisato (Kirina Mano), he helps the gang with the real gun, before joining them in their final battle.
You don’t watch Tsukamoto films; you experience them. Regular collaborator, the late Chu Ishikawa, again delivers an industrial-metal-electro-punk soundtrack that seeps into every part of your brain, heightened by the sudden switches to complete silence. The urban development of Shinjuku is also used to good effect, with corrugated iron fences of building sites and cranes the backdrop to an industrial landscape of metal and violence. This is the world beneath the skyscrapers of mass urbanisation; a bleak and grotty underbelly of Tokyo of low lives, dirty clubs and gang violence.
Much like “Tokyo Fist” before it, the violence is exaggerated, with blows heavy and the resulting impact more true to manga than real life. Tsukamoto draws inspiration from the drawn image, with the facial impact and bruising those you would expect to see on the page, exaggerated so that you are aware they have been beaten. In black and white, as manga are, you feel you are watching the paper form.
The characters, typical of Tsukamoto, are obsessives, doing whatever is necessary to achieve their aim, fighting to the death. Mano’s Chisato has something of Faye Wong’s Faye in “Chungking Express” about her, secretly playing around in Goda’s flat. Goda is also a man who will do whatever it takes to get hold of a gun, taking numerous humiliations along the way, but is in no way fazed by them.
But, as ever with Tsukamoto, the plot is a little clunky in parts along the way. Things seem to just happen out of nowhere, such as the approach of Goda’s new “wife” regarding the gun; as well as his quick descent into the underworld. But plot is never what one looks for too much in his films. The style and the wild ride are what we are after, along with some iconic images. His own cinematographer again, there are numerous shots that make the camerawork a definite step up in quality from his previous films, and act as a precursor to 2002’s “A Snake of June”.
Overall, “Bullet Ballet” is perhaps a step down in terms of the innovation of “Tetsuo”, the extreme violence of “Tokyo Fist” and the film noir style of “A Snake of June”, but is certainly among Tsukamoto’s better works in his distinctive brand of filmmaking that comes straight out of a comic book.