“In dreams you can kill someone and not get caught. Tokyo is just one big dream.
An odyssey of indelible violence and emotion, Bullet Ballet is not only the name of John Woo’s signature firearm based action choreography, but the title of Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1998 tale of a man’s obsession. Like Woo’s own films, Bullet Ballet explores the conflict and struggles of its characters through a series of visceral and violent scenes. Here Tsukamoto moves his stories at a more considered pace; the scenes of violence lack the poetry and heroism of Woo’s films, and instead act as an immediate expression of the inner conflicts that consume the characters caught in the ensuing bullet ballet.
The film chronicles the story of Goda, a commercial director who is crushed by the suicide of his girlfriend. Obsessed with the gun that his girlfriend used to kill herself, a Smith and Wesson Chief’s Special, he begins a quest to obtain one of his own. Along the way he becomes caught up with Chisato, a young girl who seemingly has a death wish, and by extension her gang of Shibuya youth and her fellow gang member, Goto, who is dealing with conflicts of his own.
Common to each of these characters is a driving need to create violence. Goda’s grief stricken manifests itself in the world as he continues to examine the fractures created, both physically in the form of a cracked screen left from his girlfriend’s suicide, and emotionally, as he takes on increasingly risky activities in his pursuit of the gun. Chisato as well, seems to be riding the knife’s edge, purposely putting herself in harm’s way and challenging death to claim her. Goto, street level leader of the gang, struggles with his identity within the gang and outside of it as he attempts to build a life for himself. Through the violence they inflict on themselves, and upon others they begin to carve their mark in the world.
In signature style, Tsukamoto again returns to the exploration of the urban and industrial, the city becoming a stage through which this violence is enacted. A club belonging to the head of the gang becomes a refuge for drug consuming youth, the frenetic lights and industrial music an expression of their uncontained energy. The “train game” that the gang plays channels their desire to seek excitement and life by skirting death, and within the depictions of gang violence we find scenes of animalistic revel amidst the contortions of bodies in the crowd.
Chisato gives herself over to this life of violence. Many times in the film we see her tilt her head backwards and outstretch her arms as a way to welcome and challenge the imminent violence coming for her. Goda travels a downward spiral throughout the film, damaging both himself and others. His obsession manifests itself several times as he points his gun (both real and symbolic) towards both the mirror and the audience, pulling the trigger as he spirals towards the next violent act. The destructive force of the gun itself appears through a manic montage of the weapon being fired and various scenes of destruction in war, displaying and exaggerating the explosive force the gun has, both physically and psychologically, in the characters’ lives.
Along with his exploration of the city and it’s characters, Tsukamoto’s striking use of black and white photography returns as well, seeping the film in a constant play between light and contrasts. Tsukamoto also continues to reign in his kinetic and often surreal style. While the camera still feels as if it’s at constant unease, Tsukamoto continues to maintain the almost documentary style handheld cam, while knowing when hold and reflect when necessary. The film is also completely grounded in the real world. Aside from some tenuous allusions to the criminal underworld used to drive the final stretch of the movie, there is nothing here that dips into the territory of disbelief. In this way, it’s also one of his more conventional movies, lacking much of the horrific imagery his previous works brought in. This doesn’t make the film less interesting, however. Rather it marks the progress of how he’s grown, bringing in all the stark imagery and techniques that helped him explore the human condition in his previous films, while also feeling perhaps a bit more authentic.
The contributions of the actors once again can’t be denied. Tsukamoto once again casts himself within his work, and he again brings a convincing struggle to the character of Goda. Kirina Mano brings a vulnerability to Chisato, who manages to channel an uncertainty that continues to make her relatable despite her apparent death wish. Takahiro Murase, who plays Goto, is also not to be written off. While Goto initially comes off as a self-confident punk, later scenes gives us insight past the surface of his constant violent drives. A special mention should also be given to Kyoka Suzuki, who plays Kiriko, Goda’s aforementioned girlfriend. While she appears in only one scene, she lends a nuance that is captivating and gives just enough suggestion to make her appearance captivating.
Of course, what would Tsukamoto’s films be without the music of Chu Ishikawa? Along with the standout sound design, Ishikawa’s score creates atmospheres of chaos, energy, violence, and contemplation. Working with everything from metallic industrial percussive sounds, to aching woodwinds, Ishikawa becomes the drive for the manic editing and camerawork that Tsukamoto employs in so many of his films. While most of the film uses the crushing density of sound of Ishikawa’s industrial music, those few respites from that consuming sound bring an aching emotionality to the scene, at times evoking characteristics common to Westerns.
Bullet Ballet is a visionary work. Tsukamoto again brings an exploration of the human condition through an intimate portrait of a few connected souls. The ferocity the film brings may lack the larger breadth that larger scale stories might bring, but the insight into the fear, desire, and the capacity of humanity for violence displayed here brings the crushing realization that for all our attempts to outrun these destructive forces, they are something that we will not only have to endure, but that we continue to create as well.