Posted: 02/09/2005


Bullet Ballet

by Ben Beard

This DVD is available for purchase at

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Rebel filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto, Japan’s cyberpunk dimestore philosopher, here returns to fetishist territory exploring, like the films of David Cronenburg, the effects new technologies have on the human form. At times confusing, Bullet Ballet opts for image over narrative in a frenetic mesmerizing cannonball of technique.

Shot in sumptuous black and white, Bullet Ballet follows a tormented Tokyo designer named Goda after his fiancé kills herself with a pistol he didn’t know she had. Living in the now empty apartment with the bullet hole from her death boring down on him, he becomes obsessed with purchasing the same model of the gun she used to kill herself with.

Purchasing a gun in Japan proves difficult, however. A series of rip-offs and deceptions leaves Goda desperate. Obtaining the weapon consumes him; he spends his free time wandering around Tokyo’s dark places looking for a lead. Driven to self-flagellation, Goda hurts himself and others in an attempt to feel.

Rotting, stinking alleyways, dripping decaying faucets and gutters, all part of a giant, sinking dilapidated city mirrors Goda’s degradation. Everything is tainted. Everything is marred. Everything is wrecked and ruined. The crisp clean fa├žade of Tokyo’s business district hides like mascara the scars and bruises underneath.

Even with pornography, Tsukamoto is saying, our cities are dreary and obscene.

Goda’s mission quickly runs him afoul of a gang of vicious street punks who beat him severely. Then the movie shifts, descending into the squalid world of the street gang, offering an apocalyptic vision of nihilists and hedonists duking it out in an atavistic return to tribalism. These doomed young thrill seekers take center stage, pillaging and thieving against other gangs in a twisted, primal dance.

Goda, now armed, slips in and out of the narrative. But what does Goda want? Revenge? Fulfillment? Happiness? Death? And where does the man end and the gun begin?

Stylized and nonlinear, Bullet Ballet watches like a strange Japanese hybrid of Taxi Driver, Romper Stomper, and Winchester ‘73, shot in a glorious cinema verité style. Part study of disaffected youth, part meditation on the dehumanizing affects of city life, and part vigilante potboiler, Bullet Ballet isn’t a film you casually enjoy. The wonton cruelty, the eternal savagery, the inevitable brutality don’t paint a pretty picture; here is a glimpse into a society rotting at its core. Fast-paced and angry, offering no exposition and no explanation, Bullet Ballet strikes an odd chord, leaving an unsettling portrait of the human condition: Tsukamoto cheerily reminds us that man must by definition destroy.

Like Lear, Goda’s alienating devastation can ruin the world. This may be sad, Tsukamoto says, but true.

Ben Beard is a film and music critic living in Chicago.

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