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Bullet Ballet (Tsukamoto Shinya 1998)


Bullet Ballet

Genre: Nihilistic Plunge Into Existential Self-Discovery

review in one breath

Director Tsukamoto Shinya's more well-known film, Tetsuo (1988) explored through vivd imagery an individual's violent metamorphosis, both physically and psychologically, due to the overwhelming influence of dehumanized modernity. So drastic was this influence in Tsukamoto's vision that the main character himself gradually becomes machine through an agonizing process. In many ways Tsukamoto's later Bullet Ballet (1998) explores this same theme, though here the film's main character Goda (played by Tsukamoto himself) finds himself gradually drowning in a dehumanized underbelly of society which deals in extreme violence and nihilism.

In this regard Bullet Ballet is a gritty drama overflowing with razor-sharp realism and existential despair. Filmed entirely in crisp black and white and fueled with an adrenaline inducing soundtrack, Bullet Ballet leads audiences down a maddening spiral of apathy, violence and self-annihilation. Rather than drive everyone involved (and watching) deep into the concrete of Tokyo back alleys, however, Tsukamoto's visionary project ultimately explodes in self-discovery and a renewal of appreciation for life. Both visceral and contemplative, Bullet Ballet convincingly wraps an existential message within hardcore violence.


Speaking on the phone with her only moments earlier, Goda returns home to a police-infested apartment building where he learns of his fiance's sudden, violent death. Then even more bombshells drop as he learns from police that she had committed suicide, shooting herself through the temple, apparently out of fear of the consequences of her drug-related relationship with syndicated crime. In this surreal scenario, surrounded by investigators and flashing lights, Goda stammers to make sense of what has happened. He had no clue that his fiance was in trouble, much less suicidal, and certainly no clue that she was involved in drugs or had somehow obtained a gun. When the police have finally gone, Goda can only sit on the bathroom floor, in the final spot his fiance had sat when she pulled the trigger. While a small shaft of sunlight beams onto his face through the bullet hole left through the frosted window glass, he relives and recreates the scenario, cocking finger against his temple and pulling an imaginary trigger over and over and over again.

His obsession soons spreads as he finds himself entering Tokyo's more dangerous quarters, searching for a sense of the desperation his fiance must have entered, and for a gun like his fiance must have found. Inevitably, Goda's stumbling search brings him face to face with a ruthless gang of youth, one member of which he recognizes as Chisato (Mano Kirina), a girl he had narrowly rescued after her fall onto the commuter train tracks weeks or months prior. To prove the relationship, he holds out the deep scar on his hand he received from her violent bite during the rescue. Through only a brief time's observation of her, Goda realizes that Chisato's fall onto the tracks was likely no accident, as he witnesses her time and again flirt with the thin line between life and death. For reasons unexplained, Chisato embodies a darkest nihilism which sees absolutely no difference between life and death, and through which she walks stone-faced and knowingly into situations which make her male counterparts cringe in fear.

Through a very tenuous relationship, Goda follows Chisato into the lower depths of violence and social decay. On the heels of Chisato, Goda ends up standing squarely on the bottom of the ocean of despair where, rather than recoil, Goda finds himself in an almost existential euphoria, facing certain death through an irony-laced gaze of steel and the slight smirk in anticipation of the finale of mystery. When Goda proves himself to be Chisato's nihilistic equal in every way, a mutual respect and appreciation sparks between the two. Given the depth of darkness both characters find themselves in, such respect and appreciation shine more brightly than any other reality, and soon provide a path whereby both can at least see a way out of their embrace of death.


Although this is certainly one to watch simply for its outstanding stylistic presentation, this film is so much more than a visual parade of images. Tsukamoto offers an intellectually polished and visually stunning adventure through the depths of human despair to the brilliant warmth of self-discovery and salvation. Prior to watching this, I had read a review or two suggesting that the entertainment factor of the latter half drops off dramatically, almost to the point of becoming boring. As I watched, I kept waiting to pass such a watershed, but (in my sincere opinion) it never appeared.

Imagine for a moment a most unique rollercoaster which, rather than climbing to a great height before dropping, simply dropped from ground level straight down into a narrow, dark and cavernous tunnel, until all evidence of sunlight, air, or hope of recovery were lost. Then our rollercoaster glides to a halt at the bottom of this sightless, god-forsaken cavern, allowing us all to gasp for life and contemplate the reality of mortality. When at the very last possible moment our rollercoaster moves forward and then sky-rockets upward, until we all see a small dot of daylight gradually getting larger. One must then ask: Which was more exciting, the initial descent into the darkest depths or the final ascent toward the familiar blue of the sky.

Bullet Ballet will help you to answer this question.

Version reviewed: Reqion 1 DVD


cultural interest violence sex strangeness
After a decade of contemplation, director Tsukamoto (of infamous Tetsuo fame) offers you his deepest existential vision yet. I recommend you experience this. Blood-spurting kicks to the face. Close-range gunshots to limbs. Death-defying leaps before speeding trains. Nail-studded bats lovingly introduced to foreheads. All this and much more! Apparently full-throttle nihilism and suicidal fantasies tend to effectively suppress the 'ole libido. Angst-filled rollercoaster spiral straight to the bottom of the Ocean of Despair. Can you swim?

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