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Anyone who’s seen a Shinya Tsukamoto film remembers it. They remember the way it looked. They remember the way it sounded. They remember the way it made them feel. They can’t, however, often recall exactly what it was about. Can those of you who’ve seen Tetsuo: The Iron Man imagine trying to sum up its plot to someone who hasn’t seen it (“Well, there’s this guy who starts growing robotic parts out of his body…”)? Like great art, they are filled with images that can be dissected in both meaning and detail. Tsukamoto’s early films somehow even graced the mainstream in America (every Blockbuster I’ve ever happened upon has a VHS copy of Tetsuo and Tokyo Fist).

Bullet Ballet
This is a truly original and invigorating filmmaker, in every sense of the word. Often he writes, directs, produces, and operates the camera for his films. He is also an accomplished actor, in his own films, and in the films of his contemporaries. He can be seen crushing heads in Miike’s Ichi: The Killer, as the title character’s mentor and trainer. In 1998 this thespian produced a small film and released it to little fan-fare, or even notice outside of his native Japan called Bullet Ballet. Artsmagic DVD has rescued it from obscurity and presents it for the first time ever in most parts of the world.

Bullet Ballet concerns the adventures of Goda, a man whose girlfriend has just mysteriously killed herself with a Smith and Wesson Chief’s Special. In reaction to her untimely death, Goda obsesses over her weapon of choice. He studies it rigorously. Then he decides he needs it and tries to obtain it. After several failed attempts at ownership of the Chief’s Special Goda tries to build one. The closer he gets to the gun, the closer he feels to understanding the reason for his girlfriend’s choice to take her own life. It’s during this time that Goda has a run-in with a local gang of young thugs, who beat him up and humiliate him, and take his home made gun.

An illegal alien finds Goda, and offers to supply him with a copy of the gun in exchange for marriage. With out hesitation, Goda agrees. He takes back to the streets, and pursues the gang, though his intentions upon finding them remain unclear. What at first seems to be an act of revenge is quickly reduced to more beating and kidnapping, to be followed with bouts of further degradation. While in the gang’s custody, Goda continues his psychotic descent, repeatedly starting suicide attempts, but not following through. He still doesn’t understand the reasoning for his girlfriend’s suicide, and thus cannot commit the act himself.

Bullet Ballet
During this turbulent time, Goda finds himself becoming attached to a young female member of the gang. They enact a strange relationship that flutters between parental respect, platonic love, physical attraction, and ultimately, unconditional protection/dependence. When she comes to him to ask for protection from a Yakuza hit squad, he again, agrees without hesitation. Despite former transgressions, he feels the need to use his rigorously obtained weapon to save her and her young friends. In finding their salvation, most importantly hers, he will perhaps somehow salvage himself as well.

Bullet Ballet sounds like, and is advertised as an action film, but with the exception of a few rough gang brawls, it is more of an introspective drama. It shares many narrative similarities with Scorsese masterpiece, Taxi Driver, but is interestingly more of an anti-Taxi Driver in the end. It does dawn on Goda to take the law into his own hands, but he ends up instead protecting criminals instead of what he perceives as the innocent. Goda also has personal reasons for his psychosis, whereas Travis Bickle is more in search of them. Taxi Driver is (ultimately and arguably) about a criminal looking for excuses and justification to commit murder; Bullet Ballet is (again, ultimately and arguably) about an innocent man trying to understand sadness. Travis is trying to cleanse the world as he sees fit, Goda is trying to figure out why it’s so dirty, and how he hadn’t noticed.

Like every Tsukamoto film, and in turn almost every new wave Japanese crime film, almost everything in Bullet Ballet has a metaphorical double meaning behind it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t follow all of them, nor could anyone except possibly Tsukamoto himself. For instance, I could guess the meaning behind an illegal alien giving Goda a gun in exchange for marriage and citizenship, but I’m not certain I’d be correct. Fortunately, this ambiguity is what makes Bullet Ballet such a fine film.

Bullet Ballet
The gun itself, at the centre of all conflicts and a character itself, has quite an arc in meaning. In the beginning it is an object of self-destruction and confusion. Then it becomes an object of curiosity and elution. In the end, it is both an object of salvation and of damnation. It protects and attacks. Tsukamoto’s actual intended metaphorical meaning is rendered unimportant. As in life, every viewer will see something different in the Chief’s Special. Is it the antagonist or the protagonist?

The best thing about the film is its absolutely beautiful cinematography. Every frame, even those captured by a shaky handheld camera, appears as a work of art. Honestly, a viewer could pause the DVD at any point in the film, and hang their TV in a gallery. Even the most seemingly mundane dialog sequence is fascinating to watch. Like Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Bullet Ballet was filmed in black and white, but the two pictures are practically polar opposites, despite these critical similarities. Tetsuo is a very grungy film, high on contrast and grain. In turn, Bullet Ballet revels is its medium hues, and appears almost silver rather than grey. The visual approach adds a Science Fiction flavour into the very real world story, everything metallic looks somehow more metallic and the entire world seems artificial. Anyone deterred by Tsukamoto’s cerebral and experimental approach to the story telling should be encouraged to see this film based purely on its visual beauty.

Coming off the last paragraph about Bullet Ballet's ace cinematography, I’m happy to announce that Artsmagic’s DVD presentation is pristine. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is very sharp, with just the slightest hint of edge enhancement. It is nearly artefact free, and even during the darkest scenes noise and grain are surprisingly minimal. It should be noted that during certain shots the Tsukamoto messes purposefully with the aperture to allow over or under exposure. These shots may appear as mistakes made during filming or DVD compression, but are most likely exactly as the director intended. The framing on the transfer is also top notch and shots rarely feel too full or empty.

Bullet Ballet
Bullet Ballet is a surprisingly subtle film, and the 2.0 Japanese mix follows suite. There are a few moments of loudness, mostly during the lively montage shots and brawl scenes, but for the most part sound is not very over whelming. Everything comes slightly muddled and if it weren’t for the fact I was reading subtitles the whole film, I may have had some issues understanding some of the dialog. The score might have benefited form a little more low frequency power, and some of the chase scenes from some rear channel work, but all in all this mix is solid enough for the film. I would have liked a 5.1 mix, but for most of the film, was too involved in the story to really care.

Another Artgmagic Japanese cult release, another Tom Mes commentary. As I’ve said in several past reviews, Mes is an amazing totem of knowledge. He is so aware of the filmmakers and their intents that one may suspect he has a personal relationship with every filmmaker in Asia. Mes tells the viewer that with this film, and its lack of Cyber-Punk hyperbole, Tsukamoto is admitting his age to his audience. Bullet Ballet was made with an older and wiser mindset. Mes goes on to say that the film is considered Tsukamoto’s most obtuse and rarely seen film. Mes also briefly explains Tsukamoto’s work technique, in which he usually starts with a template that includes not only story ideas, but specific actors and sets. Another smash up job by Mr. Mes.

Bullet Ballet
Also included is a brief interview with Tsukamoto (about thirty-five minutes), which consists of the usual taking head in a comfy chair presentation we’ve become used to from Artsmagic. The interview is a little slow going, and Tsukamoto doesn’t seem to into the whole interview process. This is for die hard fans mostly. Finishing things off is a trailer, that implies a lot more action than actually featured in the film, and the unusually in depth Bio and Filmographies.

Bullet Balletis not a movie for everybody and defiantly not a movie for those new to Japanese cult cinema. It is slow and layered at times, and never breaks into the all out violence the title and advertising materials suggest.