The success of his first major film, the experimental, surrealistic Tetsuo: The Iron Man, hurled Shinya Tsukamoto into the midst of the world film scene. With a slew of comparisons to David Lynch, critics hailed Tsukamoto as one of the greatest "style-over-substance" directors of our time: an apt description, as practically all of his early films are brilliantly shot and put together while their stories often feel ever so slightly lacking. With BULLET BALLET, Tsukamoto begins to challenge this mold and emerge as one of the world's greatest storytellers. Still, BULLET BALLET is only his first real attempt at putting story and character on an equal level with polish and style, and as such makes more than a few missteps.
Goda (Shinya Tsukamoto) is a successful director of television commercials - very loosely based, Tsukamoto states, on a man who in the 1970s was called the "Kurosawa of TV commercials" - with a serious, seemingly normal girlfriend of ten years. In the films first few minutes, however, Goda returns home to find her dead: suicide. The police discover that the fun she used was obtained from ties she had, unbeknownst to Goda, with the underworld. Goda's life is instantly changed, though for a short while he is able to keep up appearances, as his entire life is taken over by his urge for vengeance against those who provided his girlfriend with the means to kill herself. For the first (and strongest) half of the film, Goda's life sinks to one objective that controls his every action: obtaining a gun. Along the way, he comes upon the young thugs that he feels caused his girlfriend's death, including another young woman, Chisato (Kirina Mao), who will in many ways echo the behavior of Goda's late lover. When Goda eventually gets his gun by marrying a Korean immigrant, it is soon taken from him. And here, the film falls apart. the thief, Goto (Takahiro Murase), is forced to kill a random individual (he gets to choose, his boss just wants someone to die), but Goto's choice somehow brings a seemingly random hitman (Hisashi Igawa) upon the young gangsters, and in the film's corpse-laiden finale, shows the young people just how dangerous the stakes are in the "games" they play. This last half works fine on paper, but feels awkward, random, and heavy handed in execution.
Wearing nearly half a dozen different hats (including director, writer, director of photography, lead actor, and editor), Tsukamoto somehow manages, as he so often does, to fulfill his responsibilities with a talent, creativity, and energy that is rare even in films when each of those positions are filled by a different individual. Perhaps most notable, however, is his work as the film's director. As such, he manages to weave together elements of various important directors (both from Japanese cinema of the past and Tsukamoto's own international contemporaries). At different moments in the film, he evokes the wild, handheld style of Kinji Fukasaku, the dream-like beauty of Wong Kar-Wai's contemporary films (a sequence where Chisato invades Goda's apartment might have been a deleted scene from Chungking Express), the artistic experimentation of Seijun Suzuki, and, in some of the film's most memorable moments, a unique, almost neo-realistic, take on Eisenstein's montage theory. The film is beautiful to behold, and the care that Tsukamoto obviously put into every frame and every interaction pays off, even if the logic of the events themselves starts to rip the film apart.
As the film's lead actor, Tsukamoto is as good as ever when he calls upon himself to be the generally dry and cold Japanese everyman, with moments of explosive emotion, that has, after a 10 or 15 year hiatus, become so popular again in Japanese cinema. The rest of the cast is generally good as well, but any nuances they may or may not attempt to add to their roles get swallowed up in Tsukamoto's ultra-stylish world, rendering the characters realistic. Tsukamoto successfully imbues Bullet Ballet with the air of a documentary, and in so doing renders each of the performances invisible.
BULLET BALLET's problems are all inherent in the story, a real pity since the film is one of the closest to Tsukamoto's heart. It took reportedly ten or fifteen years from his original concept to Screen. Sadly, but not necessarily surprisingly, this original concept is the film's ending, where an older, war-hardened assassin teaches young hoodlums the terror of violence by forcing them to experience death; Tsukamoto may have been so blinded by his love for this long-held idea that, in creating BULLET BALLET's concept, he couldn't see what a destructive change of pace and tone it would be for the film overall. Still, BULLET BALLET marks a decided shift in Tsukamoto as an artist, and in a variety of ways is a truly mystifying film. It may not be one of his masterpieces, but it is a crucial and intriguing film in his development as a director.
The film actually deserves a little more than three stars, I'd give it 3.5, but I'd rather round down than up since some of Tsukamoto's other films are more imporant viewing than this one.