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Bullet Ballet: An Existentialist Journey through Shibuya

Bullet Ballet 1

By Giuseppe Sedia. 

To certain a degree Bullet Ballet (1998) represents a dividing line in Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s cinematic career that shifted once and for all from film to digital after he entered into his forties. This was certainly a distressing but inevitable transition for the cineaste whose cult arose thanks to the 16mm film camera. The blue-tinted monochrome displayed subsequently in his first digital effort A Snake of June (2002) showed, from a different perspective, his aesthetic aversion to the tidy flatness of video.

Bullet Ballet 3The support offered by UK distributor Third Window Films eventually convinced him to green-light the digital recovery of his early feature films. This proposition was accepted without hesitation by Tsukamoto, since he was granted total control over the restoration process from the original negatives. The recent acquisition of award-winning Kotoko (2013), for both theatrical and home video release, clearly shows how much Third Window has invested into Tsukamoto’s oeuvre to make its catalog shine.

Bullet Ballet itself recounts through black and white a grueling search for the truth for Goda (Tsukamoto himself), a burned out director of television commercials. The man desperately attempts to work out the reason his girlfriend committed suicide, and rushes through the Tokyo streets at night to track down the same model of handgun she used to shoot herself in their flat.

Bullet Ballet 2As his search takes him into the Tokyo’s black market, Goda crosses Chisato (Kirina Mano), a street prostitute who belongs to a crime band operating without firearms. Chisato’s gang, composed primarily of heroin-addicted petty criminals, also includes Goto (Takahiro Murase), a young salaryman who turns wild at night. Having neglected his girlfriend in the past, Godo tries to redeem himself by helping Chisato get back on the right track. He eventually gets mixed up in a merciless feud with another mob.

Described by the director as a cinematic reflection on his feelings of becoming a middle-aged man, Bullet Ballet perfectly displays Tsukamoto’s progression into artistic maturity before he reluctantly adopted digital cinema. Unlike the metal fetishist featured in Testuo: The Iron Man (1989), Goda doesn’t have a pathological compulsion for any scrap of metal. Instead, his idée fixe is limited to the revolver he is longing for.

Bullet Ballet 4While exploring this fixation, the filmmaker ultimately rests on an open and genuine confrontation with a younger generation that he struggles to understand. Goda and Goto, especially, appear to be incompatible with each other. Through the character of Goto, indeed, Tsukamoto offers a glimpse into the phenomenon of chiimaa “teamers”: wealthy Shibuya residents that temporarily embraced criminality in the nineties just to kill time at night. The screenplay of Bullet Ballet has to some extent a number of affinities with Koji Wakamatsu’s Shinjuku Maddo (Shinjuku Mad, 1970) as well, in which the intergenerational conflict was also explored through the contrast between city and countryside.

The enlightening ad-hoc interviews with Tsukamoto featured in the present edition give an even more full-bodied charm to Third Window Film’s release of his most  existentialist  film to date. Goda, Chisato and Goto are all aware that their hours are numbered in Tokyo, a city with which the director has developed a profound love-hate relationship. The separate, out of breath escape of the protagonists in the epilogue, nevertheless, augurs that they are ready to fight their destiny.

Giuseppe Sedia is a French-born Italian journalist based in Poland. He is a contributing editor for The Krakow Post.

1 Comment for Bullet Ballet: An Existentialist Journey through Shibuya”

  1. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    An excellent piece on a fascinating film – thank God for digital restoration. I guess I now realize that if were still stuck in the 16mm and 35mm era, many of these films would be lost forever — great article!

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