Bullet Ballet (Japan, 1998) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet is a film about an obsession with a gun. It’s an obsession that starts when Goda (Tsukamoto) learns that his girlfriend Kiriko (Kyoka Suzuki) has committed suicide by shooting herself in the head. His infantilized desire to know why she killed herself leads to madness.

He wants to ascertain if the cause of her death is related to his masculine inadequacy, which is his way of asserting his patriarchal dominance. Dread and desire overcome him. He is caught in a limbo, already too invested with guns but also caught in the crossfire between gangs that eventually brought him to the underworld of Tokyo street violence.

What ensues is his descent towards an impoverished and morally base life of a gangster. His life prior to the death of her girlfriend was stable. He was a salary man with a regular job who can afford to buy a gun priced at two million yen. His stature in society is what can be called legitimate. This is why, in his initial approach towards the underbelly of Tokyo, he is duped and swindled by unwelcoming criminals and strangers. He is an outsider to this world, yet he persists.

Bullet Ballet is a drama of uncertainty and outsideness. The unsettling energy of the film is partly due to the enigmatic notion of beauty manifested in the image of Chisato (Kirina Mano), a gang member, who is also Goda’s object of desire. Chisato’s androgynous face functions in the film as a vessel of Idea, in which the beauty of Truth resides. She is the vessel of hope for Goda. She commands the screen as the valiant paradoxical reminder that nothingness is always already a beauty in itself.

In a way, Chisato is image of the gaping void that Tsukamoto wants to project – a graceful subject that dallies between existential dread and erotic meandering. In Freudian terms, she represents the force of death drive.

What made the film distasteful for critics on its release is the stylistic nihilism that it espouses. The characterization of the gang and its members lacked depth. Stylistic editing took over expectations of elaborate, sufficient, conventional storytelling. One is content to dismiss the film as something lacking in substance, i.e. style over substance.

However, the film has serious intent in its deployment of its devices, conscious enough to contrive us to defy our expectations of what a film should be. The ‘undeveloped’ movie characters leaping into the void has been with us since time immemorial. We have already seen them in the Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic Bande à part (1964). Also, we have already seen their rhythmic movements, their stylistic passage in time in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994). They are arguably archetypes for ‘nobodies’ who do not belong to the civil society, too desensitize and traumatized by their circumstances to even be self-conscious of themselves.

What drives them is not the typical unfolding of action-consequence or action-response narratives typical of conventional films. There is a disunity in the narrative structure of the film itself, which is exemplified by the ending scene where the two main characters Goda and Chisato, instead being framed in a romantic shot, walk away in opposite directions.

Bullet Ballet is about pathways crossings. It is, in the very least, Tsukamoto’s exercise in editing. The frantic intensity of the scenes, heightened by the handheld, offbeat cinematographic movements, has driven the narrative towards irrational heights. If seem as though the temporal neurosis of Japanese subculture at the turn of the millennium courses through its narrative flows, its dips and leaps. It seems as if Tsukamoto’s distended intercutting technique mimics Virilio’s notion of speed, phantomically rehearsing the destruction of the world in an overdrive.

In Bullet Ballet, bad decisions, bad fate, and non-reliance bring everything to the edge of life. All is driven towards futility, shame, and death. What emerges is a nihilist hero represented as a duplicity of two beings: the man (Goda) and the woman (Chisato).

Bullet Ballet is showing at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 26.