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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
Adrian D. Mendizabal is a MA Media Studies (Film) candidate of the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI). He has contributed several essays on Philippine cinema to NANG 2, La Furia Umana, New Durian Cinema, Transit Journal, Sinekultura Film Journal and MUBI Notebook. He is currently working on a research project exploring the relationship of time and Lav Diaz’s cinema. He is also the Philippine delegate for Cinema and Moving Image Research Assembly (CAMIRA). His main interest is film-philosophy.