Thursday, January 31, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: BULLET BALLET (1998)

Written/Directed/Edited/Camera Operated by Shinya Tsukamoto
Music by Chu Ishikawa
Costume Design by Hiroko Iwasaki
Produced by Igarashi Maison

Starring

Shinya Tsukamoto as Goda
Kirina Mano as Chisato
Takahiro Murase as Goto
Tatsuya Nakamura as Idei
Kyoka Suzuki as Kiriko

A Kaijyu Theatre Production



"In dreams, you can kill people, and never get caught. Tokyo is just one big dream. A dream."
--as spoken by Idei in the movie Bullet Ballet


In Tokyo, a woman named Kiriko (Kyoka Suzuki) decides to shoot herself in the head with a Smith and Wesson Chief Special, a mean little gun to be sure. She has a good job. She shares a comfortable apartment with her long-time boyfriend who works as a commercial director and brings down a good income. This suicide, and the violent instrument which allows it, seem strangely arbitrary. It seems that maybe Kiriko decided to shoot herself just to see what would happen. Because she happened to lay hands on the right tool, the gun. She probably wouldn't have done it if there had been no firearm to hand. She probably would've just taken sleeping pills, ended up in the hospital, and maybe some couple's counseling. But the gun in hand . . . no coming back from that.

Gun metal black and white, hand-held camera on a long zoom--the streets of Tokyo seem to quake and jitter with some immanent, highly unstable energy. An upper middle class man named Goda (Shinya Tsukamoto) goes looking for a gun, hitting up people he observes conducting narcobusiness on the streets, and insisting that he's got the money to pay for a Smith and Wesson Chief Special. But he's not too sharp about it, and various drug dealers and pimps tell him to his face that he's basically a fucking idiot, that you don't do business cash in hand where everybody can see what's going down. Eventually Goda gets ripped off  by a small time crook who sells him a water gun full of dirt. Goda doesn't have a clue about how to make moves in the street life. But he is determined and resourceful. He likes to work with his hands, make things. Goda can't buy a handgun, not even on the black market, in a country where private gun ownership is basically illegal, so he resolves to build his own gun.


Poor Goda. If only he were stalking American suburban communities, where even good middle class children can cop assault weapons and exercise their murderous power fantasies over their fellow children, their parents, whoever they happen to want to punish for their misery, paranoia, and alienation. Goda, my man, you need to give Japan the slip, and hop a plane to Eagleland, the Land of the Free, where the right to bear arms in the War of All Against All is backed up not by dimebagging street dealers, but by oligarchic corporate lobbies like the NRA, who preach the Gospel of Universal Armament. USA, my friend, where it's easier to wage Forever Wars foreign and domestic than it is to get any kind of universal healthcare working--this is the place for you, brother! Your severe and obsessive nature will find not only expression in this land of lunacy but . . . a kind of balm of acceptance. You'll just be one more loony for the bin here in America.

But Goda's a hardcore Tokyoite down to his gritty soul, and a trip to the USA is never considered, although he does spend some time on the Internet trying to figure out how he might smuggle a gun into Japan illegally. Gun enthusiasts in chat rooms with online handles like "John Wayne," "A Better Tomorrow," and "Ringo Kid," tell him he should order all of the components from separate manufacturers and assemble them himself. One dude tells him he should buy a model gun and modify it to shoot for real. Goda decides to go the DIY route and scavenge parts from junkyards. He has to consult with a machinist for some specialist work, but for the most part he does the job himself. He even mixes his own gunpowder, handcrafts his own artisan ball-tipped (how retro!) cartridge ammunition.

(Hey, wouldn't it be amusing to see Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen manufacturing their own weapons in an episode of Portlandia? Sometimes the vegan brownies and the custom-refurbished fixed-gear bicycle aren't enough. Sometimes you gotta get tough. Instead of putting a bird on it, you just might have to put a bullet in it!)

Goda's able to pursue these hobbies because he has a cushy day job as a director/editor of television commercials. But his obsession with seeking out the Gun, the power of life and death, Zeus's own bolt-thrower for the twentieth century and beyond, starts to spill over into his money gig. Instead of cutting clips to sell cars or sake or whatever, he starts putting together montages of war--WWI trench slaughter, nuclear tests, aerial bombing campaigns, artillery tests on houses, and all of it anchored to a repeated image of a hand firing a snub-nosed revolver. Goda is chasing this idea that he can have destruction in his fist, power over life and death, and be a one man army. With a gun in his hand, Goda's twisted logic seems to dictate, he can be the one to wage a war--a Nation of One waging World War 3 against stark reality.

The commercial director's obsession with getting armed recalls Travis Bickle's legendary transformation into a killing machine as Goda stalks his plush apartment with his handmade gun, firing into the mirror, and so on. But the highly internalized nature of Goda's quest for destructive power seems to echo Tsukamoto's earlier movies Tetsuo the Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Bodyhammer. In the Tetsuo movies, normal humans are mutated into hyper-aggressive freaks bristling with cannon and serpentine drill penises--biomechanical machines of war, murder, and rape.

In Bullet Ballet, the action is more realistic, but the movie provides highly stylized imagery of shadows and light, of self-burning and mutilation cut to Chu Ishikawa's pounding industrial-grade music suggesting psychological derangement as opposed to a more fanciful  full body transformation. Goda wants to become the Iron Man, the Bodyhammer, the Nation of One, but, since he's caught up in a more mundane version of cinematic reality,  all he can do is pick up a gun or burn himself with a piece of metal. He can never quite get human cells and metal to merge.

Ah, poor Goda . . .if only you had an enemy to focus your aggression upon. If only you had a side to take, a war to fight, an army to join . . .

One day, perhaps before the beginning of this saga, Goda sees a girl on the subway platform seemingly about to throw herself in front of an oncoming train. Goda intervenes to pull the girl back from the abyss, and she attacks him, giving him a nasty bite on the heel of his hand. This girl's name is Chisato (Kirina Mano). Chisato works as an occasional prostitute and drug dealer with a gang of young punks who work suit-and-tie jobs during the week, and engage in small-time gangsterism on the weekends. Goda becomes obsessed with Chisato because . . . well, she is kind of cute with her micro-skirt and leather jacket. But it's also the suicidal thing. Goda sees in Chisato someone who has embraced the dark side, someone who nakedly courts death, and seeks out opportunities to get into street fights. Winning and losing aren't a big deal to Chisato. Goda has been a striving careerist all his life. It's love at first bite with Goda and Chisato.

 Goda starts stalking the underground club where Chisato hangs out, but he runs afoul of the rest of Chisato's gang who think the guy's some kind of too-old-for-the-scene creepazoid. In particular, young punk  and would-be gang leader Goto (Takahiro Murase) really starts to hate on Goda. For one thing, Goto thinks he's Chisato's steady (he isn't), and for another Goto starts to realize that Goda might be tougher than he looks. Don't discount the bourgeois strivers, young man, they got plenty of pent-up depravity to spare.

Goto's not the real leader of the gang, however. That would be the diabolical Idei (Tatsuya Nakamura), who owns the underground club where the young punks gather to rob salarymen, have sloppy sex, and shoot heroin. Idei supplies the drugs and the real estate, but he doesn't seem to want to expand or become a power in the underworld. Idei is a kind of anti-gangster. His game isn't so much to become the next Scarface as it is to incarnate a hipper, more rock'n'roll version of Shoko Asahara. Idei's trip is to see just how fucked up things can get before it all comes crashing down around his head. Life is just a violent dream with no purpose or possibility of escape so do what thou wilt. Idei is less a gangster than a cult leader disguised as a gangster.

Goda gets sucked into the gang's street wars with rival outfits which take on an expressionistic, phantasmagorical  look of shadows and smoke all illuminated with the searing flashes from a robotic welding arc. The gang rumbles happen like storm systems rolling across the land--they're just arbitrary manifestations of rage and violence, stage managed for maximum theatricality by the brilliant Idei who always knows the right aesthetic moment to shut things down for the evening. In the nightmare world of Bullet Ballet the human  propensity for violence takes on a perversely recreational air. Everybody ought to go join a gang and find an Enemy. It's just the thing to do, you know?

But some of these players are seeking a more authentic form of darkness. Chisato and Goda are both playing with the fire of self-destruction. So is Idei, but Idei wants the whole world to burn with him. Goto is still caught between bourgeois values and his desire to go whole-hog with everyone else's suicide trip. Goto, for all his macho posturing, isn't a true killer. But maybe that's because he hasn't found the right target . . .

Bullet Ballet is a black and white masterpiece of madness, self-loathing, and grandiose fantasies of self-destruction. Although it seems to be the first Tsukamoto film to take a more realistic approach to exploring his essential themes of radical transformation, the city of Tokyo, and the consequences of violence, Bullet Ballet creates its own sinister reality. The various crazed, self-torturing characters bounce off each other, exchanging obliterating impulses, outlooks, and roles seemingly on contact in this insane drama of interpersonal warfare.


Bullet Ballet trailer:


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