There are certain film fans out there (perhaps myself included) who believe that David Lynch never quite made another film to match his debut, Eraserhead. A similar opinion applies to Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto and Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Tsukamoto's first full lenght feature from 1988 still remains the director's greatest film, but his 1998 film, Bullet Ballet certainly gives it a run for its money.
The story concerns Goda, a TV commercials director (played by Tsukamoto himself) whose well-oiled, successful life comes unstuck when his long-term girlfriend shoots herself with a gun she was holding for a friend. Trying to come to terms with her suicide Goda becomes obsessed with obtaining a gun to fulfill a death wish. Descending into the Tokyo underworld Goda gets mixed up with a gang of violent punks, increasingly drawn to the self-destructive lifestyle of the gang's female member...
Best described as an extraordinary fusion of Tsukamoto's earlier films like Tetsuo and Tokyo Fist with the nightmarish city noir of Taxi Driver, Bullet Ballet took some ten years to bring to the screen, as Tsukamoto endlessly re-worked and re-shaped the script, becoming so involved that he was compelled to take the lead role in the film. The long gestation period paid off as Bullet Ballet is one of the director's most independent and fiercely uncompromising works. Appropriate to its whiplash pace, it's a hugely violent film, full of beatings, stabbings and gun carnage, and Tokyo itself is portrayed as a claustrophobic city where salarymen are routinely attacked and robbed for kicks, and vengeful yakuza are out stalking the streets.
Visually it all looks the work of an extremist - shot in inky black and white on grungy 16mm film stock using a hand held camera, the film is often disorientating - a high speed foot chase turns into a blurry, abstract painting, and so intense at times is the film that it appears the celluloid may rip apart in the projector gate at any moment. Tsukamoto's trademark industrial aesthetic adds another layer of texture, and the film is loaded with shots of leaking pipes and various metallic flotsam, with much of the action taking place in run-down back alleys, derelict buildings and deserted wasteland. Fans of Takashi Miike's more radical work (like Dead Or Alive and its frenzied opening 10mins) need to see this film right away.
Artsmagic's DVD of Bullet Ballet is excellent. The transfer, framed around 1.76 looks rough, but this is how the film always looked. The contrast does seem a little high in places - some of the whites tend to blow out but its a minor quibble. This is a solid job all round. The audio is equally good and well mixed - the dialogue is never swamped by the aggressive pounding soundtrack. English subs are easy to read. The disc comes with two very fine extras - an informative commentary track by Tom Mes (author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto) and a 34-min Q&A interview with Tsukamoto about the film and his career (and at one point revealing his desire to make Tetsuo USA!). Highly recommended.