Bullet Ballet could be described in many ways as a companion piece to Tsukamoto’s earlier film Tokyo Fist (also recently re-released by Third Window Films), dealing with another salary man’s descent into hell after a traumatic event disrupts his peaceful, if ordinary, life. However, unlike Tokyo Fist, it returns to the black and white stylings of Tetsuo and takes on a slightly softer, less frenetic approach than either of those films. With its monochrome photography and sense of fatalism, Bullet Ballet has more in common with classic film noir than the more expressionist Tetsuo but shares something of its pre-occupation with modern masculinity. A film about despair, violence and existential boredom, Bullet Ballet is another overlooked classic from Tsukamoto’s back catalogue.
Goda has been out drinking but finally makes a call to let his girlfriend know he’s on his way home. She charmingly hums a lullaby over the phone as he makes his way back. However, on reaching their apartment he finds it full of police officers who tell him that his girlfriend seems to have committed suicide with a revolver. The police then start asking him all sorts of awkward questions, like why they’ve been in a relationship so long and never married and was he aware she had a gun? How and why did she acquire one (gun laws in Japan are extremely strict)? Goda concedes she did have a slightly dodgy friend who’s the sort of person who might have had a gun so maybe she got it from him, but he seems stunned by their repeated questions about drug use. Later, alone in his apartment that’s now a crime scene, Goda tries to wrap his head around what’s happened but can’t. He becomes obsessed with tracking down the exact same model of gun that his girlfriend used to kill herself, possibly with the intention of following her into the afterlife.
This quest brings him back into contact with a young punk who Goda tried to save from falling on the subway tracks, only to have her violently bite his hand in return. Chisato is a member of group of punks along with her friend (and daytime salaryman) Goto. Although Goda tries to stand up to them he is beaten up, robbed and left bleeding outside a bar. It hardly seems to bother him though as gets deeper and deeper into his quest to find the right sort of gun. However, that won’t be his final contact with the group who will all experience quite radical changes due to their encounter with Goda... and his gun.
Almost everybody in this film thinks they want to die. Since the mysterious death of his girlfriend, Goda has been in a tailspin of despair and confusion. After initially throwing himself into work, Goda's grief-stricken breakdown quickly turns dark as he becomes obsessed with finding the same sort of gun that killed his girlfriend. Having acquired a gun, something seems to stop him actually pulling the trigger on himself. Chisato, for reasons that aren’t fully apparent, seems to have a strong desire to die but cannot act on it herself. Along with her punk friends she plays a dangerous game which involves standing on the very edge of a train platform and waiting for the train to pass so close that it catches the heels of her boots as it hurtles by. Arms outstretched as if waiting to embrace death, it’s almost as if she wants the train to take her and drag her under its wheels but it doesn’t. Time and again she puts herself in dangerous situations, almost wanting to die but never quite accepting it. Goda and Chisato repeatedly brush hands with death but always reject its embrace.
Goto, however, is almost their polar opposite. He’s a "teamer". During the day he has a boring office job which is sapping his soul - maybe he already feels dead inside - so when night falls he puts on a leather jacket and heads to Shibuya looking for a fight. What tantalises him is not his own death but taking someone else’s life. Yet, like Goda and Chisato, each time the opportunity presents itself, something stops him and he can’t pull the trigger. He’s the only character with a life wish, but it’s a dark desire where he thinks the only thing that will make him feel alive is to end the life of somebody else.
In the world of Bullet Ballet a man’s worth is decided by his physical prowess, but in the end it’s Goda’s humanity, rather than an ability to defeat other men in battle, that will lead to his salvation. Somewhat unusually for a Tsukamoto film, it ends on a less ambiguous note than much of his other work and there is the sense of motion or at least a possibility of moving on to a better sort of life. Having finally realised their romantic notions of the nobility of violence are woefully inaccurate, all three characters seem to have come to their own realisations about themselves and the lives they’ve been leading.
It might lack the some of the manic energy associated with Tsukamoto’s early work, but Battle Ballet more than makes up for it as an intense character study. Under-appreciated at the time of its release and long unavailable in the UK, Bullet Ballet is a welcome addition to Third Window’s recent reassessment of modern Japanese cinema classics and a true must-see in its own right.