Shinya Tsukamoto is best known for the flesh-bending mecha horrors of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and its sequel, plus 2002's psychosexual thriller A Snake of June. Bullet Ballet is, on the face of it, a very different picture, its brutal portrayal of inner-city gang life more reminiscent of Takashi Miike than the cyberpunk nightmares of his other films. But that breathless, brutal style is unmistakable, and the real-world setting makes it an equally disturbing experience.
Tsukamoto himself stars as Goda, a Tokyo businessman consumed by his work – he's so busy in fact he doesn't know his girlfriend of ten years is mixed up with a violent backstreet gang. When she commits suicide with a gun, Goda becomes obsessed with finding an identical weapon, which leads him into a series of encounters with the gang.
Bullet Ballet is a very obtuse film, never forthcoming with the motivations for its characters, even as they teeter on the edge of sanity. Why did the girlfriend kill herself? What was her involvement with the gang? Why is Goda so desperate to possess a gun, and why does he keep going back to the gang, only to be beaten and humiliated each time? At best, these questions are only part answered, the elusive narrative forcing the audience further into the nightmarish situation in which Goda finds himself. Tsukamoto gives himself very little dialogue, but Goda's desperate, wild-eyed expression leaves little doubt as to the length he is prepared to go in his search for whatever absolution a gun will bring.
The other main character is Chisato, played by Kirina Mano. She's a gang member and one of the reasons Goda keep returning to them. She likes to mutilate herself and stand millimetres away from speeding subway trains – if he could not save his girlfriend, perhaps he can save Chisato? Again, there are no easy answers, but Mano gives a hypnotic performance and Tsukamoto builds a complex relationship between the two, based on glances and looks and very few words. The rest of the gang are largely interchangeable – their boss is a long-haired thug who models himself on Harvey Keitel's pimp from Taxi Driver, and there's an amusing moment when we spot one of the gang coming out of an office building dressed in a suit and tie – even small-time hoods have to pay the rent.
Like Tetsuo, Bullet Ballet is an unrelenting barrage of fast, jolting cuts and grainy black-and-white handheld photography. Tsukamoto captures Tokyo's seedy underworld in unflinching detail, and there is a brilliantly filmed gang fight during which Goda finally gets the chance to use a gun. The ending is a little more conventional than the first half of the film would suggest – there's a hitman on the loose, and it comes down to Goda to stop him – but Tsukamoto does achieve a weirdly moving final scene, that plays like an emotional version of Tetsuo's climatic high-speed robot chase. Ironic that the director's least well known film is also his most human – or perhaps the director likes it that way.
Japanese writer/director and actor whose controversial, stylised films have bought him considerable notoriety in the West. His 1988 sci-fi body-horror debut Tetsuo: The Iron Man was a hit at international film festivals, and he followed it with the colour sequel/remake, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. Other films include the supernatural yarn Hiruko the Goblin, boxing fetish tale Tokyo Fist, the urban drama Bullet Ballet, erotic thriller A Snake of June and mental breakdown drama Kotoko.