Saturday, June 21, 2014
Tsukamoto Revisited: Bullet Ballet (1998) An Astonishing Point Of Metamorphosis
It is never easy to make the leap from the more artistically flexible world of no-budget filmmaking, and into the slick and often more hobbled sheen of mainstream cinema without losing a bit of the initial authorial spark in the process. Once such a transition happens, it often becomes less about the personal voice, and more about maintaining accounts and studio credibility. And when this happens, certain story molds are often adopted in the name of playing matters toward viewers less accustomed to an auteur's vision. If global cinema still has a lively community of independent-minded creators with an extended pinky toe in the mainstream, one has to include Shinya Tsukamoto amongst this rabble. And despite his being a voice that has seen some truly commercial cul-de-sacs, it has often been one to never stray terribly far from his initial, almost home-made texture. Whether it be via the generous and handsome use of handheld, hyperkinetic editing, and largely non-diegetic audio, a few seconds in, and one can almost feel that the characters of TETSUO are never truly far away from the current story we are witnessing.
So when we delve back in time, and seek out the point when this voice made its first leap into classically linear storytelling, we inevitably come to Bullet Ballet. Shot on his still go-to-black and white, and adorned with much of what made TETSUO and Tokyo Fist so aesthetically troubling, Ballet injects a most unexpected mass of humanity where much had been missing by design previously. Part coming-of-age story, part recession-era ball of existentialism, Ballet paints a stark vision of urban loneliness without the meandering dialogue, or navel-gazing often known to bog many a similar piece down. By contrast, Tsukamoto employs the best of his already established arsenal to weave a tale where the young and the old find themselves at a spiritual impasse, often with bittersweet epiphanies illustrated by their actions.
Successful commercial director, Goda suddenly arrives home to discover his wife dead by apparent gunshot to the head. Shocked enough at the loss, let alone the means (he explains to authorities that they never owned, let alone possessed a firearm), he is suddenly enamored with the idea of seeking such a weapon in one of the most gun strict cultures imaginable. Throughout what seems to be a desperate quest to end his life upon said acquisition, he run across a gang of daredevil youths seemingly experiencing a similar turning point. Particularly in the guise of the wayward Chisato (Kirina Mano) , who seems to resonate with the death-tripping Goda. All sides flirting with an avalanche of change that seems programmed to consume them all, the establishment and the restless find themselves in near rhythmic syncopation.
One of the most impressive things that Tsukamoto advances into a more dramatic structure, is a very raw sense of desolation as our characters seek a means to escape their concrete cages. So much of the film's visual architecture is pure walled, wet, neon drenched, and artifice. It's to such a degree, that it envelops the cast into this realm where sunlight is more incidental, and much less assuring. Even as Goda and company wander the Tokyo cityscape, there is a feeling of near suffocation that ultimately compliments their often irrational behavior. Even as they run across an entire world of seedy characters, undocumented denizens, lowlives, killers, and weirdos, it all feels like Tsukamoto is not reveling in this world in ways that other directors do. It becomes clear that many are this way because of their surroundings. It even goes so far as to imply that the only reason why Goda is reacting the way he is, is because of this ingrained need to fulfill the obligations of the collective- without asking the soul first.
Throughout his near nightly jags of considering death, it is the words of his lost love that haunts. Especially when they agreed to society's narrative over their own individual ones.
In flashbacks and by way of his encounters with Chisato and her friends, we are host to a system long in the function, but low on the self-reflection. So when violence by way of technology comes into play as a solution, it's easy to see how such a curse seems to have been woven into the Japanese experience post-WWII. Tsukamoto and company are viscerally taking on the detritus of the previous generation, and somehow finding beauty within it all. Even as development and technology begins to show signs of decay and scarification, the 1990s as a decade presented this opportunity in ways that perhaps have been covered up by means of mobile device culture, and a growing disconnect between individuals rather than groups. Because if even Goda could find some manner of future beyond his loss, it is all about roaming the landscape, never sure if salvation is right around the corner.
Because destruction is nearly a lead-in to other realities, Tsukamoto seems to be implying. Whether it be via a bullet or nuclear blast, those left behind must still reassemble futures.
Nothing, is ever truly over.