Stories about obsessions are often hard to watch, and not only because many obsessions are destructive. Seen only from the outside, any obsession becomes silly: instead of sharing a mindset, we're just watching behavior. Shinya Tsukamoto's Bullet Ballet tries to get us into the head of someone obsessed with either revenge or suicide (or both at the same time), but it's constructed in a way that doesn't really pay off — or, if the lack of payoff is the point, it's not delivered well. It's still ambitious and seething with energy in the way all Tsukamoto films are, and that alone makes it worth watching, if not re-watching. But once it's over, it doesn't leave much behind.
Goda (Tsukamoto himself) works in advertising as a director of TV commercials. His girlfriend of many years lives with him. One night he comes home to find she died by suicide. What complicates things exponentially is that she shot herself — in a country where guns are almost entirely unavailable, even to criminals. She knew someone who had a gun, and now Goda is obsessed with getting one himself, preferably the same Chief Special she used. Maybe it's to empower himself; maybe it's to kill himself.
Almost immediately, a second plotline presents itself on top of this one. In a dark back alley, Goda happens across Chisato, a boyish young woman he recognizes. Some time ago, Goda pulled Chisato back from the edge of a train platform right when she seemed about to topple over; for his trouble he got bitten on the hand. The whole thing was a ruse to rob him, and now the same gang emerges from the mouth of the alley and, led by Chisato's sideburned boyfriend Goto, they all kick Goda senseless once again. Now, at least, Goda's quest for a gun has a focus: he can use it to get revenge on these punks who humiliated him in his time of grief.
Finding a gun illegally in Japan is not trivial, and Goda hits one dead end after another. A gangland dealer claims to be able to get him a gun; it turns out to be a water pistol filled with ball bearings. Finally, Goda goes his own way: he cobbles together from junkyard bits his own Saturday Night Special, one that looks like it was hacked off the body of the monster in Tsukamoto's Tetsuo, The Iron Man. Once armed, he goes after the gang in the nightclub where they hold court, only to have the whole thing literally and figuratively blow up in his face.
Idei, the long-haired owner of the club, and leader of the gang, doesn't think twice about teaching this yuppie upstart a lesson — not when he has bigger problems to confront, like a potential war with another gang, or looming tensions with full-blown yakuza. But then Goda once again inserts himself into the action, this time with a real gun, one Chisato sees might help them tip the balance in the gang's favor when they run afoul of the wrong people.
I've seen Bullet Ballet something like three times now, once a long time ago when it first debuted on home video in English, and twice most recently thanks to Arrow Video's Shinya Tsukamoto reissue series. Each time I've seen it, the murk of the story becomes a little less murky — it's not always clear what the significance of certain events is on first glance — but not that much more resonant. For a movie seething with emotion from end to end, it doesn't generate a lot of feeling. And not because it's formally distant — Tsukamoto is as visceral a director as they come — but because the narrative arrow of the movie often seems to be off by yards. Goda's ambitions don't really seem to drive the action so much as throw him sidelong into things. By the halfway mark, I wasn't even sure where the movie was headed any more; by the two-thirds mark, when it was clear, I felt the movie had settled for something a whole lot less interesting than what it had opened with.
One reading of the film I've entertained is that it's a meditation on the futility of revenge, if only because elements of the deliberately frustrating plot construction seem to support it. When Goda finally gets his hand on a real gun, it's not even by his own efforts; it's through a deus ex machina that is never mentioned again. He's robbed of every attempt to revenge himself against the people who wronged him, from the gangster who stiffed him to the other members of the gang. All this would work better if it seemed like the point of the story, but it's smothered because Tsukamoto evidently thought the real story was somewhere else. Where, though, is anyone's guess. (Goda's dead girlfriend ends up being a fridged-woman trope, given how little relevance it ultimately has to the rest of the story.)
No Tsukamoto film is ever totally bad or boring, though. The visuals for Bullet Ballet hearken back to the black-and-white grime of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, although with widescreen and a larger budget to spare. They nicely complement the movie's subterranean atmosphere; even Goda's ultramodern apartment looks forbidding under all that grain and expressionistic lightning. What's missing is a sense that the story being told has any of the urgency of its visuals. There's a lot boiling inside this film, but at the end when the lid is off, nothing comes out except steam.