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Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Rocky road to familiar destination

Shinya Tsukamoto is one of a madly obsessed, brilliantly talented, perversely likable kind. In the past decade, when the emotional temperature of most Japanese independent films ranged from medium low to icy cold, he boiled over with "Tetsuo: The Iron Man," "Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer" and "Tokyo Fist" -- films that were the essence of late 20th century urban alienation and rage.

But in their very extremity -- especially in their bizarre metamorphoses and operatic violence -- there was something comic as well as horrific. Think Godzilla on speed. Also, in his stance as the ultimate cinematic otaku, obsessing over every detail of his fantastically complex creations, Tsukamoto stood in refreshing contrast to many of his young indie colleagues from the worlds of music video and advertising, who seemed to be playing at moviemaking.

In his latest film, "Bullet Ballet," Tsukamoto continues to work out his various artistic and personal obsessions, including, as he states in a program note, "the relationship between the metropolis and human physical existence." But in place of writhing robots, slamming fists and other images straight from the seething core of the Japanese pop culture imagination, Tsukamoto creates an underworld more recognizably like the one we see in Shibuya at three in the morning. In short, he has returned to earth, if not quite to everyday life as most of us mortals know it.

The change is not all for the better. Along with the extremity, the outre originality of his earlier work has largely disappeared. Instead, "Bullet Ballet" is a grim, if essentially romantic, journey through a noirish urban jungle where fashionable young outlaws play violently nihilistic games.

This theme is a popular one with younger Japanese directors, but too often the aim is to attitudinize rather than to truly explore or expose. Tsukamoto is still blazingly sincere in his rage against the Japanese social machine, but in "Bullet Ballet" he also has a tendency to fall into mangaesque poses more self-regarding than self-revealing.

Once the most personal of filmmakers, who exposed his very nerve endings on the screen, Tsukamoto has become more distanced from his material in this film, focusing more on coordinating his lighting and camera moves than journeying to the heart of his hero's obsessions. Despite its great visual invention, sophistication and intensity, the film plays curiously flat, like a drummer slamming out the same beat at the same tempo for a 10-minute solo.

The story is that of Goda (Tsukamoto), a salaryman type who is distraught after losing his love of 10 years, Kiriko, to suicide. He is also obsessed with guns -- the method Kiriko used to end it all.

In the course of his drunken wanderings through the back streets of Tokyo, he encounters Chisato (Kirina Mano), a sultry cutie in skintight leathers who belongs to a gang that once pounded him to a bloody pulp. When Goda begins to rave at her for the beating, the other gang members appear -- and continue where they had left off. Humiliated and enraged by this fresh insult, Goda decides to blow his tormentors away. First, however, he has to find a gun -- no easy task, as he discovers. He tries to make his own piece, but learns to his woe that he is as ineffective a gunsmith as he was a street fighter.

Failing to off his tormentors, he is drawn irresistibly into their orbit. The long-haired leader, Idei (Tatsuya Nakamura), is a nightclub manager with a dark charisma and a deviant mind. His right-hand man, the darkly handsome Goto (Takahiro Murase) is the stone-coldest of the crew. But the gang's male members are bad boys playing naughty games compared with Chisato, who has a genuine death wish. Goda finds himself most attracted to her: She shares his fascination with Thanatos -- and is less hesitant to indulge it.

The film's climax comes, however, not in a suicide pact, but in a war with another gang that offers Goda -- a working gun finally in hand -- a chance for his long-contemplated revenge, and Chisato, for her long-desired end.

In telling this story, Tsukamoto uses harshly lit black-and-white photography and jittery, jumpy camera work to create the right end-of-the-tether, edge-of-the-night mood. The industrial noise score, by Chu Ishikawa, adds to this mood, as does a spare, intense performance by Tsukamoto as Goda. But all the atmospherics cannot disguise yet another recycling of familiar themes and motifs. What was stunningly sui generis in "Tetsuo" has started to feel banal in "Bullet Ballet." We've taken this particular death trip once too often.

"Bullet Ballet" is playing at Cine Amuse East/West.

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