Bullet Ballet (1998)

Goda arrives home from after-work drinks to find his girlfriend of 10 years has shot herself. The initial shock soon gives way to curiosity as he tries to uncover where she got the gun from. His search for understanding, both the mystery of the origin of the weapon, and the more ineffable reasons for her committing suicide. Goda is soon scouring gun enthusiast forums and makes his own firearm. He wanders through the dark underbelly of the city, far removed from his daily life at an advertising agency. His journey brings him into contact with Chisato, a member of a street gang who is engaged in her own struggle with self destruction.

Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo) writes, directs and stars in “Bullet Ballet”. The film is a clear development of his style from his earlier Tetsuo films, blending arthouse visuals with the brutality of an exploitation film. Shot on 16mm Black and White, with frenetic cuts, this film has more narrative structure and the editing is reigned in a little which helps make the film more comprehensible. Use of cuts to black, strobe lighting, and more can make for uncomfortable viewing, but these techniques are used sparingly and are rarely gratuitous. There are some stand-out examples of the power of film, in the rapid cuts between gunshots and scenes of war and destruction, that help the viewer sense the terrible power of this weapon. When a gun is aimed at a character in the film you are in no doubt about what the potential consequences would be. The film uses some fantastic locations, dark alleyways and abandoned buildings, and they are shot and directed to their best effect. Dripping water, the play of light and shadows, and the sense of a broken vision of what the city should be all create the perfect backdrop to the drama. The grime and decay is almost palpable through the screen. Tsukamoto, who also plays the lead character, is good as Goda, capturing the various emotions that Goda is going through: anger, sadness, fear. Kirina Mano gives a great performance as Chisato, tough with an underlying fragility. Many of the characters are ambiguous in nature and the film is far from a simple good versus evil tale; instead it feels like it is trying to unravel the morality of an incomprehensibly complex system that is largely dictated by uncontrollable feelings. The supporting cast all do a good job, the gang members are suitably menacing, almost the human embodiment of the dark city streets they inhabit.

Tsukamoto weaves a number of themes and ideas through the simple narrative creating a work that really wants to say something about the problems it addresses. For example, Goda’s obsession with the gun become a more general rumination on the problem of violence in society. Likewise, in attempting to work through his anger and upset at his girlfriend’s death, and fathom some reason for it, he is in fact representing a deeply felt angst in Japanese society about this issue. Suicide is a serious problem in Japan and the film has two characters that seem to have this self-destructive urge. While “Bullet Ballet” rightly shies away from giving any definitive solution to the problem, it does shine a light on it, questioning to what extent this self-destructive urge is perhaps part of a larger undercurrent of violence in society. Goda’s obsession with the gun as a solution to his anger and sense of powerlessness at the loss of his girlfriend shows that Goda is not above this descent into violence.

Party ‘Round the Globe (2017)

Two co-workers at a small electronics company travel together to a Paul McCartney concert at Tokyo Dome. One of the men is a humorous, talkative individual, the other sits in stoic silence, eyes fixed on the road. As the film progresses we cut back to the life of this quiet individual as he goes about his daily routine, watering plants, working at his monotonous job, listening to news stories of terror attacks and disasters, and thinking about a former life.

Written and directed by Hirofumi Watanabe the film has many hallmarks of an indie feature. Shot in black-and-white, long static camera takes. The film drags the audience into the tedium of the protagonists life. This is far from an easy watch as you almost begin to feel the oppressive weight of this on him. These lengthy sequences are broken up by the scenes of his car journey as his companion continues to ramble on about The Beatles, Bob Dylan, music fans, and other interconnected topics.

This is not a film that immediately endears itself to the audience. In fact it almost goes out of its way to do everything to turn you off watching. But there is something strangely intriguing about it. Perhaps because of the almost offensively boring nature of certain scenes it makes you think about what is happening. What is the significance of the radio stories to this man? What is it he wants from life? What does he feel about the concert he is driving to? What happened in his past? The film offers few answers but it does draw the character realistically enough that you can assume that there are answers. Certainly not for everyone, but if your patience allows and you are a fan of slow-burn human dramas with a humorous tinge, it is worth a watch.

Onibaba (1964)

The film begins with a hole, a deep, dark hole, that has existed (so we are told) forever. We then see to two soldiers, apparently fleeing a battle. The soldiers are killed by two women, who steal their armour and sell it on to a trader in stolen goods. These two women are our protagonists, surviving by selling stolen armour, fishing, and waiting for their son and husband to return from the war. When their neighbour, a man named Hachi, returns from the war, without her son, the mother is unhappy, believing him to be a coward. The young girl begins an affair with Hachi, visiting him each night in secret. Her mother-in-law, worried about losing the girl as well as her son attempts to end this relationship.

The story is told in quite a minimalist way, similar to a play, with a small cast of characters and each scene teaching us something about them, or advancing the plot in some way. I also found it very similar, in some regards, to a fairy-story, especially so in later scenes when there seems to be a fantastical element introduced. The film does not shy away from sex and violence, being the primary drivers of the plot, and there is also a lot of discussion about hell and sin that was interesting to see. The music at the beginning of the film I felt was a little out of place, with almost a jazz soundtrack playing, but it seems to get better as the film progresses. The acting from the leads was good, and there were some moments of incredible emotion. The cinematography was excellent, and the director really utilises the environment, swaying grasses, wet paddy fields, caves and rivers to emphasise what is going on, or how you should be feeling. There is a sense of desolation of the two women, living alone among a vast field of tall grass that perfectly captures without words their feelings of being left behind by the men who have gone to fight the war. This is further emphasised by the hole that is shown at the beginning of the film (a pit into which the women throw the bodies of soldiers they have killed). This is a fantastic metaphor for death, evil, and perhaps even a certain emptiness at the heart of humanity. We see the hole at the beginning, throughout, and in the final scene. I feel that using these more abstract techniques the film raises itself above others in the genre.

I found that the message of the film, and its take on sex, was surprisingly refreshing, as we see at the end of the film which offers a very different conclusion than you might expect. This is far from being a horror film in the modern sense, more of a psychological thriller, with the true ‘horror’ being in the behaviour of the characters. It offers a unique take on lust, sex, and war, and the feelings of loss and abandonment by those left behind in wartime. I would highly recommend this film, as it is a great example of somebody with a clear vision bringing it almost perfectly to the screen.

The Naked Island (1960)

 

The film tells the story of a family who live on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. The parents of two young boys must struggle to keep their crops watered. They travel to the mainland on a small boat to collect water and transport it back to the island, constantly returning to refill their buckets. We see that the soil on the island soaks up the water almost instantly and the dry summer makes this an interminable and unenviable task as they carry their heavy loads up the hill to their fields. This Sisyphean task comes to represent a more general fight for survival.

Director Kaneto Shindo creates a startlingly realistic portrait of rural farm life. At times the film feels more like a documentary as we watch the family carry out their duties. Most of the tension in the film comes from the constant struggle of the family to survive, a struggle that is brought into sharp relief in the final portion of the film when the elder son falls ill. The film moves at a relaxed pace and there is no dialogue or plot to speak of. The seasons change and the family endure. Their island seems at once to be both a paradise and a sort of purgatory where they must continually fight the parched earth to get anything to grow. It can be a chore to watch at times, with little recognizable drama, but in the end it is effective in portraying the simple lives of these people. There are a number of beautiful shots and the score manages to evoke a sense of tranquillity while at the same time foreshadowing the terrible events of the films conclusion.

“The Naked Island” is a film that sets out with a clear purpose to show the hardships encountered by those working the land. The island setting is perfect as it shows both the isolation of the family and lends a sense of danger as they are cut off from the rest of the world. The constant need for water comes to symbolise humanities wider struggle for survival against a hostile planet. Also interesting to note is that much of the film seems to portray events from the mother’s perspective. We can see the burden of her water buckets as a metaphor for the stresses placed on her as a woman, a wife and a mother. Overall, it is a great example of film-making from the era. There are many ways to analyse the story and various scenes, but it is also a fantastic window on the past.

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

woman in the dunes

Woman in the Dunes, based on the novel of the same title by Kobo Abe, is a peculiar tale, part mystery, part social commentary. The film begins with an entomologist searching for insects in a vast sandy terrain beside the sea. After wandering for some time collecting specimens he is approached by a group of men who ask him if he has somewhere to stay that night. They inform him that their village is poor but that there is a shack nearby where he might find shelter. They lead him to a rickety house in a large hole in the dunes that he descends to via rope ladder. In the hut at the bottom of the pit there is a woman with whom he shares a pleasant enough evening meal. By night the woman has to haul sand away from the house, which is then winched up by the men above, to prevent it being buried beneath the ever tumbling sandfall from above. She makes a comment to the man that she doesn’t expect him to work “on the first night”. The man soon discovers that their offer of shelter was a ruse and he has been trapped down in this pit with no hope of return to the world above. The men take away the rope ladder at night, leaving both him and the woman captive. As the days go by, the man’s relationship with the woman deepens and develops as he plots his escape.

From the opening scenes it is clear that director Hiroshi Teshigahara has a clear and unique vision. He uses the artform to its utmost to create a compelling work. The shots of dunes in the opening perfectly captures the sense of somebody who is emotionally lost without ever having to explain this to us. Extreme close-ups of insects show the entemologist’s obsession with seemingly insignificant minutia that perhaps lead him into the deception, as he is unable to see what is going on around him. Also worth mentioning are the passionate scenes between him and the woman, that manage a sensuality and eroticism through almost abstract close-ups. This is true throughout with an intensity to much of the film that is seemingly conjured out of very little, instead due to the incredible interplay between unique imagery and an affecting soundscape. The score by Toru Takemitsu, with strained violins and undercurrent of dread, compliments the direction and acting to create a powerful piece of cinema. Both of the main actors, Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida, do a great job with this script. It could easily have been a stage play as the majority of the action simply involves two people in or around a cabin. It is great to see two well drawn characters, expertly acted, develop in unison, each learning from or being inspired by the other.

The films premise is deceptively simple, essentially a man is trapped in a hole with a woman, but through this the film manages to explore a number of interesting themes. It is a rumination on freedom and enslavement and whether there is much of a difference between them. It can be seen as a gloomy satire on work and society, with the interminable and pointless venture of clearing sand away from the house being a perfect metaphor for life and humanities attempts to delay the inevitable. There is also an emotional relationship between the two leads, an exploration of lust and sexuality, and often difficult questions raised regarding this. Much like shifting sands the film can be interpreted as any number of things depending on what you want to see there. A unique premise that lends itself to several allegorical interpretations. A must watch classic for those who enjoy complex character studies with socio-political overtones.

The Insect Woman (1963)

 

The film tells the story of Tome, a girl born to a poor farming community in 1918. Tome’s upbringing is unconventional and difficult as she finds it hard to break away from the same problems of her parents generation. The story then moves to the second world war which finds Tome working at a factory, having children as she tries to lead a normal life. Post-war Japan sees Tome finding work in the city at a brothel. Tome’s life is packed with incidence as she sees the worst of Japanese society.

The film deals with many difficult issues such as incest and prostitution and we see a shift from rural to urban focus in society, though still with the same sins and desires permeating and driving the characters. The dialogue is well-written and we get an insight into the protagonists life and outlook through her interactions with a variety of characters, from family to colleagues. Fantastic acting and engaging dialogue drive the story on. The music is ominous, reflecting the darkness of the characters lives.

Although made in the sixties the film doesn’t shrink from portraying a dark vision of Japanese life. At its heart it is a film about sin and attempting to escape from it while trying to do your best in a harsh world. The strong female protagonist battles on despite being seemingly punished for her own and others indiscretions.