I used to be a massive fan of Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto. Whenever he released a new film, it was always an event but sadly in recent times my enthusiasm for his work has wavered a little. While I still enjoy his films, I am no longer maniacally on edge waiting for his new films anymore. It has been since his amazing film from 2004, “Vital”, that my enthusiasm has dropped. Since that film, Tsukamoto has made the digital experiment “Haze”, which was great but still a minor effort, he did a segment in the omnibus film “Female”, made two “Nightmare Detective” films and most recently, he finally returned to where it all began with his third installment of the “Tetsuo” franchise, “The Bullet Man”. Until recently, with the exception of “Haze” and the first “Nightmare Detective” film, I hadn’t got around to watching any of these films even though I own copies of them all.
When Tsukamoto originally announced his intentions to return to his roots with “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man”, I must admit that it didn’t thrill me as much as it did other fans. As crazy and amazing as the “Tetsuo” films are, it was a style of filmmaking that Tsukamoto had left behind as he matured and began to make more serious and beautiful (yet still weird) dramas like “A Snake Of June” and the aforementioned “Vital”. To me, it almost felt like a step back and to be truthful I wasn’t sure if he would be able to go back to that hyper-kinetic style of filmmaking that is readily identified with the “Tetsuo” films, a style which feels more suited to a young filmmaker. It had been seventeen years since the previous “Tetsuo” film, “Body Hammer”, so I was not sure if Tsukamoto would still be able to pull this kind of film off. Eventually the reviews started to trickle in and unfortunately they were not very positive. Some claimed the film was a disappointment while others where scathing in their remarks stating the film was terrible. Even though my expectations were not as high as normal, my heart sunk a little, and there is no doubt that the critical reception to the film put me off watching it for so long. However out of the blue, the other night I felt a strong urge to finally check it out, so I popped the disc in and re-entered the world of “Tetsuo”. So were the critics justified in their opinions?
“The Bullet Man” is about an American expatriate named Anthony, living in Japan with his wife Yuriko and their young son Tom. One day while on a quiet walk with Tom, Anthony is horrified to witness his son being deliberately run over and killed by a man in his car (the man is played by none other than Shinya Tsukamoto himself). There is no question that Tom’s death was a deliberate act, as the driver actually had to reverse his car to hit the boy. The motive for the murder however is much less clear because this man is unknown to Anthony and his family. After Tom’s death, Anthony tries to go on living a normal life, by bottling up how he is really feeling, pretending to be calm, while Yuriko is furious and is determined to find the man responsible for her son’s murder. She flees the house, and when Anthony goes after her, he is attacked by a number of gun-wielding bandits who attempt to assassinate him. During the attack, Anthony can no longer hold his emotional pain in anymore and he begins to let out his rage, which forces his body to transform. Parts of his body start becoming metallic as he begins to transform into some form of android. This, it turns out, was always the motive of the mysterious man, who wanted to confirm his suspicions that Anthony’s dad was part of an aborted Tetsuo project between the Americans and the Japanese. He wanted Anthony to transform and now with his suspicions confirmed, he wants this power for himself, but Anthony soon realizes that he now has the power to finally get revenge for his son’s murder. After a confession by his father, Anthony soon discovers that he was experimented on to become the ultimate weapon. From here, a battle to the death between Anthony and the man becomes inevitable.
Right off the top I have got to say that I loved “The Bullet Man”. I had actually forgotten just how amazing these “Tetsuo” films are and how imaginative a filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto is. He was easily able to revert back to his old manic style, while at the same time retaining the beauty that is readily on show in his more recent films (the scenes with Anthony’s mother are a great example). It is a well known fact that I have an incredible hate for shaky handheld camerawork, but when it comes to the “Tetsuo” universe I have to push my hate aside, because Tsukamoto pushes the camerawork up to an eleven when it comes to the shaking, however it just seems to fit in this cyberpunk world. In fact the film would just not work without them. What I loved about the film was the soundscape of it all. All of the industrial and metallic sounds pounding out of the speakers were amazing and set up an amazing atmosphere. Luckily when I watched the film, my family was out of the house, so I was able to play the film very loud which I feel just added to the whole thing. The music and sound effects were pounding and it just sort of enveloped me within this insane reality I was experiencing. While there are times when you find it difficult to work out exactly what is going on, especially towards the end, overall the basic story is easy to follow. This is a revenge story that only Shinya Tsukamoto could have told.
As much as I loved the film, it is not perfect. Unfortunately there a two quite major flaws to the film that stop it from being a masterpiece. The first was the choice to shoot the film in English. This really did not work as the broken English spoken by the Japanese actors all sounded terrible, with Tsukamoto himself almost impossible to understand at times due to his thick Japanese accent. While the American actors are not as bad as what we are used to in Asian films (which I discussed briefly in my “Merantau” review), their performances are still not great. I’m sure this is because Tsukamoto does not have an ear for English (understandably) and thus cannot determine just how good a performance his actors are giving. The couple of scenes when Tsukamoto actually speaks Japanese is like watching a different actor because he looks much more confident speaking his natural tongue. The other flaw is the make-up effects. This could be a by-product of filming in high-definition digital, but it was very obvious that the make-up on the face of Eric Bossick (who plays Anthony), when he begins to transform into the android, was really rubber or plastic and not the metal it was meant to be. In the previous “Tetsuo” films this was never a problem, but here it actually gave the film a bit of a cheap quality to it. It just didn’t look right. As you can see these are two quite major problems, and yet I still loved “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man”, which goes to show you just how great a film this is.
Overall, I loved my journey back into the universe of “Tetsuo” and it is safe to say that my love of Tsukamoto is back. In the next couple of days I hope to catch up with the “Nightmare Detective” sequel and I am now massively excited for his new film, “Kotoko”, which is to be released this year. “Kotoko” has an amazing trailer, so search it out on the web. My recommendation for “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man” is to ignore the critics and give the film a chance. Hell, the film only goes for 71 minutes, so even if you don’t like it, you haven’t wasted much of your life doing so. I’m certainly glad that I gave it a chance and I wouldn’t mind returning to the world of “Tetsuo” again sometime in the future.