B&W, 1988, 87m. / Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto / Starring Shinya Tsukamoto, Kirina Mano, Tatsuya Nakamura, Takahiro Murase / Artsmagics (US R1 NTSC), Studio Canal (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

A Japanese cyberpunk-era response to films like Gun Crazy and My New Gun, this stark social drama from director Tsukamoto of Tetsuo and Gemini fame offers another virtuoso display of his talents, albeit with a more traditional narrative approach. His love for gritty, monochromatic photography is here utilized to craft a noir-influenced study of gang life and firearm obsession in modern Japan, where laws outlawing handguns propel one man, commercial director Goda (played by Tsukamoto as well), in a feverish quest to obtain one at any cost. The impetus for his quest is the suicide of his girlfriend via gunshot to the temple, and soon he's scouring the streets where he runs afoul of a gang of street thugs whose leading female member, Chisato (Mano), awakens new and possible dangerous emotions as they fall into a most unusual romance - sprinkled with the occasional gunfight and gory beating.

The follow up film to Tsukamoto's first color films, the urban nightmare Tokyo Fist and Tetsuo II, this study of pistol madness feels like an attempt to reconcile those prior entries with Tsukamoto's more aggressive underground origins; fortunately he succeeds for the most part, particularly during the delirious final act which takes a few interesting twists and turns. The result is one of his more accessible films (certainly more than his later A Snake of June) and, though still for selective tastes, an experience that rewards repeated viewings.

Extremely difficult to find for American viewers prior to DVD, Bullet Ballet looks about as good as NTSC will allow in this DVD incarnation. Similar to earlier anamorphic editions in other countries, the transfer is sharp and appropriately grainy and murky where needed. Artsmagic's 5.1 audio mix sounds similar to the previous surround mixes; surround activity is fairly frequent, but don't expect too many fancy split-signal effects.

With typically loving attention to detail, Artsmagic presents the most comprehensive edition of this film to date. Regular Japanese cinema commentator Tom Mes turns in another solid audio commentary in which he sketches in the histories of the major participants and explores the role of firearms in Japanese culture, while Tsukamoto turns up for a new, engaging video interview in which he discusses the challenges of playing leading man in his own film and his creative intentions for the project. You also get two trailers, bios and filmographies, and promos for other Artsmagic titles.

Color, 1999, 83m. / Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto / Starring Masahiro Motoki, Ryo, Yasutaka Tsutsui / Warner (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Golden Scene (HK R3 NTSC) / DD2.0

Though not overtly supernatural, Gemini is a skincrawling gothic horror film packed with enough colourful, nightmarish imagery to send most Western critics into fits. Adapted by maverick director Shinya Tsukamoto (Tokyo Fist and the Tetsuo films) from a novel by Edogawa Rampo, the simple narrative is broken apart into hallucinatory fragments peppered with flashbacks and horrific subliminal visuals; the results are more accessible and linear than Tetsuo but no less effective. Financially secure doctor Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) is shaken when his family members begin dying one by one. After the mysterious and gruesome death of his father, Yukio's mother is literally frightened to death by a shadowy, razor-toothed intruder bearing a large, snake-like birthmark on one of his legs. Meanwhile a plague ravages the nearby slums, with Yukio reluctant to admit any of the impoverished residents into his home for treatment. His beautiful amnesiac wife, Rin (Ryo), tries to convince Yukio that the slum people are human, too, but he finds his views following those of his elitist father. One sunny afternoon Yukio is suddenly hurled down into the family well by the intruder, who boards up the top of the well and occasionally tosses in food scraps for Yukio to eat. The sinister man cleans himself up and turns out to be almost the identical double of Yukio, even to the extent that he takes the doctor's place in the marriage bed. Gradually Yukio's physical and mental abilities are affected by his confinement, and only after the avenging stranger reveals his true agenda does Yukio come to understand the horrific consequences of his family's actions.

A creepy little chamber piece, Gemini retains its tight grip on the viewer's imagination right from the opening moments which, in chilling flash-frame images, depict rats gnawing on the rotting, orange-lit remains of a dead animal. The soundtrack is no more comforting, with Tsukamoto offering one of the most manipulative and gutwrenching aural landscapes since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most of the performers remain confined to one-note roles, but Motoki, the prettyboy thug from Gonin, shines his dual lead roles and slips from one mental state to another with convincing ease. Tsukamoto also makes striking use of colour design, with the present day sequences usually drenched in gray and blue while the hyperactive slum flashbacks vibrate with eye-popping orange and red. Warner's Japanese DVD of Gemini provides an eye-opening demonstration once and for all that, with the proper studio treatment, any country's films can be made to look as polished and impressive as any American product-- or perhaps even better. There simply aren't enough superlatives to heap on this transfer, and the entire disc itself for that matter. The razor-sharp anamorphic transfer looks even fresher and sharper than a theatrical print, while the optional white English subtitles are easy to read and well written. The surround audio may not be 5.1, but the loss is only minor as this is one sound mix guaranteed to keep you on edge for an hour and a half. Sound constantly buzzes and swirls from each speaker, even in the quietest scenes; watching this film only through a television monitor cannot come close to approximating the power of its full soundtrack. That's just the beginning, though. The disc also includes one full Japanese trailer, two short teasers, cast and crew bios, and a series of making-of featurettes focusing on behind the scenes rehearsals, the make up and production design, and the film's presentation at the 1999 Venice Film Festival. A cheaper, bare bones Hong Kong release (Region 3) offers a drastically downgraded transfer but may be a preferable option for curious, budget conscious viewers.

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