To date, Toshiaki Toyoda has released only one feature length documentary. Unchain (アンチェイン), the story of four boxers from Toyoda’s own home town of Osaka, was released between his debut feature, Pornostar, and followup film Blue Spring, but Toyoda had, in fact, been following his subjects since the mid-90s as they battled with themselves, the ring, and life’s unending tests. Like the fictional heroes of many of Toyoda’s subsequent works, his real life subjects are frustrated young men seeking release through a pugilistic purgatory all the while finding themselves trapped against the ropes.
The film takes its title from the ring name of the group’s lynchpin, “Unchain” Kaji who, it has to be said, may be the most “unchained” person whoever lived. An angry young man from unusual family circumstances in which he discovered he’d been adopted by an uncle as a baby only after his adopted father had died and he was in the process of applying for a driving license, Kaji took to boxing early only to wash out after just seven bouts.
Losing each and every match he ever fought and eventually forced to leave the ring on medical grounds, Kaji remained in the world of boxing as an ardent supporter of his boxing friends – long haired Garuda, second generation Korean Nagaishi, and “shoot boxer” (Japanese kick boxin based mixed martial arts) Nishibayashi. A big hearted man who wanted to make a difference and help people, Kaji drifted through several occupations post boxing from working in an all night cinema and DJ-ing to caring for disabled children. However, his violent impulses always got in the way of his good intentions and an enraged attack on a job centre in which he took the younger Nishibayashi with him for support landed him in a mental hospital where he stayed for the next few years.
Toyoda then follows the other three boxers as they continue their quest for glory in the ring but encounter mostly defeats and setbacks. Garuda and Nishibayashi fight hardest to stay with Nishibayashi eventually giving up after a brutal defeat leaves him with a sour looking wound under his eye, but Nagaishi drifts away from boxing after marrying Kaji’s former girlfriend, Sachiko, and becoming a father to her two children as well as a few of his own later on. The only one to find fulfilment outside of the ring, Nagaishi eventually finds his place as a family man, given a new kind of hope by familial bond rather than fraternal opposition.
Toyoda makes no secret of the fact that he staged some scenes and slightly manipulated his footage but his documentary approach shares much with his narrative filmmaking in its study of young men looking for an escape through violence. Kaji describes the ring as a place where is killing legal but also as a kind of promised land they’ve all been trying conquer. As his name suggests, Kaji was seeking freedom through the ring, a chance to let his soul fly, but never found it leading to his life of picking fights with anyone and everyone. The Kaji released from the hospital is a calmer, though perhaps no less passionate, figure, but one who finds his friends waiting for him with a mix of good humour and exasperation. Even the potentially difficult reunion with Nagaishi finds Kaji in a philosophical mood, grateful for all his friend has done for him and harbouring no ill will.
Filming with mostly the low grade digital cameras of the time, Toyoda captures the fight sequences either from high balconies or heat of the action ringside. Garuda’s final fight is captured unusually well thanks to Toyoda’s fortunate position which allows him to literally get right up in Garuda’s face at a crucial point when it seems all may be lost. Sticking to mostly a talking heads approach, Toyoda also incorporates other archive footage from family photos to documents and news reports as well as a handful of street scenes and recreations offered with Toyoda’s distinctly surreal visual flare. Like many of Toyoda’s heroes, Unchain and his friends are trying to live free in an oppressive environment where they each have reasons to feel constrained thanks to their socio-economic circumstances. They may not find their release, but their quest goes on, alive in the ring even if floundering outside it.
Available now in the UK as part of Third Window Films’ Toshiaki Toyoda: The Early Years box set.
Original trailer (no subtitles)