9 Souls (ナイン・ソウルズ, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2003)

9-soulsToshiaki Toyoda has never been one for doing things in a straightforward way and so his third narrative feature sees him turning to the prison escape genre but giving it a characteristically existential twist as each of the title’s 9 Souls (ナイン・ソウルズ) search for release even outside of the literal walls of their communal cell. What begins as a quirky buddy movie about nine mismatched misfits hunting buried treasure whilst avoiding the police, ends as a melancholy character study about the fate of society’s rejected outcasts. Continuing his journey into the surreal, Toyoda’s third film is an oneiric exercise in visual poetry committed to the liberation of the form itself but also of its unlucky collection of reluctant criminals in this world or another.

Former hikkikomori Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda) is being thrown in at the deep end as the 10th prisoner in a crowded communal cell to which he has been consigned after the murder of his father. Not long after he arrives, one of the veteran inmates who had been assigned to him as a mentor and goes by the nickname of The King of Counterfeiters (Jun Kunimura), suddenly has some kind of psychotic episode where he goes off on a long monologue about a buried time capsule and the key to the universe before being dragged off somewhere by the guards. Right after that, a little mouse turns up signalling the probability of a mouse hole somewhere in the cell. Master escape artist Shiratori (Mame Yamada) somehow comes up with a plan to use this information in order for everyone to escape, which they do, emerging from a pipe into the blue tinted landscape and making a break for freedom.

Commandeering a camper van from a young man terrified of ghosts, the gang of nine hit the road heading for a primary school where their cellmate’s time capsule promises an untold fortune in counterfeit currency. What they find there is unimpressive except for a strange looking key which they decide to give to Michiru because they’re a bunch of guys who appreciate irony. At a loss again, each begins to think about the circumstances which brought them to this point, wondering if there’s a way back or if anyone is still waiting for them.

Less than a prison break movie, 9 Souls shares more in common with the return to Earth genre in which a recently deceased person is given a second chance to deal with some unfinished business until they are finally able to accept the inevitable. Though the prisoners have each committed heinous, often violent or unforgivable crimes, they each have dreams and aspirations which were previously denied to them but may just be possible now given their extremely unusual circumstances. Sometimes those dreams are heartbreakingly ordinary – falling in love, getting married and opening a small cafe in the countryside, for example, or attending your daughter’s wedding and being able to give her a wedding present in person. Try as they might, the prisoners are only able to gain a small taste of their hopes and dreams before they all come crashing down again, leaving them with only their fellow escapees to rely on.

Looking forward to Toyoda’s next film, The Hanging Garden, 9 Souls also takes a sideways view of that most Japanese of topics – the family. Michiru came from an extremely dysfunctional environment in which his mother abandoned him and he was forced to kill his own father only for his younger brother to then betray him. Veteran prisoner Torakichi (Yoshio Harada) unwillingly becomes the “father” of the group though he was imprisoned for the murder of his son. This perfect symmetry of a fatherless son and sonless father adds to the circularity of Toyoda’s tale as each is forced to reassume their familial roles within the equally forced genesis of the prison cell family. In the outside world, each of the prisoners is searching for only one thing – acceptance, but each finds only that which they feared most, rejection. Once again cast out from mainstream society as they had been all their lives, the prisoners are left with nowhere else to go but the mystical destination offered to them by the counterfeiter’s magic key.

The truck driver’s strange fear of ghosts comes back to haunt us at the end of the film as the van, now painted a peaceful sky blue complete with fluffy clouds as opposed to the hellish red of the ironically named “lucky hole”, begins to fill up with departing spirits each finding their exit in one way or another. A man who helped his son to die will now have to save another, while a boy who locked himself inside his room will have to turn the key and open a door on eternity. Swerving from absurd comedy to deeply melancholic meditations on guilt, redemption, and a failing society, 9 Souls is among the most poetic of Toyoda’s early works swapping the rage which imbued the young of Pornostar for the sorrowful resignation of experience.


Available now in the UK as part of Third Window Films’ Toshiaki Toyoda: The Early Years box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blue (ブルー, Hiroshi Ando, 2003)

blue03Growing up is hard to do. So it is for the teenage protagonists of Hiroshi Ando’s debut mainstream feature, Blue (ブルー), adapted from the manga by Kiriko Nananan. Like Nananan’s original comic, the cinematic adaptation of Blue is refreshingly angst free in its examination of first love and the burgeoning sexuality of two lonely high school girls. Shot with a chilly stillness which echoes the emptiness of this small town existence, Blue is no nostalgic retreat into cosy teenage dreams but a cold hard look at the messiness and pain of adolescent love.

Kayako’s (Mikako Ichikawa) life changes one day as she sees a fellow pupil at her all girls school being carried into an ambulance and spirited away. Curious yet unknowing, Kayako continues with her day to day existence until she happens to catch sight of another girl from her school, Masami (Manami Konishi), on the local bus. The two become friends after Masami expresses sympathy for Kayako when their teacher humiliates her in class. Masami is repeating the year after completing a long term suspension and has been ostracised by the other girls though no one quite seems to know exactly what happened. Before long Kayako’s feelings for her new acquaintance have transcended friendship but confused and jealous of Masami’s other friends, Kayako is at a loss. Eventually revealing her true feelings she discovers they aren’t unrequited after all, but Masami’s past contains its share of troubles which threaten to place a barrier between the two girls and destroy their growing romance.

Kayako is quiet and a bit of a dreamer. She eats lunch everyday with the same three girls on the rooftop but seems to feel isolated and listless in her small town existence. Masami, by contrast, is chattier and more outgoing but much of the persona she presents to the world is a way of coping with the circumstances which led to her leaving school. Kayako is drawn to Masami because of her outward sophistication – smoking, drinking, listening to foreign music, and reading books about impressionist artists. Later it transpires that at least some of these tastes were acquired from an older man with whom Masami had had an inappropriate relationship and are both a symptom of her desire to import personality traits from others because her own identity is so ill defined, and of wanting to seem much more mature than she really is.

Whilst Kayako is introverted yet solid and growing to be confident in who she really is, Masami, by contrast, appears only half formed but making up for her lack of self esteem with bravado and cheerfulness. It is this lack of certainty which eventually threatens to drive a wedge between the pair as Masami is unable to accept the kind of intimacy that Kayako wants to offer her. Repeating that she is “nothing”, has no future, and is an entirely passive presence simply floating along on the breeze, Masami is unable to make the kind of active choice which Kayako has already made, and may never be in a position to make it entirely of her own volition. Masami is always looking to run away, talking of moving to somewhere like Tokyo with a city’s anonymity, but when it comes down to it she lacks the courage to act.

Ando shoots at a stately pace mostly using static shots and distance takes though his slow pans across empty corridors help to bring out the utter loneliness and emptiness of the girls’ lives. Similarly a mild POV effect takes over panning around school windows as Masami looks for Kayako hoping to make a mends but finds her hurt, conflicted, and unwilling to engage. The two leads each give fantastically nuanced performances despite the plainness of the script and share an intense chemistry lending weight to the emotional resonance of the film. Ando creates a melancholy atmosphere of longing punctuated by fleeting glances and accidental touches, allowing the space and time for the physical performances to come to fruition. A subtly affecting tale of a difficult, yet mutually rewarding, teenage romance Blue has its share of early feature jitters, but makes up for them with an unusual dose of realism perfectly anchored by the strong performances of its leading ladies.


 

Hanging Garden (空中庭園, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2005)

hanging gardenIf you wake up one morning and decide you don’t like the world you’re living in, can you simply remake it by imagining it differently? The world of Hanging Garden (空中庭園, Kuchu Teien), based on the novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta, is a carefully constructed simulacrum – a place that is founded on total honesty yet is sustained by the willingness of its citizens to support and propagate the lies at its foundation. This is The Family Game 2.0 or, once more with feeling.

The Kobayashis have one rule – they keep no secrets and no subject is taboo. We can see they take this approach to life seriously when daughter Mana asks her mother about the circumstances of her conception and receives an honest and frank reply. However, this “pretence” of honesty is exactly that – a superficial manifestation of an idea intended to maintain control rather than foster liberty. Each of the family keeps their secrets close be it extra marital affairs, past trauma, or just dissatisfaction with the state of current society. The very idea which binds them together also keeps them forever apart, divided by the charade of unity.

Toyoda crafts his metaphors well. The hanging garden of the title belongs to the matriarch, Eriko, who has created an elegant garden space on the cramped balcony of their small flat on a housing estate. Her swinging hanging baskets give the film its odd sense of off kilter sway as the camera swirls and swoops unsteadily like a rudderless ship adrift at sea. Eriko is carefully rebuilding her world in manner more to her liking, pruning her rosebushes with intense precision both metaphorically and literally.

Eriko’s intense control freakery stems back to her childhood and strained relationship with her currently hospitalised mother, Sacchan. Sacchan is one feisty grandma who may not share Eriko’s tenet of total honesty but nevertheless is inclined to tell it like it is. The central tragedy here is of maternal misconnection, a mother and daughter who refuse to be honest with each other. An encounter with Eriko’s older brother who seems to have an equally difficult relationship with Sacchan makes this plain. However, facing a health crisis and aware of reaching the final stages of her life Sacchan is also in a reflective mood and reveals that she’s recently begun dreaming her memories – revising and improving them as she goes to the point that she’s no longer sure how much of her recollection is how she would have liked things to have been rather than how they really were.

Son Ko is also interested in imagined worlds only more of the technological kind where he’s created a virtual version of his real life on his computer. Something of a dreamer, he wonders if the designers of the tower block deliberately made all the windows face south so that they’d get more sunlight and people would feel happier but he’s quickly shot down with the prosaic explanation that it’s all to do with drying laundry. He’s the only one who tries to explain to his mother that her intense need for “honesty” is, ironically, just another way of avoiding reality but then everyone already knew that – it’s the final truth that underpins the value system which has defined each of their lives.

However, where the family at the centre of The Family Game is shown to be hollow, the Kobayashis’ willingness to go along with this crazy self determined cosmology is driven by genuine feeling. Father Takeshi may be having affairs all over the place and even lying to his boss to facilitate them, but he wouldn’t have stayed at all if it truly meant nothing to him. Eriko plays manipulative goddess, micromanaging the fate of this tiny nation state since its inception with a keen and calculating eye but it’s all in the service of creating for herself something which she’d always felt she’d been denied – unconditional familial love, something which she also seeks to pass on to her children as the ultimate revenge on her mother whom she believes to have been cold and unfeeling.

As useful a tool as honesty may be, Sacchan may have a point towards the end when she says you take your most important secrets with you to the grave. Some things lose their power once you speak them aloud, too much honesty only focuses attention on the self and is apt to make those secretive who would seek to be open. Hanging Garden is a rich and nuanced exploration of human relationships, the shifting nature of memory, and the importance of personal privacy coupled with the veneer of authenticity which makes life in a civil society possible. Take away a man’s life lie you take away his happiness – hanging gardens never take root, but they bloom all the same.