Blue Spring (青い春, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2001)

Blue Spring posterJapan is a hierarchical society, but that doesn’t mean there is only one hierarchy. Every sector of life seemingly has its own way of ordering itself, including high school. Back in the ‘80s, high schools became known as violent places in which angry young men took out their adolescent frustrations on each other, each hoping to be accounted the toughest guy in town. Toshiaki Toyoda, chronicler of millennial malaise, made his one and only “youth movie” in adapting Taiyo Matsumoto’s delinquent manga Blue Spring (青い春, Aoi haru), bringing to it all the nihilistic hopelessness of his earlier work tempered with sympathetic melancholy.

The action begins with a photograph of group of boys entering their final year of high school before embarking on a dare to decide who will be the new king of the school which involves hanging off a high balcony and seeing how many times you can clap before needing to catch hold of the railing or fall to your death. Cool and apathetic Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda) wins easily with a new record, but seems indifferent to his increased status while his best friend and underling, Aoki (Hirofumi Arai), basks in the vicarious glow of suddenly being top dog. Meanwhile, Yukio (Sousuke Takaoka) – a silent and troubled young man, keeps his minion on the hook with promises of making him a fully fledged member of the gang while squaring off against Ota (Yuta Yamazaki) who is keen to talk up his growing friendship with a local mobster.

Despite a reputation for order and discipline, Asa High School is a lawless place where ineffective authority figures run scared of the hotblooded teens. Set in entirely within the school, there is little hint of the boys’ home lives but none of them truly believe there’s very much for them out in the world and know that the last year of high school is a final opportunity to be uncivilised with relatively few repercussions. The teachers, sadly, mainly agree with them, tiredly reading out the same dull text books while letting the kids do as they please because they lack the inclination to help them. Even those who do take an interest fail to get through, trotting out tired platitudes which do little to convince the kids in their care that their time at school matters or that they should want to work on their interpersonal skills and anger issues.

“People who know what they want scare me”, Kujo explains to a strangely sympathetic teacher (Mame Yamada) whose job it is to make the flowers bloom. He’s top dog now, but being made king has only made him feel powerless and uncertain. Suddenly, being the strongest seems like an irrelevance and this pointless violence an absurd waste of time. The problem is, none of these kids have any direction or hope for the future. They don’t believe education can be a way out, and being trapped in a stagnant economy makes them inherently distrustful of the salaryman dream that might have distracted their fathers. All they have are their fists and angry, adolescent hearts.

One by one their dreams are crushed – the baseball star doesn’t make it to Koshien, the sickly kid doesn’t show up for school, the yakuza goon is betrayed by a friend, the bullied underling moves up to bullying others, and a cross word between Aoki and Kujo threatens to ruin a childhood friendship. Asked for his hopes and dreams for the future, all Yukio can offer is a dedication to world peace and the Ultraman pose. Kujo, staring confused at the flowers, wonders if some are destined to wither without ever blooming only for his teacher to console him, melancholically, that he chooses to believe that flowers are born to bloom and so bloom they will.

Meanwhile, yakuza circle the fences like baseball scouts at a championship game, knowing organised crime is the traditional next step for handy boys who won’t graduate high school. Yet the tragedies here aren’t so much ruined futures and the futility of life as the failure of friendship. The boys fight and they hurt each other in ways other than the physical but lack the maturity to deal with their pain. Violence, self inflicted and not, is their only outlet and their only means of attracting attention from the authority figures so intent on ignoring their existence. Toyoda builds on the relentless sense of hopelessness seen in Pornostar but leaves with the weary resignation of one no longer young who knows that youth is dream destined to disappoint.


Blue Spring is released on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window Films on 13th May. The set also includes a very frank and often humorous commentary from Toyoda (in Japanese with English subtitles) as well as a “making of” from the time of the film’s release.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

Pornostar (ポルノスター, AKA Tokyo Rampage, Toshiaki Toyoda, 1998)

pornostarLooking back, at least to those of us of a certain age, the late ‘90s seem like a kind of golden era, largely free from the economic and political strife of the current world, but the cinema of that time is filled with the anxiety of the young – particularly in Japan, still mired in the wake of the post-bubble depression. Toshiaki Toyoda’s Pornostar (ポルノスター, retitled Tokyo Rampage for the US release) (not quite what it sounds like), is just such a story. Its protagonist, Arano (Chihara Junia, unnamed until the closing credits), stalks angrily through the busy city streets which remain as indifferent to him as he is to them. Though his wandering appears to have no especial purpose, Arano seethes with barely suppressed rage, nursing sharpened daggers waiting to plunge into the hearts of “unnecessary” yakuza.

After taking the early morning train into the city, the grey light of dawn gradually brightening as the streets fill with people busying themselves about their business, Arano walks around angrily bumping into anyone who happens to be in his path but nary a one of them even looks back at him before continuing onwards, zombie like, towards their destination. We then cut across town to another crossing where non-yakuza club boss Kamijo (Onimaru) also bumps into someone but stops to make sure the offending person realises the disrespect they’ve just shown him. The film will, in many ways, turn on the interaction of these two men who take a very different approach to a series of common problems. Anti-yakuza avenger meets anti-yakuza appeaser – their war will always be a zero sum game, but then, neither of them are very interested in winning it anyway.

If Arano and Kamijo represent the male forces of chaos and violence mixed with cowardice and self interest, the third axis turns on one of Kamijo’s escorts who is determined to travel to Fiji for “The Summer of Love” in 1999 (presumably the 30th anniversary celebration for a bygone era of hippiedom). Alice (Rin Ozawa) presents a possible point of departure for Arano as she temporarily takes charge, co-opting the boom box which is used to conceal the all important drugs and attempting to repurpose its darkness to find her own light only to crash and burn. The other female force in the film in a neat piece of symmetry mirroring the Arano/Kamijo dynamic is a destructive counter to Alice’s creative instincts. The unnamed woman mostly known for a tattoo across her chest which reads 5-Star Pussycat (Leona Hirota), acts like some kind of avenging angel with a purpose as unclear as Arano’s as she runs around the city taking out yakuza here, there, and everywhere.

The film’s title is, apparently, an obscure attempt at pairing the sleazy nature of the Shibuya environment with Arano’s oscillating, lonely planet existence. No reason is given for Arano’s intense loathing for yakuza whom he describes as “unnecessary” throughout the film (not unfairly, it has to be said), but vengeance seems to have become his entire reason for living. Allied with the knife in the film’s complex symbolic imagery, Arano becomes the personification of death, chaos, and violence as he almost ceases to exist as a person so turned inward and delusional has his mind become. Kamijo, by contrast, is a weaker figure yet no less linked with death through his constant references to his father’s grave. Given his close ties to his mother, it may be fairer to say that if Arano is a man already dead then Kamijo is one not yet born. Always on the threshold, Kamijo refuses the yakuza joining ceremony but continues to behave like a gangster even whilst rejecting the act of killing. Arano and Kamijo are locked in their perfect symmetry, a complementary pair forming one fully fleshed whole, but their union is inevitably a destructive one, unable to find a constructive purpose in their nihilistic world of violence and betrayal.

Similarly, Arano also rejects the possibility of salvation offered by Alice and her idealised Fijian paradise. Trying and failing to ride Alice’s skateboard even as she attempts to physically guide him, Arano cannot let go of his destructive cycle of violence in order to participate in her revolution of love, allowing her empty skateboard to roll away from them as symbol of their unattainable dreams. Alice may be the film’s only winner as, even if she too suffers and fails to break out of the constraining underworld environment, she remains free to fight for freedom, gliding away on her skateboard bound for love.

Though sometimes a little too obscure or displaying a slight incompleteness of thought, Pornostar is an accomplished narrative debut from Toyoda which addresses several of his ongoing concerns. Told with surrealist flair in its strange set pieces where knives fall from the sky or a girl dances madly in a dingy night club, Pornostar is a stylish piece marrying slo-motion and loud music with frenetic violence and the total absence of sound. A dispassionate tale of youth on fire but burning itself from the inside out, Pornostar is less a chronicle of its times than a lament for the aimlessness of the young, locked out of mainstream society and into a mind consuming itself through unresolved frustration.


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

Opening scene (no subtitles)