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)

Unchain (アンチェイン, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2000)

unchainTo 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)

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)