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  • Kerry Chambers

A neon dreamscape; a lonely meander through the cities, bodies meeting bodies, missing one another in a breath. Tsai Ming-liang has captured perpetual isolation like no other filmmaker. The Malaysian born, Taiwanese filmmaker defines little in aspects of his work; gender, sexuality, place and time – all that matters is people. Absurdist, magical realism, social slice-of-life, tragedies and comedies of love and longing, he’d trodden it all. His contribution to ‘Slow Cinema’ pretty much defines the genre, the best of it anyway; it is slow, but the minutes ooze by.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Second Run, 2003)

Like Wong Kar-wai’s silent cousin, as outrageous as Pedro Almodóvar and as meditative as Andrei Tarkovsky, Tsai is everything that makes an auteur. Ever busy with VR projects, documentaries, art installations, theatre productions and short form experimental works, Tsai is relentless as creatives go. Yet still his features strike violently, personal to the core and stifling in its depiction of familiar alienation. Always refreshing, always honest. The ultimate patience-tester, more often he pays off.

Vive L'amour (Film Movement, 1994)

Of course he is all the more for his collaboration with Lee Kang-sheng who has appeared in every feature to date, delivered solemn, vulnerable and introverted performances treading the line between reality and fantasy. This article will practically be about the pair. You can’t have one without the other. If Lee is the personification of Tsai on screen that is, his vessel and our guide through the labyrinthine affairs of the human condition - the desire, the hunger, and the solitude - then he is also the key to understanding his style and motivation. Furthermore, his use of recurring actors, (such as Lu Yi-ching, Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Chao-jung, Miao Tien etc.) and non-performers and locations captures a universe all of Tsai’s conjuring bordering on the perverse.

The River (2007)

If you’d asked me ten years ago, I would have told you to shove your ‘slow cinema’, I’m having a nap. But now, since delving into Japanese cinema I have discovered a wealth of heartrending stories across the continent of Asia, some clocking in at staggering times, and not a moment feels wasted – An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo, 2018), A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991), Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998), comes to mind, not all quiet ‘slow cinema’ but ethereal and hypnotic... I feel another list idea coming on.

The Wayward Cloud (Axiom Films, 2005)

It only made sense that I would find my way to Tsai. I suppose I’m pretty outspoken. Never in a million years would I have guessed that I would be shacking up with ‘slow cinema’. I used to be first to scream pretentious… now I wear it like a badge of honour. So what if it is? My life has been salvaged by the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang. Offered a voice to the void, let it weep where it would scream and claw.


So I want to talk about the films of this great filmmaker. I rinsed them, loved some, struggled with others, but was never at any time questioning his originality. Tsai has story, character and creativity to his very marrow in every tale he tells. So here I rank my top ten of the mysterious and pondersome cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang. Hopefully, you will never look at a water leak or a watermelon the same way.

Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, 1992)

Honorable Mention: The Ongoing Walker Series most notably Journey to the West (2014) and No No Sleep (2015).


10. Days (2020)

I’m being controversial already, I can tell. But remember this is a favourite’s list; I really like this movie. Days is also kind of the ultimate patience-tester. Nothing really happens; more than in any other Tsai film. Intentionally un-subtitled, the film is slow and quiet. Intimacy is captured between the characters, highlighted by the long lengths of screen time spent in isolation.

Days (2020)

Opening on a long static take of Lee Kang-sheng’s character watching the downpour, we watch him. Where it seems nothing is happening at all, the weight of the world, the drawn-out oppressiveness of time matches the aging actor’s sullen, contemplative expression. Lee suffers from an unknown pain and seeks a masseuse, the masseuse is a young man and following his work is gifted a music box. They eat a meal and then go their separate ways. Tsai examines isolation in the modern world, the class divide, and mundanity in real-time and feels more real than ever since the Pandemic.

Days (2020)

9. Stray Dogs (2013)

If you talk to any Tsai buff, they’ll indulge in some watermelon languishing and then lament his cabbages. That is proof of a true master if ever. Sure enough, so cabbages take on an entirely different image following Stray Dogs, probably Tsai’s most crippling dissection of poverty. Rain and cities swallow a family whole, an alcoholic father and his young son and daughter endure day after day on the streets of Taipei, he works long hours holding signs in the torrential weather, ignored for just meager money. And late at night they find shelter and wash in public bathrooms, sleep in cavernous abandoned buildings perpetually leaking water at the whims of the city around them, watched from afar by an enigmatic mother-like figure.

Stray Dogs (New Wave Films, 2013)

Lee gets one of his most trying long-takes, an actor pushing his limits physically and mentally. Depression is rife in this film, a glaring weight on its lead, manifesting in apathy and anger. He stand sings as the rain lashes against him, tears fall and endures. All he represses, he unleashes on the cabbage his daughter keeps as a doll, unflinching in its harrowing undertones. It’s a miserable life for the family, but Tsai explores it with genuine compassion and a biting starkness.

Stray Dogs (New Wave Films, 2013)

8. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006)

A film of parallels shot in Tsai’s native Malaysia, the sick bed sparks an unusual romance between its patient and nurse. A day laborer is badly beaten and cared for by a Bangladeshi migrant worker, meanwhile a paralyzed man, abused by his mother, is tenderly tended to by the family’s maid. These two stories, with Lee in a dual role as both patients, intertwine in messy fashion.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Axiom, 2006)

A love triangle of scope, smog that descends on the city thwart attempts at intimacy, illicit trysts in the back alleys, it’s interlaced with scenes of domestic comfort-ability and familiarity. The migrant worker falls hard for the day laborer, and silently endures the complications of a physical requited relationship. I struggled at first with this one, felt the minutes in places where otherwise I would get lost, but its final half an hour brings together a love story, optimism, dreamlike in its execution and surprisingly tender.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Axiom, 2006)

7. What Time Is It There? (2001)

Perhaps the best example of Tsai’s extended universe begins with this tragic romance of chance meetings and instant connections, What Time is it There? followed by the 2002 short The Skywalk is Gone and concluding with 2005’s The Wayward Cloud, each can be seen individually and appreciated but as a whole there is something uniquely staggering. Like the works of Eric Rohmer, with the feel of The Before Trilogy, Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi unite as one of Tsai’s most interesting couples.

What Time is it There? (2001)

A street vendor mourning the death of his father peddles watches for a living. He falls for a young woman about to embark to Paris, their connection deep but not enough to stop her leaving. Unable to forget her, across Taipei he changes the clocks to French time and religiously watches Francois Truffauts The 400 Blows. It is of course obvious that the film tackles loneliness and longing, the mother figure if mourning the death of her husband, her son is also grieving and now more so with the absence of a stranger, and the girl struggles to find a place for herself in Paris. Hiding in phone booths and there is an impatience waiting, a desperation to connect and feel anything at all.

What Time is it There? (2001)

6. The Hole (1998)

The closest Tsai comes to anything resembling a science-fiction, post-apocalyptic feature that really captures the anxiety found in the approaching new millennia and it’s executed in the only way he could; with lashings of long takes, lonely people and vibrant musical numbers. Absent from his later works, The Hole lavishes in its extravagant musical sequences (where I really start to think of the flamboyancy of Almodóvar), to convey the emotional journey of his protagonists. The hole of the title could represent the emptiness in the characters own lives, lonely and resistant of one another’s world, forced to collide though circumstance out of their control and possibly finding salvation.

The Hole (1998)

A mysterious virus has struck the world; it causes it’s victims to regress until they are scurrying around like cockroaches. A man lives in a tiny apartment; below him lives a woman who hoards paper towels. One day, a maintenance man, investigating the persistent leak in the woman’s apartment, breaks a hole in her neighbours floor, dividing their homes. They can never get through to him again, the hole gets bigger, it causes many an issue. They resist one another and we follow their mundane lives, the paranoia that seeps into their everyday as the threat of the virus lurks, with the inconvenience of the hole between them causing the pair to intrude further on one another’s existence. The woman battles her leak; consumed by it all the while their longing for one another begins to bloom… its murky and grimy, unsettling in a lot of ways and funny in others. Yet when you reach that final scene, (that shot, the hands) a dream or a chance to finally breathe, Tsai leaves that for you to decide.

The Hole (1998)

5. The Wayward Cloud (2005)

My first Tsai was also half-heartedly purchased at first. I ignored its reception and admittedly really wanted to see what freaky stuff was happening with the melons. They play a big part in what could be considered one of his most controversial features. I knew I was onto a winner with the director when I checked the time, believing I had been watching for ten minutes and discovered that the film was already half-way through. Is it the gateway film for all? No. Is it some damn good, explicit longing? Is it ironically funny and deeply tragic in some bizarre, off-beat way? For sure. After all it concludes the characters journey from What Time is It There? And it’s got even more musical numbers, utilizing classic songs of the fifties in some chirpy Hollywood style way to contract the ever strange and unwholesome content on screen.

The Wayward Cloud (Axiom Films, 2005)

A heat wave hits Taipei. We open on an explicit audition in which Lee Kang-sheng has his way with a woman and the watermelon between her legs; the water has run out, and the shower does not work and sticky form their activities on set, ants infest in the lift shared with the porn crew. It’s funny and stifling, uncomfortable yet the start of things to come. Lee’s watch seller has become a porn actor; Chen Shiang-chyi’s girl is now semi-neurotic, complacent and restless has taken to filling water bottles at work and other thieving methods to replenish her supply of bottled water. The vendor and the girl somehow reunite, and an emotional intimacy reignites. He does not share what he does for a living. ‘Do you still sell watches?’ She asks. Lee’s iconic performance, his long thought on the question, the submersion of all that has come to be is met with a shake of his head. Their scenes beneath the table, intimate and relatively chaste, tainted by his secret world, perpetually looming over their what-could-have-been romance and met with a finale that is Tsai’s most violent and extreme.

The Wayward Cloud (Axiom Films, 2005)

4. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Nothing much at all happens (is there a parrot) in Goodbye, Dragon Inn but it also was the shorted eighty minutes I spent on a film. Less about action, more about layers, Tsai weaves an intimate portrait of the final evening of the Fu Ho cinema before its temporary closure and all that takes place within the depths of the auditorium. Everything about it screams film lover. It’s a love letter to King Hu’ 1967 Dragon Gate Inn, a love letter to cinema, an anxious examination of the shifting trends of cinema that we had unfortunately witnessed come to pass, yet it weeps with a love for the experience.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Second Run, 2003)

A perpetual leak in cinema, the torrential rain outside somehow failing to draw many to the final screening, the cinema is haunted by the final spectators made up of aging actors and familiar faces, a young boy, an obnoxious woman with her toasted watermelon seeds, the homosexual community half-heartedly cruising the auditorium and back of house, the ghosts. The cinema is run by two people, the ticket-girl with a club-foot, wandering the corridors on a mission to maintain the building and to deliver half a steamed rice bun to the elusive projectionist. The lives interconnect on what feels like the curtain call of a picture house, lonely and echoing brought together by the ethereal world. Desire and longing, and people failing to ever really connect ooze out of every pore. Gosh, it’s some really good cinema… I could watch it over and over.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Second Run, 2003)

3. Vive L’amour (1994)

Tsai’s characters exist in the in-betweens. Their lives unfold in the empty apartments for sale, the love hotels, the murky streets, cinemas. Places people have yet to or never will call home. Vive L’amour plays with this and it’s sexy and strange for it. A real estate agent uses one of her empty apartments as the base for her romantic trysts; here one of her suitors begins to pine after her meanwhile a depressed squatter hides and bears witness to their meetings, all the while falling for the young man she has taken as her lover (and a watermelon too). It’s a pretty original love triangle and an even weirder flat-share.

Vive L'amour (Film Movement, 1994)

Young Lee Kang-sheng at his pouty, most vulnerable best strikes a fragile figure, bonding with the young man played by a charming Chen Chao-jung and longing for him as he in turn lusts for the woman (a sultry if troubled Yang Kuei-mei) who appears all together terrified for real intimacy. What Tsai does bets is capture something vital and personal in all his films; no matter how absurd or unfamiliar, one can seem to find themselves in a line, a look or a mood. Tsai is a mood. Vive L’amour is one of his lonely Neon odysseys; from his examination of lust and identity - his characters often examining their reflections if passing shop windows, in convenience store mirrors, in the sterile safety of the bathroom - and lust, both fun and melancholic he blurs definition and examines people and all the desires and miscommunication that come with being human.

Vive L'amour (Film Movement, 1994)

2. Rebels of the Neon God (1992)

His debut feature is simply unforgettable. It’s not often either for a director’s freshman feature to be so watchable. The most like a Wong Kar-wai, there are parts that feel reminiscent of As Tears Go By, of Hou Hsaio-hsiens Daughter of the Nile; it’s the truest neon love story in his repertoire, faithful to its name. All the familiar motifs are there; the flooding of apartments, the longing, and the confusing desires, the violence, the phone booths… yet it’s also tender and volatile. I would go as far to say that Neon God is also his most optimistic and traditional in sense of story.

Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, 1992)

A criminal love story at its heart, it’s also a pure youth feature. That misguided, floating sensation that comes with your twenties, that fleeting yet choking loneliness, all captured though Tsai’s dreamlike lens. Forgiveness, fumbling’s and the chaos of youth run deep, against a pulpy backdrop of night in the restless cities, fluorescent arcades and stark fast-food joints. Chen Chao-jung is kind of irresistible in this as a petty thief, and he has to be to be the force that draws in a young woman, his needy best friend and attracts the complicated attention of Lee Kang-shengs unhinged student. He falls for his brothers one night stand, has a never-ending battle with a blocked drain that floods his apartment in times of emotional turmoil, must protect his best friend from their dangerous livelihood.

Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, 1992)

Lee Kang-shengs erratic character stalks Chen, in revenge for his father’s damaged property, bordering on homoerotic obsession, idolism. The title in Taiwanese refers to Chinese mythology, of the disobedient Nezha, the powerful child god born into a human family, and attempts to kill his father before being controlled by him, of whom Lee’s character references in his act of vandalism of whom his parents superstitiously fear he is possessed by as he rebels against them and himself.

Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, 1992)

1. The River (1997)

This one is brutal. Not a day has gone by, that I haven’t thought of it and I have a lot of thoughts in a day, some useless and some unutterable. But one I can utter it=s that The River is Tsai’s masterpiece. The perfect melding of his style and themes along with the familial undercurrents of his cast, Lee Kang-shengs personal experiences and a truly harrowing revelation it’s just perfection.


A little back story - during filming of the Rebel of the Neon God, Lee Kang-sheng developed a neck injury, one which I believe still causes him some pain. Feeling responsible, Tsai accompanied and supported Lee during the early attempts at diagnosis and treatment, eventually drawing inspiration to make The River.

The River (2007)

After standing in as a corpse in a river for a local film production his girlfriend is an assistant on, a young man contracts a strange ailment that is never diagnosed. Suffering from chronic neck pain, it eats away at his life, to the point that he wishes for death, as his parents desperately try and fail to help their sons suffering through traditional, herbal and spiritual remedies. Meanwhile, his father is a closeted homosexual who frequents the local bathhouse in search for some comfort and intimacy and his wife is having an affair with a local pornographer and manically trying to find the source of a leak. Chronic pain has never been more excruciating on screen, long takes of treatments all fruitless, some dreadful to endure, driving Lee’s character to madness.

The River (2007)

The family is made up of the same cast from Rebels of the Neon God and later What Time is it There? including Miao Tien and Lu Hsiao-ling as his stifled parents. This adds layers to the intimacy between his characters, and unfortunately, the struggles of communication amongst family, where that closeness breeds a kind of loss of transparency. The unit was fractured before the injury and further splinters as they head towards a climax worthy of Greek Tragedy. Relief is far from the grasp of these characters, Tsai thrusts them into a despair far flung from his later works; this despair, of physical pain, emotional absence and repression manifests in resentment. For them, there is no salvation. It’s bleak, and hard to endure, predictably ‘slow’ but not a minute feels like a drag, you feel its characters every breath, cry, sob. You feel it down to your bones.

The River (2007)

 

Well, let’s hope any of this makes sense. Given how hard it is to explain Tsai Ming-liang, I gave it my all. Though the plots are usually simply, all about mood or motivation, it’s pretty hard to sell. But it wouldn’t go to waste. Tsai is one of the most important living filmmakers of his generation, who has a lot to say and whole lot of heart and soul to give. I hope you find a new favourite in my recommendations today! Happy watching!

Vive L'amour (Film Movement, 1994)

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  • Kerry Chambers

How does one start a discussion about one of Japanese Cinema’s most underrated filmmakers? By stating just how underrated he is. That is very, very underrated. With thanks to Third Window Films in the UK, much of his work has been made available to us, even his most recent The Resurrection Trilogy, a pandemic saga infused with paranoia and rage. He still needs some hyping on this side of the world, so how about a little rundown of one of the most watchable filmmakers on the festival circuits.

Pornostar - Third Window Films (1999)

Controversial in his Native Japan, with two rather high-profile arrests, Toyoda has seen his career de-railed a few times. But he only seems to take it in his stride; his works is unique and distinct, infused with rage and alienation, societal strain on masculinity in the modern world. On small budgets he wrangles one of the best talent in Japan, penning powerful screenplays, works closely with the same crew and composing some of the most visually striking works to come out of Japan. His voice is original as his contemporaries, and he deserves to sit amongst the greats like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hirokazu Koreeda. Working across all types of media – features, shorts, documentaries and even music videos – his voice is still apparent, diverse as much as he is distinctive in his style. Toyoda's films have a feel; they make sentimental and nostalgic, feel at home and yet wildly unsettled. They leave me feeling a lot and I don't know what.

Go Seppuku Yourselves - Third Window Films (2021)

It’s been over a year since I first discovered Blue Spring. I wrote a review about in which I spent most of it unravelling the infinite tragedy of the eighty minutes I had just endured. It took me some time to work through the rest, despite availability within my grasp. Now that I have, it feels only right to rundown some of his best work and convince you, dear reader, to become the avid-watcher of Toshiaki Toyoda. It is by no means definitive list. The films I have left off are brilliant works, amazing actually in comparison to other director’s works – I had a really hard time deciding what to keep on such a small list. What is worth noting is how fascinating all of Toyoda’s works are, breaking them down and in analysing each one thematically and contextually only makes for more indulgent watching.

I'm Flash! - Third Window Films (2012)

Honorable Mentions:


5. The Resurrection Trilogy (2019-2021)

I could have ranked this higher but as aforementioned; Toyoda has a lot of great films. It only made sense, however to tie together his latest works into a package, especially considering they are made up of two shorts and one mid-length feature. Possibly his most biting to date, they are films that captured the anxieties and frustration of the last few years globally. Made before and during the pandemic, Toyoda uses this as frame for his unusual, experimental genre-bending saga.


Wolf’s Calling, the first, is a sixteen minute short starring a multitude of regulars including Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Yōsuke Kubozuka (he really shines in the final entry). It also had Tadanobu Asano in it: need I say more. An atmosphere piece mostly, it was in indirect response to his 2019 arrest (He was in possession of a firearm that was in fact a WW2 antique), as Samurai gather together at the Mt. resurrection Wolf Shrine in preparation for… something. It’s full of tension and mystery, feeling almost like a tonal teaser for what he would follow up with.

He followed this up with 2020’s day The Day of Destruction, the longest of the entries.

Flitting between past and present, it’s about a monster uncovered deep in a mine that has been spreading a plague through a small town, leading to inexplicable mental illness. Coinciding with what would have been the 2020 Japan Olympics, this film was somehow still achieved despite the pandemic. It’s an interpretative piece but many can see the anxiety infused throughout the story, as the world comes apart.

The final entry Go Seppuku Yourselves, and my favourite, feels more like a monologue of sorts. Kubozuka stars as a Samurai accused of spreading poison throughout the village, preparing to commit ritual suicide. Released in 2021, it produced around the same time as its predecessor; it becomes a biting commentary of the government, the story itself having many parallels to the Pandemic. Poised at the Mt. Resurrection Wolf Shrine, the ceremony is performed in one of cinemas most brutal and bloody depictions yet, but not before the Samurai exposes he officials for their failure to control the deaths around them. Mostly long takes and dialogue, the twenty-six minutes are the most engaging in the entire saga.


4. Monsters Club (2012)

Toyoda was banned from the film industry following a public arrest in 2005 for possession of drugs (an offense taken very seriously in Japan) and this overshadowed the major release of his feature Hanging Garden, a star-studded drama. It was not until 2009 with The Blood of Rebirth, that he returned to filmmaking, although blacklisted from the studio system and to this day he works predominantly independently. But in 2012 he released two great films; Monsters Club and I’m Flash! Monsters Club is my favourite of the two, without a doubt. Contemplative and stripped back, beautiful wide shots of the rural outdoors saturated in the snow, the colours are visceral against the minimalist scenery. On such a tiny budget, Toyoda still captures that cinematic feel.

Ryoichi (Played by an incredibly moving Eita Nagayama) lives a solitary life in the snowy mountains, living in a cabin, isolated from modern society. Except when he is sending homemade bombs to marketing CEO’s and advertising companies. Disillusioned by society around him, his acts of violence are an attempt to seek revenge on society, as though his actions alone will invoke change. As time passes he no longer appears to be alone, with strange apparitions visiting him at night and the unexpected appearance of his dead brother who killed himself years before.

Inspired by the life of the American terrorist Ted Kaczynski, this is perhaps Toyoda’s most reflective film; Monsters Club harbours a deep-rooted resentment that seems to capture his own isolation during his years away from the Film Industry. Long hours maintaining his life and intimate monotonous scenes of crafting the bombs are over-layed with monologues as more and more the protagonist attempts to justify his exile from the world. He seems to fear it and hate it in equal parts, philosophising that the working world is akin to modern slavery, reflecting on the capitalist – consumerist culture that is running society into the ground.

Suicide hangs over Ryoichi, a subconscious way out if he is caught or can no longer see a point. His cause is what he keeps him going momentarily. The terrifying figure that appears to him (shaving-foamed ghouls that remind me of the uncanny detergent ads from years ago) feed his nihilism, offers suicide as a way out, and indulges his dark thoughts. This is an existentialist character study that moves beyond its political premise and eventually uncovers Ryoichi’s past, a stark contrast to his now incredibly lonely present. The film is angry, but in a different way from its predecessors. Toyoda’s rage, much like as one gets older, is growing evermore internalised. It’s still has projection, but it’s less explosive, far more subdued.


3. Hanging Garden (2005)

A housewife has enforced a rule in her home; complete and utter honesty amongst her family when asked a question directly. They discuss past romantic encounters, what they think, what they did wrong, what they don’t like; all in an attempt to seem more authentic with one another and more so for her, to maintain the illusion that they are an open and happy family. Her troubled childhood drives her to the point that she wilfully ignores the problems unfolding around her. Her husband is having an affair, her daughter has been skipping school and gotten photographed for adult magazines at a love hotel and her son has a crush on his teacher. Meanwhile she is trying to suppress the reality around her, desperate to fabricate a perfect life around her, down to the smallest details. She makes sure to ask the right questions as time goes on.

Hanging Garden - Third Window Films (2005)

It’s a softer film from the director, one of his only female led stories. There is a focus on the mother, her daughter and her own mother; the conflicts between them subtle and strained. Yet through one another they try to make connections, try to communicate. The family are far from explosive, they are tired and ashamed. The title of the film is taken from the Garden that the mother nurtures – that in itself a feminine connotation – that grows and blooms far better than her own family. It also a reference to Babylon.

Hanging Garden - Third Window Films (2005)

Hanging Garden doesn’t lack any of his visual flare; steady, circular camera movements re-used throughout. Top shot dinner scenes, circling the table, early on a full 360 degree shot of the exterior of the apartment block they live in is borderline psychedelic, mimicking the Ferris wheel the family went on years before. Every shot is curved, there’s no end, no horizon; things are just out of sight. There’s also a rather fabulous and bloody ending (not in the violent sense for once). He’s stripped back his score and gone for a far more gentle melody throughout, his characters reflecting through monologue instead.

Hanging Garden - Third Window Films (2005)

Despite being his most peaceful film, it’s brimming with drama. Toyoda manages the lives of his characters evenly, capturing the irony of their honesty, imbuing a sense of humour even as things fall apart. They are sincere, they have that, but they revel in their dishonesty as though it has become part of the equilibrium; was honesty ever the real intention to begin with?

Hanging Garden - Third Window Films (2005)

2. 9 Souls (2003)

Many consider this to be Toyoda’s Magnum Opus. I am of two minds; I agree but I love Blue Spring so very much that I flip-flop back and forth. They also garner many of the major themes of his work, but exist in different stages somehow. Where Blue Spring is still brimming with angst, 9 Souls is a mature effort and one even more complex. After all, it has nine stories to tell, of criminals whose lives aren’t quite as we first perceived. It’s as though he stepped back, took a breath and unpeeled the conflicted masculinity within Japan one strip at a time.

9 Souls - Third Window Films (2003)

Recluse Michiru is convicted of killing his father and imprisoned for the crime. In the isolated prison he is roomed with eight convicts who, having committed various crimes and carry various emotional baggage. One night they are able to breakout, and with a tip from a crazed inmate set off in a stolen van to a Primary school where they hope to find money. On their journey they are each forced to confront their pasts and attempt to face the future in a blind sense of possibility. The late great Yoshio Harada stars alongside Ryuhei Matsuda and a slew of familiar faces that would go on to feature in his latter works up to present day (part of the appeal of Toyoda’s movies is also the familiarity of his cast, an extended universe displaying the range of talent in his actors that makes them all the more personal).

9 Souls - Third Window Films (2003)

In its first half an outrageous black comedy, the men behaving boorishly as they bulldoze their way across country – it’s zany and bright, with its; cast bouncing beautifully off one another. In fact it impossible to believe that in its second half that the characters we see becomes sympathetic at all but it does. When the convicts decide to atone for their sins, we are faced with some morally compromising and tragic scenes. The various roles of men in society, the father, the husband, the son alongside their professional and social strains are explored to the fullest in their attempts for penance.

9 Souls - Third Window Films (2003)

Its final scenes are some of Toyoda’s most beautifully shot work; rain has never felt so cleansing. Dip return with an even better soundtrack, Let’s Get Lost being a beautifully rambling and heartfelt song that carries the mood of the piece. It’s utterly absorbing, their dynamics have shifted and their story resonates long after the credits roll. It’s a strange film, but a forgotten classic, surprisingly unique and powerful.

9 Souls - Third Window Films (2003)

1. Blue Spring (2001)

Still as powerful as it was on initial release, Toyoda’s narrative sophomore feature is also his most unforgettable. A recent re-watch blew me away all over again – a full bladder, I remained in seat, rejecting the modern technology of the pause button. With as much anger as its predecessor, Blue Spring is also infused with a delicate melancholy. What we saw in his debut feature Pornostar, the stifling rage of the youth entering the working world in a climate of severe economic decline, is the absence of hope. In Blue Spring it’s a tragedy capturing the realisation of the fact; the youth in this film see their dreams stifled.

Blue Spring - Third Window Films (2001)

Following the lives of teenage boys in a rundown High School, one by one they begin to lose hope in a future they wish for, committing heinous acts and slipping further into a life of crime. Koji (played by the sullen icon Ryuhei Matsuda) and Aoki have been friends for years. When Koji ranks supreme in the school in the clapping game he wields his power uncomfortably but effortlessly, Aoki and their groups of degenerate friends reign over the school leaves them practically immune. However, eventually Koji finds the power-plays pointless, turning to school work and flirting with a different future, all to Aoki’s horror. Violence has value to him – it’s what is expected of them in their brutish world - and when his best friend is willing to leave that life behind, he is leaving him also.

Blue Spring - Third Window Films (2001)

Toyoda’s signature visual staples come into fruition here; bright colours in both the blooms of the flowers and the blood on the floor in contrast to the stifling grey mundanity of the rundown school. The blossoms flourish, the sky is blue yet the school is bleak; the graffiti in black peppering endless corridors a reminder of the void waiting to absorb them. His sweeping camera movements bring gravity to a scene whilst harbouring the cinematic relish. They’re sometimes playful, full of energy, experiments with static shots and real-time takes. It can be easy to forget when enjoying one of his films how minute the budget can be, what he achieves is always tantalising. His moments of actions conflict with his moments of contemplative calm.

Blue Spring - Third Window Films (2001)

Furthermore, he’s a filmmaker with a great grasp of music in relation to image, thoroughly modern and this is probably most effectively displayed in Blue Spring. It’s also a huge trademark of his. Using the music of punk band Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, with tracks like September Punk Children and Drop, he manages to push his scenes into iconic territory. That final scene is utterly heart-breaking.

Blue Spring - Third Window Films (2001)

Where Blue Spring thrives is focussing on the humanity of its subjects; Pornostar was hopeless, this has it in such small servings. It focuses on the troubled rivalry between Koji and Aoki (all the characters a beautifully fleshed out, even the ones that have about three lines), rooting its story in a tragic love story of sorts as their friendship dissipates through lack of communication, different wants and time. The bigger themes of growing up into a fractured world is in the microcosm of their own conflict, which is one friend outgrowing the other. They’re trying to find future for themselves, one just wants more. It is never said if that more is even there. What happens to those that get left behind?

Blue Spring - Third Window Films (2001)

 

There you have it. What's your favourite Toyoda film and have there been any you look forward to checking out? Enjoy your watching!

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“From the star.

From the stars.

The sea is the mother.

The people are her bosom.

Heaven is the playground.”


And the so the festival begins…


‘It’s not you it’s me’, ‘we want different things’, ‘I just can’t see a future with us; I’ve been spitting these lines at movies for the last few years’, embracing a mentality that sometimes the film is just not the right fit for me. It began as a kindness, there are so many works that I can see for all their charms but then I’m hobbling about with shoes on the wrong feet. Many of my reviews have been kinder than I wish to be, wielding diplomacy where maybe I should wield some steel. But last week shifted things. Koko-di, Koko-da walked the Mile with me, I had to condemn it for its frustrating shortcomings.


Today, I’d resigned from the gallows, climbed on a soap box to gesture wildly about the complexity of this week’s surprise viewing: Ayumu Watanabe’s stunning 2019 Adaptation, Children of the Sea. Under Studio 4°C, the company behind some favourite’s including Mind Game (Yuasa, 2004), Tekkonkinkreet (Arias, 2006) and even the enjoyable mixed bag that was Berserk: The Golden Age Arc (Kubooka, 2012-13), Watanabe achieves something rather monumental. Lu Over the Wall (Yuasa 2017) meets Angels’ Egg (Oshii, 1985) were my first impressions when it came to its conclusion, by the morning after I would be so bold as to state it was reminiscent of 1988’s Akira – condensed from a series of manga that overflowed with existential ideas and equally as ground-breaking. To add to the fantastical, composing a soul for the sea and sky, Joe Hisaishi returned to the realm of cinema. His score provides a nuanced gravity that allows the film a voice as much in moments of serenity and colossal upheaval.

The Children of the Sea (All The Anime, 2019)

Based on the manga of the same name by Daisuke Igarashi, it follows fourteen year old Ruka over the course of an eventful summer. After an incident in which she injures a fellow teammate at her sports club, she is forced to leave when she refuses to apologise. Due to estrangement from her troubled mother finds, Ruka finds solace in the local aquarium where her busy father works where years before she experienced a supernatural sight in one of the exhibits. Something equally as strange happens again when she meets the high-spirited Umi (Sea) and later the ethereal Sora (Sky). The younger of two brothers raised by dugongs, their skin is sensitive to the air, craving the ocean to survive. Because of this, the aquarium took them in to investigate their origins and their link to the sea. In meeting them a mystery begins to unravel; supernatural phenomena unsettle the creatures of the sea, a comet falls from the sky, and a ghostly whale song announces the coming of ‘The Festival.’

Children of the Sea (All The Anime, 2019)

The original manga is highly complex; Watanabe had to strip away elements to capture the essence of the highly original source material. Perhaps better described as a Sci-fi, keeping within the spirit of the art and style of the original story, Watanabe focusses on the story of Ruka, strips away characters and plays down side plots until he tells a strange, abstract folk tale of loneliness, duty and rebirth. In true Japanese storytelling fashion, it takes something simple and breaks it open to reveal all the little cells holding it together, intricately linking to the universe, eventually leaving much to contemplation.

Children of the Sea (All The Anime, 2019)

The lukewarm reception took me by surprise. Perhaps it’s because it becomes something wholly unexpected. It branches off from the manga taking core ideas and condensing a long-running format in to something more concise. If I have any criticism it’s that it could be interpreted as too broad a source material to really be done justice. But the slice that Watanabe serves us is a hypnotic experience. It reminds me, as I earlier stated, of the infamous Akira. A brief glimpse of what is a wealth of story within the post-apocalyptic manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, he manages to harnesses the essential heart of his original story, boiling it down to the tragic friendship between its two main characters. Big ideas are explored; the atomic war between men, power and the annihilation of humanity. Somehow the film still feels vast as does Children of the Sea, a powerful, philosophical voyage.

The Children of the Sea (All The Anime, 2019)

The earth breathes; in the ocean we find natures womb, all life celebrates its rebirth as the cycle continues – it unites us to land and sky, each organism a piece of us, made from the stars above. We are all connected. These big ideas are captured in some intense sequences of its third act, an odyssey through the conception of the universe. It’s purpose a mystery that transcends Ruka and the two boys. In the team funding the research of Umi and Sora, we see the artificial in stark contrast to a film fit to bursting with life – they want uncover the truth by any means necessary, fuelled by greed and more so man’s hubris, an endeavour to outwit the world we live on with a delusion that we can hold natures will in our hands. This film rejects that, pushes forth the truth that we are more than what we believe to be, that the ocean carries answers we will never begin to understand. Maybe we don’t need to. Some people hate vagueness in their stories, I can be one of them and roll my eyes for good measure; but sometimes a story can thrive off its ambiguity.

Children of the Sea (All The Anime, 2019)

On a basic level, Children of the Sea still remains grounded. The story of Ruka is familiar to many; struggling to control her emotions, unable to communicate she lashes out. She can’t find a voice in her life. When she discovers her connection to Umi and the sea, she begins to see the world is bigger than her comprehension. Ruka finds solace in the company, a boy who is inherently open-hearted. His naivety and honesty awakens a need to protect him, helps her to speak through action. As Jim, one of the guardians of the two boys, states in a moment of insight; “We humans cannot convey even half of our thoughts if we fail to put them into words well, but whales may, through a song, sing and communicate what they see and feel as it is.”

Children of the Sea (All The Anime, 2019)

The theme of loneliness is prevalent, all the more highlighted by the massive topic that in any conversation can begin to eat you whole. Many, if not all, of the characters are lonely. Where in nature this ebb and flow of communication reveals the organic shifting of the earth’s cycles, from the lowliest bug to largest mammal, the humans are a messy in between of stifled emotion and lost identities. We resist the cycle, like we resist most of the wonderful things the planet offers us. In a pivotal scene between Sora and Ruka, she acknowledges her own loneliness and that of the two boys; radiant with life, the sight of the falling star she witnessed was also shining so bright because it wanted to be seen. That beautiful glow made her sad when she could see such aloneness.

Children of the Sea (All The Anime, 2019)

Children of the Sea is teeming with sumptuous visuals, hyper details and lush artistry that pays homage to it’ source material and more. It captures the terror of its more Lovecraftian scenes, the abhorrence and tenderness of the ocean we are immersed in and the muddling’s of people in amongst it all. A blend of intricate CGI and hand drawn technique, it’s probably one of the most stunning films I’ve ever seen. Drawing attention to each of these styles, in vital moments, each frame is pulsing with life. The smells and sounds heave from the screen. The team explored new visuals, technology and experimented with colour compliments to bring to life the world of the ocean below and it’s binaries with the world above and beyond; the skies are painted in hues of reds and purples rarely captured in Anime, the water alive upon each surface it graces. The film becomes a sensual adventure. Right down to the falling rain, each drop becomes a character all of its own.

Children of the Sea (All The Anime, 2019)

However, I feel it is only right that I address the controversy that surrounds not only this film but the animation community as a whole. Children of the Sea is another example of misconduct in a vast plain of poor work environments, mismanagement, fraud and abuse. The film suffered a familiar production hell that has been wrought throughout the animation community for decades. In the works for five years, during that time it was revealed that (once again), animators worked for little money, gruelling though hours’ worth of overtime and exploited by the studio. Now, from the little sources I have it seems an attempt to unionize meant that staff did get paid but without the activity of the union, they would have been worked to death with no compensation. The most beautiful of works have often been produced by companies unwilling to pay their animators worth. There are exceptions, some recent studios have attempted to provide safer, more supportive work environments but these are too few and far between. May it be a work culture epidemic or simply an extension of the corruption within all entertainment industries, Children of the Sea is just another example of extreme conditions that pushed its employees to breaking point. The final product is absolutely phenomenal but I can’t help but think that it is unlikely we will see anything of this creative magnitude again as long as companies refuse to support their employees. More so, it’s not worth the lives of people who lovingly, painstakingly crafted it.

Children of the Sea (All The Anime, 2019)

When I think of all the creatives that came together to make this astounding film, the hours, the talent, the passion for what they do, I can’t comprehend how one can’t be moved immediately. Maybe I’m soft for more classic animation, I know I’m biased. But in viewing Children of the Sea I saw an infinite wealth of creative expertise and beyond that existential horror. I have yet to see something quite so hypnotic, misleadingly pensive in its early half, gradually creeping into terrain of cosmic wonder until I felt I had been washed in clarity. If one goes into this film expecting a clean –cut narrative journey, they will be sorely disappointed as they would if they anticipated an orgasmic thrill-ride of psychedelic visuals. It’s neither and both of these things. Terrifying in its capacity, deeply intelligent, touching and devastating. With all this, it still provides an affirmation of sorts.

Children of the Sea (All The Anime, 2019)

In the end, for me, I felt like I had seen something of some importance – something worth sticking about for. I hope this film will gain more traction, which with time, the soul and the thought that went into is not lost. It’s a feature that could only be told through the beautiful yet harrowing work of the talented animators, one that I do not expect to see imitated. With little explanation, we are left with speculation and feeling, and I can’t hate that when Children of the Sea offers me something rather cathartic.


****1/2

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A Space for Reviews, World Cinema Appreciation, Essays and Reflections by Writer Kerry Chambers

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