'...Aren't There Some Flowers That Never Bloom': Blue Spring (Toyoda, 2001) Review ****1/2
Updated: Jan 16, 2021
Here we go again. It's been a while, I must admit. [Insert existential sentence with as many commas as I feel is humanly necessary to get a point I've made thousand times across whilst linking it somehow to a film watching]. [Insert comment about how lazy I am]. [Follow up with some stupid apology I may or may not mean depending on whether I post this on Friday or Saturday]...
It can only be expected from someone as ridiculous as myself to find that even when I am inspired I can only make a feeble attempt at a review/discussion about what inspired me. But with the world the way it is and my life the way it is, it's a miracle I've written anything to be honest, let alone write about something I watched two weeks ago. And so I should write about it. Because I'm still thinking about it. As someone struggling to find drive and motivation, along with bathing in the writings of the rage-filled, distressing and grotesquely passionate Yukio Mishima who loves nothing more than brutalising kittens, judging masculinity in kind sailors and calling out thirsty jealous women in all their madness at the rejection of their gift-socks (I love it so much... oh my goodness, the drama), no film spoke quite so well to me post New year as a masterpiece in angst, disillusionment and bleakness for the prospects of our youth. That film was Blue Spring.
Third Window Films, who I must shamelessly hype because they are the best independent cinema distributor in the UK right now, released for the first time in 2019 a dual format of Blue Spring, Toshiaki Toyoda's 2001 adaptation of the episodic manga of the same name by Taiyō Matsumoto. Now, in 2001 I was watching The Powerpuff Girls, or ITV’s Jungle Run; wondering what the parents must think when they lose their child to the mystical tombs as they were seeking out Styrofoam monkeys whilst being harassed by weird looking monkeys and their useless, poor communicative teammates. And in 2019, I was probably having some other kind of crisis, who knows at this point (we should just start saying I’m having a Kerry and be done with it). So I didn't notice this film’s release despite interests that this blog reflects rather well.
So when I bought it (what’s new here? what is money? I never have it?), it was following watching the trailer and thinking that I may expand my indie collection of low-key Japanese filmmakers. Whatever, ya feel me?
It follows the days of an underachieving all-boys school, with unenthused academic results and drop-outs every which way. We open with two friends, Kujo and Aoki picking the locks of the door to the roof and continue to witness a rite of passage as the young men compete for a new leader. Hanging from the rails of the schools rooftop, they play a game - chicken mixed with clapping - in which they see who can risk their life in the name of the gang, as pointless as it is. Kujo, intelligent, introverted but pensive, wins with eight claps and becomes boss, soon leading the gang in disputes with the schools tough guys with Aoki his loyal, bull-headed if clumsy number two.
Yet he still succeeds in his classes, thoughtful in his approach to his future however foggy it appears to him. In his quiet moments alone he seems troubled, seeking guidance from the kindly teacher tending the schools flower garden and one of the only patch of colour and fruitfulness in an otherwise shabby and oppressing world. The other are the cherry blossoms, flowering beside the school, a place of solitude for one of the schools strangest yet most content pupils. It is the garden, however, where Koji and his friends each care for a flower, unaware of what it will be and wait for it to grow and bloom. Of course, with each pointless beating and act of violence committed by the gang, swaying further form the path of righteousness, fearful of a future less than bright, the boys drop away like flies - under concerning yet unfortunately familiar circumstances, - and soon we are witnessing the disintegration of a friendship.
Toyoda captures the transition of adolescent to adulthood in all its mundane-ness and brutality, with tedium passing each day and fuelling acts of unnecessary violence aptly avoided so as to leave more to the imagination and instead leaving the viewer wondering why they do it at all. His characters experience the same confusion. Surrounded by fragile masculinity and immature egos, Kujo searches for the meaning of facing a future he's not sure is there, whilst his best friend Aoki is lost in the schools pettiness, revels in the place and stature it brings him. Without it he's nothing. Mocked by it, his anger is fuelled. When asked about their futures, none can give a fulfilling answer. Can they even give one at that age? Can the see past the school gates? Or can they, they just don't like what they see? These characters hate their life without knowing why. Everyone is looking up, to the sky, to the distant horizon, but what can they see there?
In bleak handheld, we pursue the boys rampaging through the halls, teachers absent and if anything fearful of their pupils - possibly hiding as they listen to cries of pain. The camera is active and moving if not always handheld, the frame can be busy with actions and consequences. But when it counts, Toyoda catches steady beautiful shots, the camera is stationary when the timeless, the clarity is there. As the aircraft passes over Aoki’s head and the flower blooms at last, vibrant red and shocking against images of grey, graffiti-ridden halls, shoddy, dishevelled uniforms and dusty playing fields, we are allowed to witness these like a piece of art, a miracle of revelation.
There are elements of humour in the extremity of its setting. Aoki stumbling upon some messy business is disgusting and base, fitting for his character yet uncomfortably funny in its humiliation. Meanwhile, a silly moment, in which a sister of one of the student’s waits for her brother at the gates is ogled by Koji, imagining a tender exchange between the two when he waves to her. Only it is revealed that the entire school, distracted from their lessons by the appearance of a female, hang from the window frames waving enthusiastically to her. Light-hearted as this is, it is just another example in which Koji finds that his actions do not seem to matter.
What ties the film together however is the excellent soundtrack performed by Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, a Japanese punk group that adds atmosphere and layers, elevating its most poignant scenes, stunning visualised tragedies into anarchic elegies. With tracks such as Drop (the films ultimate anthem), Boogie and September Punk Children it ranges from rage-filled ballads to cool bassy shoulder-boppers fitting to the most impressive showdown. Without this, Blue Spring would not be the same. Despite knowing none of the words, the bands lead vocals raspy desperation captures the tone of the film and so transcends the barrier of language and has found its way onto my playlists.
"People who know what they want scare me." - Kujo, Blue Spring
Blue Spring itself feels older than its twenty years, something to be discovered in the grungy misery of the early nineties rather than the commercial punk that ripped through the millennium. The rebellious spirit and dissatisfaction fits with that. But this lends the film timelessness, a life of any teenager’s life and as uncomfortably familiar to us as it is extreme. In its exaggeration, Toyoda finds truth. The confusion, the indifference of youth all in the face of adulthood; boys proving to one another through arbitrary games that they are men. This is where we see ourselves, where pity each boys fate no matter it's depravity. Because some simply give up, some lose themselves in impassioned dazes and some in pointless competitiveness. This world they reside is micro chasm that mirrors a world they will have to face, and if this is the case how can they go out into the future.
I loved Blue Spring, once again being pleasantly surprised by an impulse buy. Gritty, messy and dirty I still saw through the foolishness of it characters. Toyoda creates a frustrating world we must sit idly through as it all unravels, as boys are pushed t their limits. It can be hard viewing, it can be insightful but I believe it is one of the best of its genre. A Youth film not lost in fantasy, a strike across the cheek. I love Blue Spring as an ode for the troubled, to friendship, to adolescence and the tainted sanctity of those things. Or maybe I love it because it makes me feel young... Whatever is the case, I recommend it to any interested in a subversive teen drama.
"Flowers are meant to bloom." - Hanada Sensei, Blue Spring
Totally Unpaid hype to a company that does not know that I exist…Third Window Films is one of the most underrated independent distributor’s working in the UK. Through them, we have been given some exceptional South-East Asian cinema gems, with their collection of Japanese cult classics something worthy of my meagre coin purse. I would urge anyone with the slightest curiosity into these areas of cinema to check out their titles. With works from excellent filmmakers Sion Sono, Shinya Tsukamoto and Takeshi Kitano to name a few including oddball gems, entertaining Korean comedies and interesting work from Hong Kong, there is something to impress even the most weathered film fan. Better still some of their releases come with great special features worthy of a BFI or Criterion release without the overwhelming price tag beside it. It would be a tragedy if we lost them!
Blue Spring is available to buy HERE