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