Exploring the films of Japanese lost cult filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda

James Balmont offers a guide to one of the country’s greatest contemporary artists cult filmmakers


The last half-century has seen a multitude of Japanese directors make themselves known far beyond the borders of their country. Takashi Miike was known as the prolific cinematic machine behind films like Hearing (1999) and Ichi the killer (2001) – now he is one of the most recognizable names in the Japanese film industry. A few years later, he passed the torch of Japan’s most controversial director to Sion Sono, who has just released his first Hollywood feature film, Prisoners of Ghost Country, with Nicolas Cage. Two decades after breaking through with films like Maborosi in the 90s, Hirokazu Kore-eda won the Palme d’Or de Cannes and an Oscar nomination for Shoplifters in 2018, while J-Y2K horror icon Kiyoshi Kurosawa achieved a similar feat after winning the Venice Silver Bear in 2020, for Wife of a spy.

Of all rights, Toshiaki Toyoda should eat at the same table as these great people. But despite being one of the most exciting new directors of his generation in the late ’90s, the Osaka-born writer found himself on a different trajectory than his more recognizable contemporaries.

In Japan, Toyoda’s reputation as a filmmaker is matched only by his infamy as the subject of two high-profile scandals. In 2005, he was arrested for drug possession weeks before the publication of one of his most high-profile posts. In 2019, he was arrested again after a second drug raid made an antique WWII firearm illegal. With both events becoming sensational fodder for the tabloids, the director’s career was repeatedly disrupted. If it wasn’t, his star (and profile) would surely have climbed much higher.

The work of Toyoda – who has covered stylized youth crime films, meditative dramas, documentaries, low budget art films, and more. – has never strayed too far from specialized film festivals which have given it a modest international reputation. But after 25 years in the game, it is now rightly receiving long-awaited exposure in the UK thanks to a series of Blu-ray releases from Third Window Films in October and a retrospective streaming via the streaming platform. Arrow Video the following month. The journey inside is revealing: it is the story of a captivating filmmaker who twice received a bad hand, only to rise from the ashes, reinvent himself and reclaim his mantle as one of the greatest filmmakers. contemporary cults of Japan. Here are some important points:

Porn star, 1998

Toyoda’s feature debut in 1998 is, alongside a follow-up high school drama Spring Blue, perhaps the director’s most scathing reflection of real-world anxieties in Japan in the mid-1990s. A fiscal calamity was in full swing as the country’s economy collapsed in the late 1980s, and with With university employment falling to just 66% that year, reports of young people turning to crime became more prevalent as young people found themselves unable to meet their parents’ expectations.

As a result, an influx of films about young killers and criminals shaped the country’s film production, with Royal battle and Sion Sono Suicide club among the highlights. Porn star – Toyoda’s lively and metropolitan beginnings was another vibrant, independently shot juvenile delinquency film. Here, an almost mute and emotionally empty outcast pours through love hotels, game rooms, neon alleys and yakuza offices, sinking deeper and deeper into a world characterized by violence, rejection and despair.

Stone-faced actor Chihara Junia, who plays the film’s sociopathic lead role, offers a perfect visual embodiment of the Japanese group’s themes and soundtrack. Soak adds to the moody atmosphere of discouragement and alienation. The film’s opening scene, which finds Junia’s unnamed disruptor moving emotionlessly through the iconic Shibuya Crossing in slow motion, is amplified to stoner-rock nirvana thanks to the group’s heavy, mud-laden riffs. .

9 souls, 2003

Toyoda found Junia, and Spring Blue direct Ryûhei Matsuda, alongside a recognizable set of actors from Japan’s Golden Age Y2K, for this comedic and powerful 2003 road movie about a group of escaped prisoners trying to come to terms with demons from their past . Among the memorable characters: legendary violent biker Kazuma (Junia), child killer Torakichi (Always walking‘s Yoshio Harada), drug trafficker Saruwatari and Shiratori – a dwarf-sized doctor and “escapee master.”

The first half of the film is a riot of dark humor and David Lynch-like absurdity The heart that is in Desert or the feather of Quentin Tarantino Born killers. Convicts who steal vans, fuck sheep, and disguise themselves cause chaos as personalities clash internally, as well as with the various civilians they encounter. There are moments of pure comedy, but the real lead of the film occurs halfway, the tone changes as the convicts go their separate ways in hopes of rectifying their irreversible misdeeds, and a chain of brooding revelations offers a bang. unexpected emotional fist.

With sensational cinematography, a Sonic Youth-style soundtrack and an unforgettable cast of characters, 9 souls turned out to be a vibrant turning point for a young director on the verge of excellence.

Monster Club, 2011

Following a high-profile arrest for drug possession in 2005, Toyoda was kicked out of the Japanese film industry and did not shoot another movie for years. But two years after his comeback movie, The blood of rebirth, he will deliver one of his most fascinating works. Monster Club is a brilliant rendition of American terrorist Ted Kaczynski – better known as Unabomber – who, motivated by a hatred of society, embarked on a nationwide bombing campaign in the United States between 1978 and 1995 while leading a primitive life in the Montana desert.

The film opens in heavy snow in a dense pine forest, where an anonymous character inside a wooden cabin is preparing gunpowder for a homemade explosive, which will soon be shipped to the CEO of a television network. “Society reprograms people to act against their natural instincts,” intones the film’s alarming and isolated subject, as he denounces the various sins of the world through a vast manifesto. The only way out, he concludes, is “to completely abandon industrial society.” But the boost in this cold and captivating character study comes soon after, as Kaczynski-inspired Ryoichi Kakiuchi begins to encounter a strange spiritual entity while being haunted by demons from his past. So, what begins as a lonely, thoughtful exploration into the mind of a troubled criminal soon becomes something much deeper and more touching.

Everything is accentuated by the breathtaking and cold cinematography of the film, as well as by about twenty loners, Neil young-guitars reminiscent of another visceral film through the wilderness: Jim Jarmusch’s sour western Dead man.

I am Flash, 2012

The cold, desolate mountains are swapped for the Pacific seaside idylls of Okinawa in Toyoda’s 2012 thoughtful follow-up to Monster Club. The film stars Tatsuya Fujiwara (Royal battle) as the leader of a popular religious sect who kills a motorcyclist in a traffic accident, but mysteriously comes out unscathed. Hawaiian shirts, taco rice, and sandy beaches serve as an atmospheric backdrop to this powerful, contemplative drama, which features an ambiguous narrative, a sleek camera, and vivid photographs.

The constant presence of the deep blue ocean would mean even greater significance to Japanese audiences – the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami happened just one year before the film’s release. The theme of death, likewise, is predominant everywhere, but the Okinawan setting – a favorite of ’90s crime author Takeshi Kitano – is the most vivid facet of I am Flash. And like Kitano’s works, the film also incorporates character types and plot elements from the gangster genre, to subvert them in favor of something more complex and contemplative.

Go Seppuku yourselves, 2021

The last short in Toyoda’s cryptic “resurrection trilogy” was released just a few months ago in Tokyo, and although it is short in length, it has a profound impact. Directly attacking authorities for their perceived mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, this politically charged period piece takes no prisoners.

A masked figure dressed in red cuts his little finger at one temple. Breathtaking sound echoes in the background, creating an atmosphere of shaking tension. “Is the epidemic affecting you too?” Asks one of the patrons of the magnificent Mt Resurrection-Wolf. These moments are the precursor of Go Seppuku yourself great spectacle: a foreigner accused of having poisoned the village accuses the governing magistrate of the spread of a plague, and in response he is summoned to commit seppuku (self-eventration).

The culminating ceremony is observed without flinching, as the magnetic Yôsuke Kubozuka delivers long kneeling monologues in a series of uninterrupted shots. He takes his knife and claims he will be reborn as a beast – a metaphor, perhaps, for the director’s own shocking resurrection after a second public scandal disrupted his career in 2019.

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