you're strange and you're beautiful

Toshiaki Toyoda: the slow burn

Might seem a strange choice of tagline for a director with a police record for possessing stimulants. However, fans of Toshiaki Toyoda will know exactly what I mean.

Toyoda is a director who brings to mind slow-motion, didactic scene jumps, and achingly real-time story arcs. There is no falling back on ‘Japaneseness’ to snare either native or foreign markets, no glorification of the mundane, and he restrains from that common desire of directors to make his presence known on the screen. The man knows himself, knows his work, and simply sticks to it.

Hence the slow burn, a result of complete artistic confidence. His catalog errs on the side of quality rather than quantity, with just six films since he began writing and directing his own work in 1998. Personally, I have so far only seen Aoi Haru (Blue Spring) and 9 Souls, and read fan reviews of the others.

Aoi Haru blew my mind both times that I watched it – first without subtitles and then with. It also introduced me to Thee Michelle Gun Elephant in what is possibly the finest coupling of images and sound ever made in cinema. The epic zoom-in at the end of the film holds a special place in history for Japanese cinemaphiles. In fact, I’ll let the aficionados over at Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow give you a tantalising summary:

A beautiful twist on “Lord of the Flies”, Toshiyaki Toyada takes a narratively challenging manga, adds some great music from Thee Michelle Elephant Gun, casts the always compelling Ryuhei Matsuda and mixes it all with a cinematic structure that subtly underscores are all the right emotional beats while still remaining visually compelling. Its like eye candy and brain candy all at once.

Watching 9 Souls, made 2 years after Aoi Haru, was like picking back up with an old friend. Toyoda again begins by lovingly revealing Ryuhei Matsuda’s inscrutable young face, and Ryu-kun’s deep stillness again acts as a lynchpin throughout the movie.

Following the 9 escaped convicts as they seek to either settle scores or realise long-held dreams, Toyoda’s increased capability with the camera lens shows itself repeatedly. He also repeats the use of virginal early morning light juxtaposed with inky nights blinking electric reds and yellows. Not to be underappreciated is his ability to elicit so much from his actors; more can be learned from their posture and body language than the rough, naturalistic dialogue.

In an interview accompanying the DVD, there are a few very interesting comments I’d like to bring up. I say only a few because the questions were rather bizarre; apparently coming from a UK audience, and only 2 questions having anything to do with Toyoda’s work (why they kept bringing up Tom Cruise’s cinematic bad joke ‘The Last Samurai’, I do not know).

One question rather confusingly jumped into bushido, vaguely asking what Toyoda thought about it. After a few puzzling starts, these enlightening thoughts emerged:

Toyoda: I guess I can understand that (bushido) a little. But seppuku is a different story, isn’t it?
Interviewer: So seppuku isn’t a good idea?
T: Well, I think when they kill themselves so manfully, it is, in a way, beautiful…but there’s no such thing as a good-looking death. So they might think it’s a cool thing, but I think it’s wrong.
I: So you think the way western people think it’s cool is also wrong?
T: Yes.
I: So, regardless of how you die, it’s just dying and it’s all the same thing?
T: Well, there is no such thing as a cool way of dying.

This points back to my earlier mention of Toyoda not glorifying the mundane, which has it’s own innate pathos and ability to reach viewers.

In a similarly direct casting fashion, he chose to assign his then-muse Ryuhei Matsuda with the crime of patricide. Quite literally, he said that it was because Matsuda “had experienced the death of his own father”. He is of course referring to the very public, premature death of Japanese film legend Yusaku Matsuda when Ryuhei was just six years old.

This lack of inhibition with people and their emotions is perhaps what creates the subtle undertoe of gravitas in his films. Apparently several members of a San Francisco audience approached him after a film festival screening, tearfully proclaiming 9 Souls to be the best film they had ever seen.

Toyoda appeared non-plussed by such strong reactions to his work, or perhaps it was self-consciousness. His take on the duty of a film-maker:

“I think my job is simply to provide entertainment, and I don’t particularly choose the audience.”

Still waters certainly run deep.

To find out what Toshiaki Toyoda has been up to since 2003, check out Nippon Cinema’s update for more.


  barbapapa wrote @

Love this director, and Aoi Haru is a powerful, and plain awesome film. Great to find someone else talking about it!

  katiesjapanfiles wrote @

I could have gone on and on about Aoi Haru/Toshiaki Toyoda, but I had to keep this post at least a little reasonable! 🙂 Glad to share the love.

  barbapapa wrote @

Just wondering if you’ve seen his other flicks by now as well? I think aside from the obvious 9 Souls I also really enjoyed Pornostar/Tokyo Rampage. Hanging Garden was a bit too typical of a dysfunctional family drama to my liking, and Blood of Rebirth had some incredibly cool ideas but just not enough proper content to go on. I recently also got his boxer documentary but have yet to see it.

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