For those in New York of the 日本 persuasion, the 4 July holiday has been a mere sidenote. The main events have been courtesy of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) and Japan Cuts. These sacred days of summer have offered long-awaited premiers of films still fresh off the reels in Japan, as well as rare opportunities to see The Best of Unreleased Naughties on the big screen. Spring may have had it’s cherry blossoms, but NYCJapan is in full bloom.
A prize moment for devotees of cult films Aoi Haru and 9 Souls was the guest appearance of director Toshiaki Toyoda, who attended both screenings of his comeback film Blood of Rebirth 「蘇りの血」 for the film’s introduction and Q&A session afterward.
Saturday’s New York premier was akin to greeting a lost hero’s return for the packed audience, who applauded and cheered as he entered the stage doors. While almost all would have been acquainted with his very public arrest in 2005 – and the tarnishing of Hanging Garden‘s release – Toyoda’s life after prison until the announcement of Rebirth had remained a mystery. The movie itself only proved to deepen the mystery even more.
Once the Q&A was opened, more than a few questions asked about how a city boy, who once found infinite variety and beauty in concrete and steel, could film such an intimate and familiar homage to Mother Nature. Toyoda revealed that he had spent four straight years living at the foot of a mountain, and that his filmmaker’s mind had taken an earnest education from the ancient and iconic landscape of his homeland. The folk tale itself came from the walls of an onsen (hot spring/spa) he visited during these wildnerness years. Only the bare bones of the story were used; yet the film’s decidedly languid pace and surfeit of the visual and aural essence of Japanese is clearly dedicated to a bygone era of storytelling. The once painfully intimate observer of Japan’s modern social dysfunctionality has found his roots, like a fish to water.
The film itself is an experience rather than a distinct storyline or development of characters. Infuriating and misplaced as this description often occurs in movie reviews, it was in fact Toyoda’s sole intention with Rebirth.
The collaboration with improvisational group Twin Tail began at the film’s inception, with drummer Tatsuya Nakamura (中村達也) starring as the main character, Oguri. (Toyoda said that it seemed natural to use someone with natural rhythm as the masseur) The soundtrack was completed in just one day and based entirely on scene descriptions given verbally to the band by Toyoda. Filming was completed in an even more astounding ten days, and on the thinnest of shoestring budgets. While immediacy and organic composition have always been part of Toyoda’s filming style, the new lush scenery and expertly captured natural light felt wholly unrushed.
This elegant film actually came following the collapse of a much bigger budget feature (hinted at as possibly to be exhumed), and likely captures an artist wrestling free from the expectations inherent in major financial backing.
Carnal resurrection being the strongest motif, the extensive scenes of frothing and thrashing amphibious bodies could possibly be criticised as overlong. Perhaps thanks to Toyoda’s introduction however, the audience at the Japan Society would rather have been disappointed if his trademark editing had taken the chop by popular pressure.
The cast were the usual combination of fresh talent and famous faces. The strict “do no harm” approach extends once again to Toyoda veterans Hirofumi Arai, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, and Mame Yamada. Drummer/masseur Tatsuya Nakamura will likely be best known from Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet, and as Oguri is a visceral dichotomy of hungry soul and fatalist philosopher. Enchanting Mayuu Kusakari (Terute) looks like a young Björk and the lens seems to linger fondly each time she is in frame.
Toyoda is well known for depreciating his own role in creating a film – a quality that has possibly sharpened his vision as a director. There are no smoke and mirrors to be found in interviews about his work, and at no point does he seem to hoodwink or act playful with his audience. There are of course many comedic elements to his movies, but it is the deadpan presentation that really gets the laugh.
In Rebirth, one memorable moment is Oguri’s meeting with the gatekeeper of the afterlife, Monban, played by popular comedian Itsuji Itao. Monban could not possibly care less about his role, the fates of souls that pass before him, or the afterlife itself. The scene’s dialogue is punctuated by him chewing a watermelon and spitting out the seeds, the significance of which Toyoda says is the red of the melon’s flesh and the gatekeeper’s casually spitting out human souls. The これ?/それ! (this?/that!) bit has an incredible amount of success for an exchange consisting of just two words.
Now for the million yen question: can a parallel be drawn between a film’s character who is cut down in his prime, only to be reborn and vindicated by a return to immediacy with his land’s lifeblood, and the man who created the film? Toyoda’s grinning response is simply “I didn’t know what it would look like for someone to return from the dead…so I decided to film it and find out”.
As always, Toyoda’s inscrutable personality ensures that only he knows if he has emerged from the spring of rebirth.