Blood of Rebirth and Hanging Garden

It’s interesting, but probably not surprising, that two of the highlights of Japan Cuts this year came from the same director, Toshiaki Toyoda. “Visionary” is a term that gets tossed around a lot regarding directors, usually ones who like to work on a grand scale or indulge in some form of spectacle. But what if it applied to seeing things with a microscope—seeing deeply into them—rather than seeing them with a macroscope, if you will, replete with long vistas and gobs of eye candy? What if a visionary sees the same things we all have access to, but simply lingers longer and stares much harder, burning a hole into what the rest of us merely glance at and think we understand?

Whether I’ve sold you on this new definition or not, it’s that kind of sensibility that Toyoda displays in Hanging Garden, which played Japan Cuts as one of the “Unreleased Naughties” films that the fest has been celebrating. At first blush Hanging Garden seems to be the ultimate dysfunctional family drama, its deadpan edginess making it far creepier than other films on the same theme. Yet while that’s true, such a summary doesn’t quite do the film justice, making it seem more like simply a darker version of something along the lines of Ordinary People or, to draw a frequently used comparison, Tokyo Sonata. But part of what’s great about Hanging Garden is that by quietly but inexorably pushing the envelope it helps us question what we mean by “dysfunctional” and “functional” in the first place. By whose standards do we formulate these definitions, and to what ends? And what if all families were dysfunctional in certain ways—what if, in fact, that’s what helps them “function” on some level?

In short, despite its frank sexuality and bracing outbursts of rage. Hanging Garden doesn’t encourage us to sit back and judge its characters from a safe and self-righteous vantage point. Yes, the actions, attitudes, and exchanges of dialogue we’re witness to are more outrageous than in other films, but they often make more sense, too. For example, open, honest and direct communication sounds good as a family policy—until it makes you squirm. But then the film questions why it makes us squirm. And so is truth-telling at any cost functional or dysfunctional? Toyoda is all about probing, and if he comes across a wound or a scar, either culturally or individually, so much the better. That’s the place where he wants to bear down most—not out of sadism, but from a sense that that scar tissue is probably covering something that has never really healed.

Actually, this entire, vaguely surgical metaphor—probing, microscope, wound—misses the boat. Toyoda, at least in Hanging Garden, provides a visual metaphor that plainly illustrates his subversive goals. Frequently employing pendulum-like tilts wherein down literally becomes up, and up, down, Toyoda gently shows that upending our comfort zone, and in the process both the filmic and societal status quo, is what he’s really after. To be sure, he’s not nihilistic—he wants to return us to narrative coherence, and the nuclear family, and all the other hallmarks of civilization, but he wants us to embrace them authentically this time around. In Hanging Garden he even features a Ferris wheel in some shots, a device which clearly recalls/mimics the camera’s movements in these tilt-heavy passages. Of course maybe he’s just letting us know that after all the dangerous fun we’re having concludes he clearly intends to return us to the ground when our ride is over.

Prior to the screening of his latest opus, Blood of Rebirth, at NYAFF/Japan Cuts, Toyoda himself introduced the film and admonished the audience to “watch it as if listening to music.” While the film itself is not nearly as formless or non-narrative as such a caveat would suggest, Blood or Rebirth does echo so many other art forms that it acts as a powerful reminder of film’s ability, or aspirations, to swallow up the rest of culture. Sometimes Blood of Rebirth is photography—that’s how long Toyoda holds shots when “nothing” new is happening. Sometimes it’s stylized theater in the manner of kabuki, which is said to have helped inspire the story.

But most of all the film is music. And that’s true not just because the director envisioned the project as an intimate collaboration with a jazz-rock band of which he’s a member, but because it resembles an orchestral piece in terms of how it’s presented to the audience. The film does not try to persuade us of anything or even particularly to like any of its characters. But it does contain repeated motifs, sports fast and slow “movements,” and tries to communicate in a language that speaks directly through symbols and feeling rather than “dramatizing” or “illustrating” events that we’re asked to experience vicariously, as most films do. (Sometimes this symbolic approach gets uncomfortable—I, for one, have a hard time watching animals being killed onscreen, even if they’re “just fish”... and one of the key scenes involves these creatures being slowly and deliberately hacked to death in front of us.)

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the score itself is at turns lush, incantatory, evocative, voluptuous, and propulsive. Moreover, it has a certain “bigness” to it that fills in all the empty spaces in the film, adding a density and depth to the images—even when those images are already intense on their own. (Amazingly, Toyoda confessed that the entire score was recorded in only about “half a day.”)

Visually, what’s immediately impressive about Blood of Rebirth is that, as in Jodorowsky and certain Spaghetti Westerns, it’s not really trying to recreate reality but construct a convincing filmic reality out of handy ingredients. Certainly the small budget and speedy shooting schedule benefited from this approach, but the real bonus for the audience is the look of timelessness that adheres to the production. Although set during a period also covered by chanbara, Blood of Rebirth couldn’t care less about samurai films or samurai themselves. Instead, the story focuses on masseur with a really good sense of rhythm. Oh, and there’s an evil lord whom he makes the mistake of serving too effectively. Yes, it’s a simple story but it’s fleshed out perfectly.

The story gradually moves into “hungry ghost” and even pseudo-zombie territory—but hardly rushes to embrace the horror genre.

With his plot skewing toward what at times feels like the backbone of every other Japanese movie—revenge—Toyoda employs the crazy angles of subjective horror, but doesn’t do so for psychological reasons. He just doesn’t seem that interested in psychology even though his films are intensely interesting in terms of psychology—for him, the mythic, the archetypal, and the dreamlike is more where’s it at. In fact, “dreamlike” probably nails the central aesthetic—not in terms of dime-a dozen surrealism but in the film’s deadpan delivery of the fantastic and the mystical, and in its loosely episodic construction; one thing happens after another but cause-and-effect is more implied than spelled out.

Blood of Rebirth’s welcome bursts of comedy help make it less ponderous than I’m making it sound. And the violence is pretty galvanizing as well. In fact, there’s plenty to hold your attention in the film; the trouble is that Toyoda’s not really concerned with holding your attention—he’s more concerned with channeling and directing it, mostly inwardly. Time and again you sense him pushing against the limitations of narrative cinema the same way that certain modernists did with poetry:“Is this all we’ve got to work with to touch you and change you? Letters and words, and empty spaces on paper? Can’t we reach out from the confines of the art form to shake you directly and make you feel?”

That said, I should point out that Toyoda doesn’t care about being avant-garde for its, or his, own sake—he just can’t help it to some extent. After all, there just aren’t that many others out there who are out there who are currently doing the things that he is.

Mutant Girls Squad

To a large degree Mutant Girls Squad defies any kind of sustained, or certainly serious, analysis—it’s great, deranged fun, the kind that NYAFF has become known for over the years and which Japan Cuts seems to be becoming increasingly comfortable with. The wild on-stage antics that followed the screening, a Q&A outro that featured semi-nude prancing from two of the film’s three directors, was probably the only way the audience, already spent, could avoid feeling an anticlimactic let-down.

If you’re at all familiar with the previous work of Yoshihiro Nishimura or Noboru Iguchi, who were present, or Tak Sakaguchi, who co-stars in MGS as a cruel über-mutant in drag, then you know what to expect from the film. The simple premise of an X-Men-style outgroup that suffers from political/social persecution feels like it was probably hashed out in one long, laugh-filled conversation at about three in the morning. The main difference, I suppose, between The X-Men and Mutant Girls Squad is two-fold: 1) here the “good” and “bad” mutants are conflated into a single large team or community, and 2) pretty much all of the mutant “powers” here are hideously stomach-turning. But of course that’s what makes the film so much fun. There’s a minimal amount of plot, just enough to sustain the gore-gags, which begin as merely inventive and escalate to the supremely insane.

Don’t expect the world-building and characterization, such as they are, that you’ll find in films like Machine Girl or Tokyo Gore Police. Nor you should you expect the mind-boggling grandiosity of something like Frankenstein Girl vs. Vampire Girl, one of the highlights of last year’s NYAFF. MGS, in contrast, feels more like its production was, well, not thrown together, but let’s say hit the ground running—an inspired goof in which each of the directors probably tried to top each other even while collaborating. So if possible, catch this film in the company of others who might appreciate it; both its playful offensiveness and offensive playfulness are infectious.

Nightmare Detective 2

Shinya Tsukamoto has long been an interesting filmmaker and very often a flat-out brilliant one. Veering between arthouse and genre success throughout his career, here he has created a work that nicely splits the difference. For that reason, though, audiences who don’t like their differences split may not know what to make of Nightmare Detective 2, which is far less commercial in narrative and tone than its 2006 predecessor. Yet, really, that Tsukamoto has made this kind of film should come as no great surprise: he has always used genre to tell personal stories—and then used markedly unconventional, often idiosyncratic, technique in service of the genre elements. The results can be, as is the case here, movies that are less classifiable than they might appear on the surface.

Although released in Japan in late 2008, ND2 is only surfacing in Japan Cuts now—which coincidentally happens to be the year that sees the release of Chris Nolan’s Inception and the Nightmare Elm Street reboot. Here the dreamworld premise is almost simple-minded in its basic mechanics: the title character can enter others’ nightmares and fix/explore them as needed, apparently at great psychological cost to himself. Problem is, star Ryuhei Matsuda is too adorably moppet-like in appearance to be the tortured anti-hero the script positions him as—a minor shortcoming that the film tries to shore up by providing a harrowing backstory about his childhood. Wait, check that: it’s actually the main dramatic piece so it’s more like the frontstory and all the present tense events of today form the backstory. But isn’t that appropriate given the topic of dreams—don’t they commonly treat our day-to-day lives as the minor sideshow and the deeper issues of the past as always-happening-now and never less than urgent?

If all this sounds somewhat abstract, good. The first Nightmare Detective film was far more conventional, with a storyline involving a diabolical killer, cops, and all the usual trappings of a horror-thriller. Here the strategy is the opposite. Yes, there are many standard J-horror elements, such as the symbolic use of architectural space, scared-silly schoolgirls, and a preponderance of drawn-out reaction shots. But Tsukamoto, as we learn definitively in the third act, is playing a deeper game here. He’s not interested in effects-driven battles in the dreamscape or how cool his protagonist is. Instead, he wants to sort through some stuff about fear in general, not a specific source of fear… and some stuff about life, not death. In fact, one can’t help but suspect that, just like William Peter Blatty did in The Exorcist III (a film I greatly admire) Tsukamoto wanted to work through some themes that have always interested him, and realized that could be accomplished through his existing franchise quite handily.