Toshiaki Toyoda: The Early Years

First published by Sight & Sound, March 2017

“What’s the use of losing?” reads text in Toshiaki Toyoda’s documentary Unchain (2000). “There is none.”

An Osakan child prodigy at Japanese chess who suddenly quit at 17, Toyoda’s early directing career celebrated Japan’s marginalised male losers. Typical is ‘Unchain’ Kaji, a likably punkish real-life boxer from Osaka who never won a match and spent years in a mental asylum after raiding a job centre. In following Kaji and his friends, Toyoda depicts life as a ringside struggle without any conventional underdog triumph.

Toyoda’s feature debut, Pornostar (Poruno sutâ, 1998) explores the yin-and-yang relationship between a pimp (Onimura) hesitant to kill or become a full-time gangster, and a disaffected young man with no name (Koji Chihara) who rides into Shibuya station with a bag of knives, intending to murder all ‘unneeded’ yakuza. Made with money that production company Little More had raised from two nude photobooks of actress Makiko Esumi, Pornostar’s only penetration shots involve blades and blood – but it is an urban western/chanbara/noir that comes with existential doom and flashes of lysergic surrealism.

Blue Spring (Aoi haru, 2001) is missing from this collection, but Toyoda’s fourth feature 9 Souls (Nain Souruzu, 2003) concerns itself ostensibly with an ennead of hardened criminals on the run from prison together, before becoming a tragicomic parable of disrupted lives, lost dreams and masculinity in lockup, as its fugitive antiheroes elaborately disguise their identities and fancifully pursue the existences that they have long since left behind them. Opening (and closing) with a vision of Tokyo in apocalypse, 9 Souls lays bare the limbo of guilt, hope and despair to which its characters have become confined, giving temporary release to their pent-up psychic energy. When they lose, the viewer wins.

Disc: This high-def debut for Toyoda’s early films particularly benefits the stylised steel-blue hues of 9 Souls. The best extras are a new interview with Toyoda himself, and commentaries on Pornostar and 9 Stars from, respectively, Tom Mes and Sight & Sound‘s own Jasper Sharp,  insightfully situating the films in the context of Japan’s millennial New Wave.

Toshiaki Toyoda: The Early Years (Pornostar/Unchain/9 Souls) Limited edition Blu-ray release. Third Window Films

© Anton Bitel