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July 20, 2004
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Bubba Reviews Blue Spring and Lady Snowblood

— Posted by John Campea

Hey kids … I’ve got a wee stack of DVDs piling up awaiting review and making me feel guilty so in a joint effort to whittle the pile down some and reduce the urge to hurl myself off of a tall building I present for your enjoyment reviews of a pair of Japanese films that you’ve most likely never heard of but really should check out. Read on for reviews of the recent Animeigo release of the classic Lady Snowblood as well as Artsmagic’s coming release of Toshiaki Toyoda’s Blue Spring.

bluespring.jpgBlue Spring
Dir: Toshiaki Toyoda
Artsmagic DVD

Finally seeing the light of day here in North America in late July thanks to the good people at Artsmagic – who are quickly building a very impressive catalog of titles – is Toshiaki Toyoda’s Blue Spring. Now, I’ve raved about Toyoda and his work on these pages often enough that you’ve probably gotten the idea that I like his films a little bit. That impression is correct. Toyoda is someone whom I firmly believe will be recognized as a major talent in world cinema within his next film or two. At the present his films have been seen by very few people but those who have seen them love them – I have NEVER seen a negative review of a Toyoda film and I’m certainly not about to write one here – and his work improves by leaps and bounds film by film. This is a man who started off exceptionally well and has not yet seen the ceiling of his talent, which is a scary thought in a very good way.

Blue Spring was my introduction to Toyoda’s work and it left a deep and lasting mark on me thanks to its visual style, impressive young cast, bleak outlook, fantastic writing and an absolutely brilliant soundtrack from Japan’s Thee Michelle Gun Elephant. The movie opens in a run down high school on graduation day. While the school’s seniors are in their graduation ceremony a group of juniors heads up to the roof to play an utterly bizarre and potentially deadly game of chicken. They climb to the highest point of the building and over to the outside of the safety fence. With only their toes still on the building and a firm grip on the railing the only thing preventing a fall to their deaths the students calmly let go and clap. First a single clap, then two, then three and so on with ‘players’ who hit the limits of what they can manage without falling giving up and climbing back to safety. We’re finally left with just a single boy on the outside of the fence – the enigmatic Kujo – who is pronounced the winner and thus the boss of their coming senior year. What follows is a study of hopelessness, what happens to a generation of youth who see no future for themselves and thus no purpose whatsoever for their lives or their education. The school’s faculty is virtually invisible with power being wielding by Kujo and his gang in a manner that directly mirrors the yakuza gangs who cruise the streets immediately outside the school recruiting potential new members. As Kujo gradually recognizes that this new power system is every bit as pointless as anything else he begins to lose interest and drift away from his role as power broker, a situation that eventually leads to violence between Kujo and his childhood best friend who aims to take Kujo’s power for himself.

What makes Blue Spring work so well is the way that Toyoda keeps the focus on his characters and their relationships above all else and how he draws such strong performances out of each of his young actors. This is a film that could have easily degenerated into mindless violence or melodrama if not for the textured and truthful work from his actors. Toyoda is a director who loves his actors, using the same performers over and over again, and his cast rewards his loyalty with strong, trusting performances. Another key element is Toyoda’s choice to resolutely keep the violence – and there is a fair bit of it – off screen. With very few exceptions we never actually see blows land. We see the approach, we here the thuds, we see the aftermath but the actual connection occurs out of sight. This serves the dual effect of both steering the film away from exploitation territory as well as making the violence more horrific. As David Fincher proved conclusively with Seven there’s no image more horrific than the one we generate in our own imagination. Because Toyoda is wise enough to let us fill in the blanks on our own we end up with a far more shocking experience than we likely would have had if he’d spread it out in all its gory detail for us. A keenly intelligent director – Toyoda was a childhood chess prodigy who was being groomed for international competition at one point – Toyoda is also one of those very rare directors who is able to perfectly balance style with substance. His camera work is fantastic and ultra-stylized, he gives his characters a swaggering arrogance, and he’s got great taste in music, but he never, ever allows the style elements to overwhelm the core truths about his characters.

Artsmagic has given Blue Spring the best release it’s ever had worldwide, topping even the native Japanese release. We’re given an excellent anamorphic transfer, a commentary by Japanese film expert Tom Mes and a pair of interviews with Toyoda himself. While Mes isn’t the most exciting speaker in the world the man knows his stuff cold and has turned in an insightful and educational commentary track that sets the film firmly in context, explains cultural differences while also unpacking specifics of Toyoda’s technique and approach. He may be soft spoken, but this is one excellent track. Both interviews are also well worth watching, though a little unusual in terms of content. The first interview, supposedly addressing the process behind making Blue Spring, spends an awful lot of time discussing Toyoda’s boxing documentary Unchain while the second interview is devoted entirely to Toyoda’s first theatrical feature Pornostar. Obvious question: are these interviews here because Artsmagic tried to land these films and was unable to and are thus including what they can on them as a consolation prize for fans, or are they trying to gauge whether there’s sufficient interest for them to release these films as well? I’m hoping it’s option B as I’ve never been able to see Unchain or Pornostar in a decent format and I would love to have them available. Artsmagic has already committed to an early 2005 release for Toyoda’s staggering Nine Souls.

snowblood.jpgLady Snowblood
Dir: Fujita Toshiya
Animeigo

Something that amazes me about Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films is how in all the surrounding talk about influences everyone has fixated on the Shaw Brothers influence on Volume One and the Sergio Leone influence on Volume Two while completely overlooking the major Japanese influence on both films. Even a blatant name drop at the end of Volume Two didn’t seem to be enough to get people to realize that the Lone Wolf and Cub films were at least as important in the genesis of Kill Bill as was the library of Shaw films. Another massive and largely overlooked film that shaped Tarantino’s course was the 1973 Japanese exploitation film Lady Snowblood. How important is this film? Not only did it provide the basis for the recent Princess Blade but Tarantino has obviously lifted several key plot points and a lot of structural points from this early revenge epic while crafting his own. The sword wielding female assassin, the personal grudge held against people who killed her family, the written death list, the chapter based story telling, Tarantino lifted it all directly from this film. You can make a pretty good argument that the garishly false bright red geysers of blood also reflect a far more Japanese aesthetic than Chinese. Tarantino even went so far as to lift a piece of music from Snowblood for use in Volume One. So why should we care? Well, part of the point of Kill Bill was to direct people back to what Tarantino considers to be the finest genre films of his youth and in the case of Lady Snowblood I’m in complete agreement. This is a quality film, well worth a look.

Japanese exploitation film star Kaji Meiko – female lead in the Stray Cat Rock and Female Prisoner 701 films – stars as the titular Lady Snowblood. Born in prison to a woman who conceived her through random sex with guards for the sole purpose of producing a child to avenge her and her murdered husband Meiko’s Yuki is raised by a harsh priest who trains her in martial arts and swordplay so that she can pursue the revenge that is her sole reason for existence. The beautiful young woman makes a living as a trained assassin, her sword concealed in the handle of an umbrella, while she seeks out those who wronged her mother with nothing but a list of names to guide her. Slowly, inevitably, Yuki will track down every person whose name is on that list and send them to join her mother in the afterlife in bloody fashion.

Thanks to some strong performances, a strong script and excellent film work Lady Snowblood rises above its exploitation roots. Yes, it’s wildly bloody and violent but it is also frequently beautiful. Yuki’s character is strongly written as she meets family members of those she has sworn to kill and has to struggle through guilt and doubts her chosen course of action.

I had heard good things about Animeigo’s presentation of the film – as well as their work with the Lone Wolf And Cub and Zatoichi back catalog, which you’ll be hearing about here soon enough – and I’ve got to say that I wasn’t prepared for just how good this release is on the technical front. While their releases don’t include much in the way of extras what they do include are stunning, archive quality film transfers. Rather than spend money on secondary frills Animeigo has gone back to the source negatives, struck a brand new print of the film and used that new, flawless print to generate their DVD transfer. Not only has the film never looked better than this, it never will. It’s simply not possible. This is an absolutely perfect transfer of the film – in anamorphic widescreen, of course – and is the type of work you expect to see from the likes of The Criterion Collection on acknowledged masterpieces of world cinema. It’s not the kind of treatment you expect an anime releasing company to give a relatively minor genre film, but they have and in the process they’ve shamed every company that has ever tried to slip substandard product to an unsuspecting public. A brilliant companion to that quality transfer is a simple card inserted inside the case that briefly lays out the historical context of the film, giving you the basic history you need to fully understand the world the film is set in. Why don’t more companies do this? Forget cutting films to make them more palatable to western eyes, why can’t we just spend five minutes and a nickel or so per package to educate the audience? This is a brilliant touch, easily accomplished, that ups audience enjoyment of the film with little effort and I’m shocked that more companies aren’t following suit.

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  • crapmonster

    Blue Spring is indeed an awesome movie, i actually saw it a couple weeks back and loved it. definitely gonna buy it when i get a chance.

  • http://www.lazybastard.com jeff

    Great reviews, Bubba! Although I was planning on getting a copy of Lady Snowbird soon (insert montage of crossing fingers, praying, paying off small churches to present offerings in my favor), I was completely oblivious to Blue Spring and it sounds great. I’ll have to start hunting the specialty video stores next month!

    Now if somebody would just put out a high quality Sogo Ishii collection on DVD…

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