In this instalment of Eastern Premise Jason Julier takes a look at Toshiaki Toyoda’s Blood Of Rebirth.
This week Eastern Premise has chosen an abstract, provocative film where the clue to events is very much in the title. Released in 2009 as Yomigaeri no chi, Blood of Rebirth is a fascinating tale of actions, consequences, love and karma.
Director Toshiaki Toyoda has already been featured during this series with his debut film Tokyo Rampage which showed enough promise despite the continuous violence and mute-like lead character. Since that provocative debut, Toyoda continued to test audiences and remained unpredictable with films such as Blue Spring, 9 Souls and in particular the Hanging Garden suggesting that finally his promise was being fulfilled. Initially a child chess prodigy, Toyoda started out as a screenwriter and assistant to contemporary Junji Sakamoto; another director on the rise with his recent film Oshika-mura sodoki considered by some to be the best Japanese film of 2011.
Unfortunately for Toyoda the success of the Hanging Garden was never fully realised as a springboard in his career. Shortly after its release the director was arrested on drugs charges after a quantity of stimulants was found in his home. During his subsequent arrest and 3 year suspended sentence, he sought refuge from the Japanese media in a remote forest cabin. It was during this self-enforced exile that the inspiration for his 2012 film Monsters Club was cultivated and no doubt this period also influenced the gestation Blood of Rebirth.
Released in 2009, Blood of Rebirth marked the return of Toyoda and what an explosive statement it remains. Devoid mostly of narrative, it continues Toyoda’s theme of actions speaking louder than words ever will. His characters are often strong willed, with very minimal dialogue, but what they do utter is meaningful and direct. While this was a criticism of his debut, his characters have since grown and developed more substance beyond a mere lout on the rampage.
Blood of Rebirth is apparently based on a medieval Japanese legend where a provincial lord summons a masseur after becoming afflicted with a disabling condition. It seems after enjoying the company of several woman servants he has been struck down with a painful sexually transmitted disease. The lord played by Tokyo Rampage’s Kiyohiko Shibukawa, is a vicious tyrant, as is shown by his actions of slaughtering all the female servants after being unable to identify the culprit.
Oguri Hangan Daisukeshige is played by Tatsuya Nakamura who is free of ownership and operates on his massage reputation, happy to roam the land unbound. Summoned by the lord, he descends into this living hell, with slaves bound and armed guards at every corner. His touch is akin to a healing hand and the lord is appreciative of this talents and welcome relief from his disabling symptoms, for a while at least. Better than any drug or ointment, Oguri is held within the camp to administer relief to the increasingly frustrated lord.
In the original tale the masseur frees a princess at the cost of his own life. Toyoda introduces Terute, a beautiful young servant who is being kept for when the lord returns to full health. She has accepted her imprisonment and when delivering the poison to Oguri, this seems to bring a stark reawakening to her plight. Arriving in the next realm, Oguri is given the choice of heaven or hell; both as the gatekeeper suggests are an improvement from the land of living. Instead in Buddhist mythology he chooses to return to living as a hungry ghost with vengeance as the main course. Those expecting a ghost fuelled revenge story, littered with slashing samurai swords and bloodshed will be disappointed as Toyoda has more to say than just needless violence.
Already at the crossroads to heaven or hell, Toyoda has snared the interest of any viewer, but the best is yet to come as Oguri returns immobilised on a sledge unable to speak or move. God has given a helping hand by leaving instructions for any passer-by that good fortune will be bestowed on anyone that pulls the sledge towards its destination. Those that believe in a miracle pull the cart hoping that they will be bestowed with great merit when their time comes. It is here that Toyoda makes effective use of the tranquil landscape of the densely forested medieval Japan. A large portion of the film is the sledge pulling sequence and it never tires despite being shrouded in silence with only the engaging soundtrack for company with its mix of traditional and modern instruments.
The opening puller is none other than Mame Yamada ideally cast in the best Jodorowsky traditions and it is hard not to think of El Topo as the journey unfolds. It was the first reference Eastern Premise thought of when seeing Blood of Rebirth for the first time and it continues to this day. Somewhere along this journey Oguri will confront his nemesis and will encounter the runaway servant whilst remaining transfixed to his wooden altar. Take our word for it; the most unique of confrontation sequences awaits any first time viewer. Many criticise the use of CGI during this scene, but for Eastern Premise it brought back fond memories of SEGA’s remarkable Seaman Dreamcast title.
Clocking in at just 83 minutes, Toyoda shows skills in ensuring that the film does not dwell too long on its messages and every scene builds towards the climax. Crammed with memorable imagery, the film is a triumph of what can be achieved on such a limited budget with a creative team. For example Tatsuya Nakamura is a drummer by trade and also contributed to the soundtrack but he seems ideally suited to the lead role. As is the case with much of the work of this director, his films are not readily available outside of Japan and Blood of Rebirth continues this trend.