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Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Director shoots close to home

Director Toshiaki Toyoda recently took time to talk to me about his "Unchain," his new film about four young boxers in Osaka.

Toshiaki Toyoda

You made "Unchain" with the same company, Little More Films, that made "Pornostar."

Yes, but this time I used a digicam and, instead of a low budget, I had no budget. [Laughs] My own labor was free, of course -- I spent about five years working on it.

What got you started?

A friend invited me to a bout featuring a kick boxer named Garuda Tetsu. When I went I was immediately attracted by Garduda's style of fighting and became friends with him. From him I heard about Unchain Kaji, [Seiichiro] Nishibayashi and [Osamu] Nagaishi. I also heard about the attack on the Kamarasaki labor exchange and thought it would be interesting [to make a film about them].

Were you interested in martial arts before you started filming?

I've liked martial arts for a long time, particularly pro wrestling. [Laughs] I've been a big fan of Antonio Inoki since I was a kid.

Did you have any idea of a story line when you starred filming? What made you think these four guys were worth a full-length documentary?

They were very appealing in a human sense. It was a kind of instinct or premonition, if you will, but I thought I could make something interesting with them.

I didn't sense much emotional distance between you and your subjects -- you filmed them from an extremely close angle.

I don't know whether that's the best way to film, but it was the only way for me. First I had to become their friend, then I could start shooting. A lot of documentary filmmakers keep their distance from beginning to end. I felt like I was standing in the ring with them.

This was your first documentary film.

I never thought that I wanted to film a documentary. In fact, I don't really think of this film as a documentary. To me it's an entertainment film. The usual documentary is made strictly from a journalistic viewpoint. "Unchain" is not that kind of film. It's a drama with a story. It's my way for searching for a "real" documentary.

Were you influenced by any documentary filmmakers?

There wasn't anything quite like "Unchain" out there when I started filming. But in terms of documentary filmmakers, I suppose one [influence] was Shinsuke Ogawa, who spent years making documentaries [about rural Japan], living with the farmers and growing crops. I really like that kind of approach and wanted to follow his example, but the film I made turned out to be totally different. [Laughs]

It's not so much a boxing film as a drama about these four guys and their friendship with each other.

It didn't have to be about boxers at all. I used to be a shogi [Japanese chess] player -- the film could have been about shogi as well. But watching people punch each other is more interesting. [Laughs]

But you also have these very human moments, as when Kaji gets out of the hospital and meets his friend Nagaishi again.

I wanted to film that kind of thing -- the fact that friendship is not just nice words, but a tie that binds you in a deep way. These guys actually said a lot of nasty things about each other, but at the same time they accepted each other. They had the kind of ties that can't be easily broken. Whatever their differences, they're all fighters sharing a certain experience -- and they respect that in each other.

But the film also has its lighter moments -- as you said, these guys tell stories and crack jokes about each other.

That's essential. Without the comedy, it would be too sad and serious and real. In Osaka, everyone loves to laugh and everyone tells funny stories. Osaka people think it's cool to make others laugh.

You couldn't have made this film in Tokyo?

No way. Osaka's the only place that would allow a guy like Unchain Kaji to act so crazy. In Tokyo they would have caught him and put him in a hospital in no time flat. But in Osaka there are a lot of guys like him running around. [Laughs]

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