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Friday, Dec. 4, 2009
'Yomigaeri no Chi'
I am the resurrection
Drugs can finish you off in Japanese show business. One bust for possession spells the end to offers of every kind, from ad deals to drama-series roles to Christmas tree lightings. Theaters pull your latest film, your agency fires you and nobody wants to know you but your dog. In Hollywood, celebrity druggies often find professional redemption after going through rehab and confessing their sins to talk-show hosts. In Japan they often end up looking for another line of work.
When director Toshiaki Toyoda was arrested for possession of 3.9 grams of stimulants in August of 2005, he had just finished "Kuchu Teien" ("Hanging Garden"), a black dramady about a dysfunctional family that has made a ritual of truth-telling, while living lies. This funny, unsparing, poignant film was released to rave reviews (including one from me), but Toyoda went into the twilight for four years. (Not to prison, though: He was given a two-year suspended sentence. The justice system, unlike show business, tends to be lenient on first-time drug offenders.)
I wasn't terribly surprised by his arrest, to be honest. Toyoda had long taken outlaws, punks and other marginals as his subjects, starting with his 1998 feature debut "Pornostar" and continuing with the documentary "Unchain" (2001), the dystopian high school drama "Aoi Haru" ("Blue Spring," 2002) and the road movie "Nine Souls" (2003). Not as an anthropologist, either, keeping a safe distance from his subjects, but as a fellow rebel who not only sympathized with but partook of life on the social and, as it turned out, legal edge.
His gorgeously mounted (if cheaply made) comeback film "Yomigaeri no Chi" ("Blood of Rebirth") has this personal flavor, being about a wandering masseur who literally goes to the hell and back. But it is also a departure from his previous work, with a story based on the centuries-old Oguri Hangan legend that has inspired Kabuki and bunraku plays.
"Yomigaeri no Chi," however, is less a period drama than an alternative- universe fantasy that uses the legend only in outline, filling in the rest with Toyoda's own notions of an archaic netherworld where the only law is power and the line between the living and dead is porous.
Oguri (Twin Tail drummer Tatsuya Nakamura), a wandering masseur, walks into the camp of the local king, Daio (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) — and is promptly accosted by his glowering minions, itching to cut him down on the spot. Oguri, however, says he has an appointment and is ushered into the presence of Daio, who greets him with a crafty look and felinely menacing manner, as he luxuriates amid the barbarian splendors of his palace.
With the deeply lined face and knowing eyes of a Sybarite sage, Oguri momentarily placates the tyrant with his magic fingers. Daio, however, notices the way his princess, Terute (Mayu Kusakari), glances at Oguri with shy admiration and his jealousy is inflamed. He does not trust this free spirit, who owes allegiance to no one — and is not about to give it to him.
Daio has Oguri fatally poisoned, but when Oguri's soul appears before the guardian to the gates of heaven and hell (Itsuji Itao), he begs for a chance to return to the world of the living and claim his revenge. The bored guardian, munching on a watermelon, casually gives it to him. There is a condition, however — Oguri comes back to life as helpless as a baby. To become fully revived, he learns from a passing monk (Hirofumi Arai) that he must bathe in a remote hot spring called the "waters of resurrection." Meanwhile, Terute is plotting escape — and dreaming of Oguri.
Toyoda tells this story with the deliberate pace, portentous mood and over-ripe visual glamour of a silent-era period spectacle. (With his kohl-rimmned eyes and golden headdress, Daio looks like a worthy villain for the likes of Rudolph Valentino or Douglas Fairbanks.)
At the same time, the psychedelic music of the two-man ensemble Twin Tail, whose performances Toyoda has been recording since its formation in 2005, bring a contemporary sensibility to the proceedings, with the spare, hypnotic drumming of Nakamura and the sinuous, keening sounds of violinist Yuji Katsui suggesting both the hero's isolation — and his pent-up rage. At times the music and visuals meld — and we seem to be watching a Twin Tail music video, with Oguri/Nakamura supplying the vocals.
There is plenty of red — Toyoda's signature color — in "Yomigaeri no Chi," intensifying the imagery of sensuality, decadence, passion and bloody, violent death. In other words, Toyoda is back to his old excesses, if with a new, more mature sensibility. Some fans will no doubt miss the anarchic energy of "Pornostar," still Toyoda's best film, whose punk hero is an untamed force of nature, defying the yakuza and God alike.
But when you look over the edge of the abyss — and the abyss looks back — sometimes you sober up. And sometimes you fall in. Toyoda seems to have made the former choice, for now.