Itsuji ItaoMame YamadaTakuji SuzukiEmiko Matsuoka
The Blood of Rebirth
Medium: film
Year: 2009
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Writer: Hangan Oguri, Toshiaki Toyoda
Keywords: historical
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Tatsuya Nakamura, Mayuu Kusakari, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Hirofumi Arai, Itsuji Itao, Mame Yamada, Masao Kusakari, Goichi Kushino, Ichi Kyokaku, Emiko Matsuoka, Rinako Matsuoka, Masato Murakami, Hironari Ohshima, Takuji Suzuki
Format: 83 minutes
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 21 June 2013
Unappealing and slow. It's also set in a historical period that looks both boring and wildly unpleasant.
Tatsuya Nakamura plays a masseur with the bad luck to have Kiyohiko Shibukawa as his latest client. Shibukawa is a barbarian and an utter bastard. He's the lord of his neck of the woods, probably because he killed everyone else. He's got a painful venereal disease, which he thinks is going to kill him and we're hoping the same. Shibukawa's strategies for coping with this are:
(a) to behead all his sex slaves, because he's got no way of knowing which one gave the disease to him.
(b) to hire a masseur and kill him if having one's back massaged doesn't turn out to be a cure for inflamed gonads.
It's not clear whether this is evil, stupidity or best medical theory at that time. More importantly, though, you don't care. He's a bastard and not even an interesting one. He also gets a gratuitous scene where he clumsily decapitates lots of live fish right in front of the camera, which I suspect even Japanese audiences will have found unpleasant. You want him dead... no, actually, on second thoughts you want him to live for years, writhing in agony throughout every second of it. (The film's most entertaining bit is Shibukawa yelling in pain because of his sufferings in the trouser department.)
Other important characters include Nakamura (our hero), Mayuu Kusakari (a girl being saved up by Shibukawa for when his gonads have healed) and Itsuji Itao (whom I presume is playing Enma, Lord of the Underworld). Itao only gets one scene, but it's important. You'll have noticed the movie's title. I'll stop describing the plot now for fear of spoilers, although I will mention that it's adapted from a stage play that's based loosely on the story of Oguri Hangan Daisukeshige (1398-1464). Our hero, Nakamura, seems like an intelligent, philosophical kind of guy, which is a bit different from the violent original but we can live with that for the sake of a movie. Meanwhile Kusakari seems nice, but doesn't show much personality. She's a crucial character in the story, but she gets even less dialogue than Nakamura and he's hardly chatty.
Itao's fun, though. You'll be glad to know that the gateway to the afterlife is in the hands of a relaxed, down-to-earth dude who doesn't look busy and eats watermelon. No, wait, I forgot someone. There's also a funky dwarf in red, although sadly he's not around long. There's nothing that can't be improved by having a dwarf in it.
The problem with all this is that it feels drawn-out and overlong, despite the short running time. Not much happens and even less of it has any dialogue. It's simple drama of the kind that would play just as well if the people were animals instead. I'd have liked that better, I think. I'd have made stronger emotional connections to a dog... and I say that despite not even being much of a fan of dogs. I'm oversimplifying, of course. Shibukawa's evil and stupidity is utterly human and of course the Lord Enma scene would be a challenge, but the power relationships and simple motivations (sex, power, revenge) would translate. Nakamura's character would have worked better if played by a dog. As for Kusakari's, you'd hardly notice any difference. (That's not a dig at the actress, who's competent, pretty and doing everything the role requires, but that's really not a complicated role she's been given.)
The film's first act is the least uninteresting. Shibukawa gets more screen time and at least he's definitely human. The problem is that he's got no opposition, which means no drama. No one opposes him. He just acts like a lout and everyone bows their head and lets him, which is... well, it's dull. Nonetheless, at least you can't say he's not colourful.
Unfortunately the human content (for lack of a better term) gets thinner as we go on. I liked Nakamura and Kusakari, but they do stuff like dragging/carrying each other through the forest or along a river. Gee. Well, at least the river was a change of scenery. The "raaah" in the pool drags on too long too.
The resurrection stuff is bonkers, though, and has enough surprises that you could even call it thought-provoking. I liked the Hungry Ghost stuff and the different viewpoints, while I don't think I'd ever before seen a fight between electric floating severed heads. That's psychedelic. Despite being boring, this film has a decent amount of insanity and I can imagine it going down a storm with stoners and hippies. It's a shame it wasn't made forty years earlier.
Why did I watch this film? Answer: probably its director. Toshiaki Toyoda's a fairly big name, having started out as a child prodigy in shogi (Japanese chess) before moving into movies. I'm in no great hurry to see his early work (e.g. Unchain, which is a documentary that cheats), but he'd been building a reputation with films like Blue Spring and 9 Souls when he got arrested on drug charges in 2005. In Japan, that's a big deal. It wasn't clear that he'd ever revive his career, but he did and The Blood of Rebirth was his first film after that drugs hiatus. (His latest work, currently in post-production, has the brilliant title of Crows Explode.) During those years off, he worked with indie rock band Twin Tail and as it happens their drummer, Nakamura, is also the lead actor in this film.
This isn't a bad film, as such. The acting's quite good, including Nakamura. The cinematography's pretty. It's cosmic and trippy. The storyline's simple and there's not enough of it for the running time, but it's the simplicity of myths and legends. I can imagine this being a hit with lovers of art cinema and/or people who are stoned out of their heads. At one point I thought a death had been too quick and painless, but a surprise was coming. There's stuff I like in here... but I still found it dreary and a slog.