The Blood of Rebirth (2009)
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Writers: Toshiaki Toyoda
Starring: Tatsuya Nakamura, Mayuu Kusakari and Kiyohiko Shibukawa

The Plot: The film deals with a popular Japanese legend about a wandering adventurer known as Oguri (full name Oguri Hangan Daisukeshige), but our story here ventures down a different path than most versions of the story. Here, Oguri (played by Tatsuya Nakamura) is a masseuse who, while wandering the forest, encounters lord Daizen (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who has contracted an STD that has caused his testicles to swell to mammoth proportions. While searching for anyone and everyone who can possibly help him with his ordeal, he comes in contact with Oguri who doesn’t want to be burdened by staying in one place for too long. However, after some idle threats the masseuse ends up agreeing to a partnership with the evil lord. Unfortunately, the lord begins to feel jealous about Oguri and his ability to pleasure others. After seeing his virginal future lover Tarue (whom he plans to save until after he is cured of his STD) given a massage by the wanderer, he makes a decision to kill off the masseuse. A feat that he accomplishes that very evening. When the masseuse awakens in the afterlife he is given the choice to do whatever he wishes. Rather than moving on to heaven, the masseuse decides to return to earth. In order to do that he will have to return as a hungry ghost and must remain in a sitting fashion, to be dragged across the countryside by whatever stranger agrees to do the job. When he reaches his destination, the spring of rebirth, he will be able to fully return to human form!

The Review
For those of you who don’t know me personally, you may not be aware of my adoration and love for Japanese filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda. With his first four films (excluding the documentary Unchain, which I plan to finally see sometime soon), he cemented himself as one of my favorite living directors. Why is his work so spectacular? Well, it helps to see his work for yourself, but ostensibly he takes incredibly hip and cool concepts but gives them depth and life in ways that most filmmakers simply couldn’t. His films are filled with subtext, complicated characters and a brilliant control of music and emotional content. An extremely talented filmmaker, his work is heralded by those who have seen his films but he still remains relatively unknown outside of Asian film circles. This is a shame, really, since his work can speak to all audiences. Keeping in mind that his films all have a very hip and youth-centered focus (aside from Hanging Garden, but even then there are youthful characters throughout and it takes place in a very modern setting), I was a bit surprised when I first read about Toyoda doing a period piece. I honestly didn’t know what to make of the idea. The end result for The Blood of Rebirth however turns out as something completely unique in cinema and it shows a lot of the filmmakers interest, even if it doesn’t come off as his most triumphant effort.

After first hearing about this project I think I was just glad to hear that Toyoda was returning to work after such a long hiatus. For those of you who don’t keep up with the filmmaker, the reason for this hiatus was not his own doing. Right around the time that Hanging Garden was to be released, Toyoda was busted with “stimulants” and given three years of probation. Within the Japanese entertainment world, this isn’t the small little speed bump that such a thing tends to be in the world of Hollywood. A weekend of TMZ reports followed by a month of rehab essentially cleans the slate with the American public, but within Japan such actions can be quite damning. All one has to do is look up the career of Reiko Ike to see just how damning such a thing can be. So, Toyoda ended up being shelved for several years with his only notable project being a live on-stage video/audio project with a rock group known as Twin Tail. It is worth noting that Twin Tail also helped with the music here in Blood of Rebirth. Toyoda apparently also produced the band’s first album, and their live show was attributed with a video montage directed by the filmmaker that flowed along with the music. After years of nothing and without warning, it is ultimately announced that Toshiaki Toyoda is back and his project would be the retelling of an ancient Japanese legend. Although I found myself ecstatic to hear about him working again, I couldn’t help but wonder how his very pop-culture influenced/hip/contemporary style with these old world sensibilities?

Surprisingly, with all of the problems that The Blood of Rebirth may actually have, mixing Toyoda’s style into this period piece actually isn’t one of them. Truthfully, if there is a problem with the influx of style here, it may be that Toyoda is too excessive here. Long known for his use of slow motion and thudding rock music film scores, Toyoda once again incorporates these ideas into his film but with The Blood of Rebirth the project begins to feel as if it is long on style and short on content. Clocking in with a running time of 83 minutes, this is not a terribly long feature and unfortunately there are a tremendous number of scenes that seem to drag it out until the pacing simply falls apart. The majority of these moments come during the latter half of the production, but the stronger opening minutes aren’t enough to really save the film. Although that sounds depressingly negative when talking about the film, this isn’t a terrible piece of work by any stretch of the imagination. Watching the film and taking into consideration that this is an experiment in style and that it pushes the boundaries between the musical and the cinematic… this can be a rewarding watch, I have no questions about that. However, as far as a continuation in the progressive career of Toshiaki Toyoda, sure this is a bit of a disappointment.

There’s never a moment in the film that we aren’t fully aware that this is a Toyoda piece. From the opening minutes that are fueled by a rocking drum-laden piece of instrumental music, to the ending which certainly illustrates his perfection of slow motion to fully capture tiny dramatic moments. This film, despite the period setting, has the Toyoda brand stamped all over it. Even the STD that our evil Lord has contracted helps remind me of Toyoda’s earlier efforts and his sometimes juvenile sense of humor (ie: the feces scene in Blue Spring). His description of his testicles as being swollen “like pumpkins” is equally disgusting and humorous at the same time. Toyoda’s flare for violence is also brought back into the limelight, as one sequence which is bound to catch the ire of fish lovers the world over greatly showcases. Toyoda’s appreciation for silent character exploration while also displaying some incredibly grisly visuals is both intriguing and slightly revolting at the same time. All of this ultimately adds up to the strange hypnotic quality that the film has over its audience. It is far from Toyoda’s best work, but it shows an interesting path for the filmmaker to walk and I’m interested in seeing just what he will take from this experience in the future.

The Conclusion
There has been a great deal of talk about The Blood of Rebirth as being a title that examines Toyoda’s own troubles with the law and his hope to be reborn as an artist and a man. After all, much of the story seems to focus on one man’s ultimate redemption. It is a good vehicle for Toyoda to build upon the musical experimentation that he has been working on during his off season, but as a feature length film it of course has its problems. I ultimately give the film a three out of five, as I did like it on a general basis. However, I am hoping for a lot more from Toyoda as he finds a new voice and once again delivers a strong and rich narrative, with touching and heartfelt characters.