Blue Spring


Jul 10, 2008
This review was originally written between 2003-2006 and has since been slightly edited. The opinion remains the same as the original posting, but slight errors have been revised or smoothed out.

Plot Outline: We begin atop a Japanese high school. The students have broken the lock to get in, a teacher runs away fearing for his life and the children are beginning to line up on the outside of a rail four stories above the ground. They all hold themselves on the rail, almost in utter boredom, until one the classmates gives the yell for “one!” and they all fall backwards and clap their hands. After the clap, they immediately reach back up for the bar. This is an initiation. He who claps the most without falling to their death wins and becomes the new ruler of the school. For this occasion Kujo (played by up and coming star Ryuhei Matsuda) is our winner, and he and his friend Aoki (played by Hirofumi Arai) begin to run things. The only problem is that Kujo finds this power boring, and has no intention of brutalizing his classmates. Aoki on the other hand, who has always been extremely close with his friend Kujo, sees things differently. He wants the power, but most of all, he wants the respect. As of the moment though, everyone sees Aoki as Kujo’s errand boy. Regardless of whether it’s true or not, the power begins to go to Aoki’s head, and a confrontation might just be on the way.


The Review
Before I started getting into cinema hard and heavy, I don’t think I ever had too many truly favorite films. The word essentially meant something I would watch repeatedly at that time. I never suspected I could find a film that could emotionally exhaust me so much to the point that re-watching would take time to regain control, nor ever expected to find a film that would leave me breathless after watching it. I can’t remember what the first film that made me have a true insatiable love for cinema was, particularly Asian cinema, but I do remember the first few big films to truly give me this addiction. The first two were probably Battle Royale and Audition. Two equally great films from two very different angles that both left me speechless. Now, the reason I bring this up is that films such as these are few and far in between. For me, I would be lucky if I found one film out of a hundred that gave me this euphoric feeling. It comes from the destruction of all laws in cinema, it comes from seeing something uniquely beautiful, it comes from the general passion of film. The last Japanese movie that really set me over the edge was probably Takashi Miike’s ‘Ichi the Killer’. Since then I have of course watched dozens of fantastic films from wonderful directors all worthy of praise, but not since Ichi the Killer had I sat in my seat dumbfounded by a cinematic experience. That is until the folks over at Artsmagic DVD sent me a copy of Blue Spring. I had heard of Toshiaki Toyoda from several places, and I’ve been searching for his first film Pornostar for ages now. I had knowledge of Blue Spring beforehand that certainly had me intrigued, but I had not been blasted with hype for the film so did not go too far out of my way to see it. When the film showed up on my door step, I literally had no idea what to expect. Eighty three minutes after first hitting the play button, I laid in my bed, I put my hands over my head and I shouted. Not from anything in particular, other than the need to somehow in some form or another let the world know I had just had an experience that defied description. Blue Spring is not the greatest film I have ever seen, I will not go so far as to say that, but with the energy, excitement and emotion the film fills me with just by thinking of it, I would go so far as to say it is in my top three as of the moment. Perhaps it will take the number one position in the coming days.

Blue Spring doesn’t turn it’s back on all the rules of modern Yakuza films, there are things you’ll see in the film you may have seen used elsewhere. It doesn’t aim to redefine gang-related cinema or anything that ambitious, but if you ask me, the film could have if it had been the goal. It has the air that anything and everything could happen with this filmmaker. It doesn’t make the film special just because we’re watching a yakuza script unfold in a high school. That may be the setting, but it’s hardly the focus. These characters are human, they have friends and they have goals. The fact that they are so young isn’t there to be exploitative, it’s there to make a point about modern Japan. There are running criticisms of the Japanese school system through the course of the film, but only in the background. The only thing that really matters in the world of Blue Spring is friendship and loyalty. A friendship that could only arise with children and their open minded ideals. This is where the heart of the story takes place, this is where the focus will always be held, because the storytelling is so rich and poignant that it can never grow old. Blue Spring touches on so many issues dealing with young people. From growing up, getting into a good school, to seeing your friends and yourself change, it’s simple stuff told in a huge and organic way. The film is always on it’s toes and perhaps the pace of the film slows down at points, but never without cause or justification.

This is not an action movie, but it’s not devoid of entertainment either. Based upon a popular manga by artist Taiyou Matsumoto, Toyoda brought the film to the screen as a way to pay back the author for doing some artwork for his first films. You would assume that with such a humble reasoning for the film being made that it would lack any intellectual input, but you would also be wrong. The film is complex, subtle, nuisance in delivery and above all, an emotional experience. Toyoda crafted something so elegant and exuberant that it’s almost impossible for me to look away once it starts. I don’t know if the same will hold true for every viewer, I can only give you my understanding of what makes it so great. Every passing day and the more thought I put into the film, the more my love and passion for it grows. It might be too violent for some viewers I have to imagine. Seeing kids beat, maim and murder one another sounds pretty bad on paper, but on screen it may just prove to be too harsh. Not that Blue Spring is exploitative in the way that it goes about showing the violence, that is never the case. It is a case of less is more as Toyoda demonstrates that violence is more than just the impact of a bludgeoning weapon. It is everything that leads up to the impact that makes us flinch. The relationships we develop with the characters comes from the fact that some of them truly do seem so innocent and perhaps even pure. They are young and don’t yet realize the implications that some of their actions will have and seeing someone in such a situation having to endure pain is instantly distressing. It’s not an uncommon device, but Blue Spring is much more effective than most films that try and disturb and audience, and it does so without actually showing anything.

The cinematography in the film is fantastic, to spin things in a simple manner. With a film as hip as Blue Spring so obviously is, you would probably expect a lot of speedy cuts and hyper pacing, but that’s not the case. Blue Spring is cool in a laid back in a mellow form. There are things like the opening sequence, which features the cast walking in slow motion while a hard rock song plays over the soundtrack, where no matter how hard your pretentious alarm might ring out there’s no way to dislike it for being cliché. Even within all the style, there is a point based around storytelling. As the track “Red Head Kerry” performed by Thee Michelle Gun Elephant plays atop the visuals, we are introduced to the rivalry between Kujo and Aoki, we are shown bits of personality in the way the characters walk and react to one another. The slowed down shots captured are breathtaking in the way that they work alongside the music. The sequence includes a memorable shot of Aoki looking past his shoulder to check on Kujo, and without saying a word we know that he is the weaker of the two. The sequence concludes in a crane shot off the side of the school before we’re finally given the title marker. Within this two or three minute sequence, we’re given the centerpiece for much of the drama later focused on during the course of the film. Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, who provide the majority of music for the film should immediately top your list of CD’s to buy after the film is over. Along with the opening track, they also lend two versions of the same song for the conclusion. A studio version of the song “Drop” for the finale, and a live version that plays over the credits. The conclusion of the film, without question tops the list of most emotionally draining sequences I have ever seen. It’s hard to talk about it without giving anything away, but the ending is almost enough to bring tears to your eyes. An explosive use of energy, editing, music and emotional investment. I haven’t had goosebumbs such as those I get from this sequence since the first time I watched the final duel in Once Upon A Time in the West. This cinematic achievement simply would not be possible without the immense talent of the leading actors, and the brilliant filmmaker behind the camera. Ryuhei Matsuda who plays Kujo is probably the best known stateside for his role in the film Gohatto (Taboo), and although I have not seen that film, I have to imagine his performance here would be hard to top. He’s everything one would expect from a ‘pretty-boy’, but even through this he is still an emotionally well rounded character. He doesn’t rely on his ‘image ‘ to let him slide through the scenes where he has to abandon such things. He can get down right intense when need be. His persona is extremely mellow, but there’s a dichotomy of rage and kindness inside of him. There’s not an abundance of melodrama called for, but Matsuda invests himself in the character and his performance is ultimately very lively because of it. Hirofumi Arai who plays Aoki gets the more active role of the two. Perhaps a bit more formulaic in outward appearances, he sells the role earnestly. He starts off as a loving friend, becomes jealous of his friends power and disenfranchised by his lowly position and ultimately his character becomes a lost soul in chaos and violence. The second half of the film shows a much darker side of Aoki who arises with a faux-mohawk and takes on a more intense and obviously more interesting character from there on out. He adds a ferocity to the film that I can’t quite put into words. His performance goes from being ‘interesting’ to something out of this world and in your face. Not only in a pseudo-cool manner, but in a gritty and brutal form. He literally becomes everything ‘Kujo’ tries to avoid, and by doing so out of spite, becomes nothing more than a shell of hate.

Artsmagic, god bless ’em. Just getting this film released on an R1 disc is enough for me, but they also gave it a well rounded release it probably wouldn’t have received anywhere else. The picture quality of the film looks all around great, presented in 16:9 and anamorphic. I can think of one scene that has a little bit of pixelation as the camera focuses in on a shot far, far away towards the conclusion, but I think this was most likely done by way of a digital effect and not anything to do with the transfer. Other than that, I have no complaints, but as some might know, I’m a relatively easy guy to please. The sound is as excellent in presentation as well. One of the things I most appreciate about the release is the cover art. A seemingly somewhat homoerotic shot of Kujo and Aoki standing only inches away from each other with cigarettes in their mouths. Although the shot might be taken out of context to someone who has not seen the film, once you have actually sat through the scene the shot is from, all you will remember is the tension between the two and it makes for a beautiful poster. The extras are also quite a treat. After watching as many imported Chinese discs of Asian films, or just flat out bootlegs, you begin to forget what it is like to hear from the filmmakers or those who know. Artsmagic gives the film a couple of fairly detailed interviews with director Toshiaki Toyoda who explains his career up to the time. He goes over his past as a competitive chess player, his introduction to cinema and even explains how he wishes he could remake his first film! They also include another fantastic commentary track with Tom Mes as they did with Full Metal Yakuza. I swear, the man knows so much about the industry that I fear his head may someday explode. He always has something to include while the film is running and it’s almost always interesting. Once you’ve heard it you’ll no doubt even see how he influenced my perception of the film with this very review. There are also biograhies/filmographies for the cast which come in handy for placing names with faces and such, as well as artwork for other Artsmagic releases.

The Conclusion
Artsmagic have done a great thing in releasing Blue Spring for the populace at large. Although the film has a rather modest fanbase behind it right now, I expect nothing but larger things in the future. It is well deserving of any success films like Ichi the Killer, Battle Royale or Audition have had, and more. It’s a coherent and multilayered exploration of youth. A pop imagery smorgasbord of style as well as a youth-related film that should bowl over all audiences willing to accept something original. I have no other choice than to give it a five. A new classic and one of the best films I have seen in many years. I realize that is a tremendous amount of hype and I ask anyone going to see it to take my ravings with a grain of salt because if I were to fill anyone with false promises and have them ultimately dislike the film for it, I would feel trampled. I recommend everyone to at least give it a shot though, I sincerely believe most of you won’t be let down.