Thursday, January 22, 2009

REVIEW: Pornostar (a.k.a. Tokyo Rampage)

ポルノスター Poruno sutâ

Released: 1998

Toshiaki Toyoda

Kôji Chihara
Rin Ozawa

Tetta Sugimoto
Akaji Maro

Running time: 98 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Many of you will probably know Toshiaki Toyoda from “Blue Spring” and “Nine Souls”, but it wasn’t until last year that his first film “Pornostar” (1998) was picked up and released on a region 1 DVD. The title, one that Toyoda explained as a kind of play on words where “porno” denotes something sleazy and chaotic, and “star” represents a celestial body or planet (ending up with “Chaos Planet” I suppose) was changed to an equally inappropriate title, “Tokyo Rampage”. Neither title really does justice to the Yojimbo-like story line of a nameless anti-hero, played by Koji Chihara, weighted down by a gym bag filled with knives who wanders into a dangerous and violent feud between rival yakuza gangs in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

When we first meet, let’s call him Mr. X for convenience sake, he’s on the subway pulling into Shibuya station, and it’s not long before he literally runs into a pair of scalpers working the crowd outside a theatre. We learn very quickly that these two are local yakuza, and we learn just as quickly that Mr. X hates yakuza. “You’re not needed,” he growls at the scalpers, before they grab him and cart him off to their headquarters for a talking to.

Meanwhile Toyoda introduces us to Kamijo (played by Toyoda regular and a former gang member Onimura). With a small gang of yakuza wannabes Kamijo dabbles in selling drugs and running a crew of escorts, all pretty small time stuff. Still Kamijo has his sights set high. He’s on his way to see “The Old Man” (Akaji Maro), a yakuza boss who has his hands full with a turf war against rival yakuza boss Matsunaga (Tetta Sugimoto) over the spoils of Shibuya. Kamijo doesn’t trust The Old Man, nor should he. He’s pressuring Kamijo into “sharing the cup” (a term meaning to share a ritual cup of sake and become a full fledged yakuza) and to kill Matsunaga for him. Kamijo doesn’t want to become another pawn in The Old Man’s game, but his offers to Kamijo are slowly turning into threats. It isn’t until one of the two scalpers, blood gushing from a knife wound to the chest, stumbles into The Old Man’s office followed by Mr X that Kamijo sees his way out. Instead of killing this crazy kid like the Old Man tells him Kamijo makes a deal with Mr. X and tells him if he wants to kill yakuza then he knows the yakuza to kill.

There’s a really interesting dynamic between Kamijo, the young street tough who in reality is a coward and a mama’s boy and Mr. X, the muscle that Kamijo wants to use to get his own piece of the Shibuya pie. Mutual need, fear, and violence keep them together, but unlike in “Yojimbo” Mr X. isn’t a cool and calculating observer of human nature feeling out a volatile situation. Instead Mr. X is insane, plain and simple. Cut off from everyone around him he’s obsessed with killing yakuza, with the meaning of epitaphs, and with knives. Some of the most brilliant moments in “Pornostar” revolve around Mr. X’s hallucinations involving knives including a rain shower that he sees as a shower of switchblades falling from the night sky. And it’s Mr. X’s insanity that is Kamijo’s ultimate undoing; dealing with Mr X. is like trying to harness a hurricane against your enemies. It can’t be done.

I have to say that I didn’t like “Pornostar” upon first viewing it and I only liked it slightly more when I popped it in a second time. There are simply too many unanswered questions like why does Mr X. harbour this hatred of yakuza, what does the Summer of Love rave that Kamijo’s escort goes on about have to do with anything, and who exactly is the tattooed hit woman working for? Fans of Toyoda (like myself) may very well be disappointed with his first film, but casual viewers may enjoy it for its bloody walk on the wild side.

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