Friday, August 14, 2009

REVIEW: Blue Spring

青い春 (Aoi Haru)

Released: 2001

Director: Toshiaki Toyoda

Ryuhei Matsuda
Hirofumi Arai
Sosuke Takaoka
Yuta Yamazaki

Mame Yamada

Running time: 83 min.

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

Sometimes films are so beautiful they make me cry. Sometimes films are so subtly funny they make me laugh inside. Sometimes films leave me in awe at their cinematic bravura. And on a very rare occasion, a film can do all three. "Blue Spring" did all three and more. Toshiyaki Toyada has a talent for turning simple, mundane situations into emotional, heartfelt moments. Shadows of friends cast behind them as they have their picture taken, their impertinence a running theme through the entire film. Montages of the group walking across the roof of their school in a slow motion montage cut to rock music, the lines in the hierarchical sand between them drawn through way of creative intercutting. The film is able to remain appeasing on both an intellectual level and an entirely visceral level.

"Blue Spring" is based on Taiyo Matsumoto’s short manga series of the same name. Taking place entirely at Kitano high school, it’s a school full of delinquents and misfits. It follows a group of friends in their last semester before they graduate, the last spring before they become adults. They deal with their impending sense of false freedom in various ways, most of which are self destructive. Paralleling the lives of miserable, passionless teachers that live in fear of the students, or the desperate, seedy Yakuza who patrol the fences of the school, looking for vulnerable, lonely prey to recruit for their gangs, the film, like the manga does little to give specific reasons for why they act the way they do. Instead, they opt to keep the viewer in the confines of the school. Nothing outside its walls is seen. There are no families. No trips. No girlfriends. In fact, the only female present is a friendly nurse at the school, who shows more compassion in her few moments with the students than any other adult in the film. The halls of the school are dark and grungy, covered in black graffiti, students constantly seen adding to the wall art. The environment is dark and dirty, confining the children into a hierarchy they either reject or crave.

It’s in this murky soup that "Blue Spring" acts out. Taking several stories from the manga series, particularly "If Your Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands" and weaving them into one coherent story, the film opens with Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda) and his best friend Aoki (Hirofumi Arai) participating in a suicidal clapping game. They hang over the edge of the roof, and whoever can clap the most times before grabbing onto the railing, saving them from certain death, becomes the new boss of the school. Kujo, who has no fear of death, or of anything for that matter, easily wins, and Aoki and their friends rally behind him. They become the kings of the school, and their last days seem like they’ll end on a positive note. But instead they’re numb and complacent. Even Kujo is impartial to his new role as boss. And as he slowly treats his position with nonchalance, some of his brothers view him with content. Hierarchy must be upheld!

The disaffected youth subgenre of film is already filled with poignant and blood soaked masterpieces such as "Battle Royale" and "Fudoh: The New Generation", and "Blue Spring" could have easily turned into a copy cat blood bath. Instead little violence is shown on screen. There are stabbings, beatings and other various acts of violence, but even they are depicted in a disenchanting way. A beautiful twist on "Lord of the Flies", Toshiyaki Toyada takes a narratively challenging manga, adds some great music from Thee Michelle Elephant Gun, casts the always compelling Ryuhei Matsuda and mixes it all with a cinematic structure that subtly underscores are all the right emotional beats while still remaining visually compelling. Its like eye candy and brain candy all at once.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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