BLUE SPRING (2001)
A Japanese high school film like no other!
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Cast: Ryûhei Matsuda, Hirofumi Arai, Sôsuke Takaoka, Yusuke Oshiba, Yuta Yamazaki
Related films: 9 Souls, Hanging Garden, Crows Zero, Battle Royale
Blue Spring is a film of contrasts. It’s about organized chaos, chaotic beauty, caring monsters and monstrous innocence. The story and its characters are cold and distancing, and yet, the tale of desperation and misguided youths quickly pulls you in.
Blue Spring is colored by cherry blossoms and the bloodshed of teenage delinquents!
Director Toshiaki Toyoda is a man of contrast himself. At the age of nine, he was on the path to become a professional shogi-player (Japanese chess). At age 17 he quit shogi and became a promising filmmaker. At 30 he was arrested and handed a suspended prison sentence.
It might be a stretch to call Blue Spring a reflection of Toyoda’s nonconformist ways. That being said, the mix of lower-class high school violence, yankee manga and teenage punk fashion was a match made in heaven when handled by the young director.
Blue Spring is the second full-length film Toyoda made. It came four years prior to Hanging Garden, which - in the eyes of JCA - is his masterpiece. Blue Spring is a strong number two, much due to the naiveté of a budding filmmaker in search of his own style.
Prior to the release of Hanging Garden, Toyoda faced drug charges in Japan. As a result, he was shunned by the Japanese film industry. Whether this changed him as a director is hard to say. However, his movies thereafter all seem to lack the playful creativity that gave Blue Spring and Hanging Garden such high replay-value.
The story in Blue Spring is based on a manga collection of short stories, written by Taiyô Matsumoto. He also wrote the mangas that became the basis for the movie Ping Pong (2002) and the anime Tekkonkinkreet (2006). According to Matsumoto Blue Spring came to be because of his fandom of Japanese teenage punk culture.
The graduate students at Asahi High School start their final year with a suicidal game. The winner will be in charge, not only of his clique of delinquents, but the high school’s dilapidated hallways and everyone therein. Junior students, classmates, and even teachers had better surrender, or else…
Fall in line or get a high five… in the face… with an iron baseball bat!
We follow a gang of six youngsters who spend more time playing hooky than attending class. They are in constant opposition and terrorize their fellow students with passive aggressive domination techniques, yet they adhere to their own twisted sense of rule and hierarchies.
Somewhere along the line the current crew leader starts to reflect on his life choices. When asking the school gardener if there exist flowers that never bloom, it seems to reflect an awareness of the youth he is wasting. All flowers bloom, just like all teens become adults.
Though the gang leader realizes the error of his ways, his second in command strongly opposes the change in attitude. This leads to a shift in both leadership and level of terror. The new kid in charge has a lot of teenage angst to let out, and a lot of kneecaps to break.
Between the lines
The recurring theme of flowers is nothing unique in the context of Japanese cinema. Cherry blossoms are more often than not applied to reflect the fleeting beauty of youth, nature and life in general. The juxtaposition of blooming and decay in Blue Spring is atypical, however.
The contrast between cherry blossoms and the shabby high school grounds does not only coincide with the chaotic mental state of teenage kids, but also points to dualities in Japanese society: Comfort and despair, opposition and conformity, belonging and isolation.
The kids’ confusion is perhaps overstated, but nonetheless poignant. One second they are friends who cut each other’s hair, the next they stab each other to death in a public restroom. The harsh atmosphere might not be relatable, but it is not so far fetched.
In the 70s and 80s, violence and sometimes murder was not unheard of in lower-class Japanese high schools. The kids in such institutions knew from the day they enrolled that there was no chance for them to get good jobs or careers in Japan. Academic progress might indeed seem pointless when your only future prospects are chimpira (low-class yakuza) recruiters.
It is no coincidence that baseball and power plays occupy these youngsters’ minds. It is also no coincidence that they have run-ins with bikers, gangsters and the police. The hierarchies in Japan start at kindergarten level. Those lacking the right connection or the ability to get a foot in the right door is left behind, something Toyoda seem to know all too well.
Tom Mes at Midnight Eye argues that Blue Spring underlines the universal need in humans to rule and regulate. Japan, in particular, has a very strict sense of hierarchy in all walks of life. The pecking order is pretty much the same, whether you are a criminal or a politician. Therefore, society would not change much, even if the kids in Blue Spring were left in charge.
The mood is striking as the opening sequence parallel that of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. In fact, Blue Spring’s lowbrow antics, uncompromising violence and nihilistic dialogue make it feel like a Japanese Tarantino-film on more than one occasion.
The combination of unafraid filmmaking and manga-influences is both a strength and weakness in Blue Spring. On the one hand, the film is one of the most original high school films you’ll ever see. On the other, the characters appear somewhat caricatured at times.
The mysterious drawings and graffiti that are spread all over the school make for a borderline apocalyptic atmosphere. The teenagers’ punk-inspired attire, as well as the soundtrack further strengthens this mood. (All the songs are performed by the Japanese garage rock band called Thee Michelle Gun Elephant - TMGE).
Blue Spring is like the Mad Max of high school dramas
Though Blue Spring can be labeled ultra-violent, the on-screen bashings are kept at a minimum. Bludgeoning, stabbing and nose breakings are kept in the shadows or in the corner of the camera’s eye.
Toyoda mixes strong graphic content with art-house cinema tendencies. Brutality in contrast to cherry trees in full bloom and ethereal dialogue could easily have mismatched, but works well, due to seamless transitions.
That being said, the story suffers somewhat from the film’s short runtime. Aside from the two protagonists there are not much character development to be found. The narrative is not particularly fast paced, but somehow the story feels slightly rushed.
In short, this is a multilayered, postmodern film, which is unique even in the context of Japanese cinema. Directing attention to the underbelly of Japanese society is unusual in the context of high school dramas.
The contrasts in characters and story give Blue Spring great re-play value. Hopefully the re-launch of Toyoda’s films overseas will give him both the respect he deserves, and the confidence needed to regain the playfulness of his early days as a filmmaker. Here’s hoping that his run-ins with the law didn’t make his youthful creativity wilt completely away.
This review is based on the 2019 release of Blue Spring from Third Window Films. The image black levels in the HD version are greatly improved, which is a godsend, since much of the scenes are set in dark corners and poorly lit hallways.
Due to the quality of the source material, the images are grainy at times, but this only adds grit to the already grimy design, and fits the overall atmosphere like a glove. Blue Spring never looked better. The JCA seal of approval is well deserved.
Comics212: Interview - Taiyô Matsumoto (1995)
Blueprint Review: Blue Spring – Third Window Films
The Japan Times: The changing motives behind juvenile crime in Japan
Midnight Eye: Blue Spring
National Institute for Educational Policy Research: Upper secondary education in Japan
Take One Cinema: TFF2012 - Interview with Toshiaki Toyoda
Windows on Worlds: Blue Spring (青い春, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2001)