So I ended up watching Toshiaki Toyoda’s second film after his first and third respectively. Arguably it’s a pretty good order to watch them in because Blue Spring (2001) really feels like the bridge between his first, Pornostar, and third, 9 Souls; we witness Toyoda’s increasing confidence, even if Blue Spring is not quite executed with the same level of skill that he illustrates in 9 Souls. But don’t hold that against it .
“In this shithole of a school, baseball was my only flower.”
In a dilapidated school, Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda) wins the potentially deadly clapping game to become the head of the gang that runs it. Apathy drifts through the buildings like a miasma and Kujo is clearly not interested in being the boss, something his friend, Aoki (Hirofumi Arai), recognises and starts to take over after a series of violent incidents.
Only in the briefest of moments does Blue Spring ever leave the school grounds, so this is then a film that feels like a state of the nation’s youth, like Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale released a year before. What’s interesting then coming to Blue Spring twenty-one years after it was released and having seen Battle Royale on its original theatrical run is just how fresh Blue Spring feels. The film, made over twenty years ago, is very modern; it could have been released yesterday, though Ryuhei Matsuda obviously looks much younger playing Kujo than he does in his role in Zokki (2021) which I’d only watched a couple of days before.
If Blue Spring is a state of the nation’s youth, then it is a film that believes they have many dreams and almost no opportunity to hope to reach them. The student who dreams of reaching the baseball nationals fails by a hair’s breadth and that’s it, no return, no other chances and he is completely crushed; others fail to understand what they want and take refuge in violence and power games. If anything, the student gangs and cliques feel like teenage yakuza, punishing apparent disrespect and putting down those who might seek to climb to the top of the pile, even if Kujo barely seems to care that he is king of the hill. But what hill? The school is the most graffitied, run-down, moulding hell of a place. The teachers seem as apathetic as the students, having almost entirely given up on imagining those in their educational care will be anything other than actual yakuza, destined to end up in jail, on the streets or employed in the most dispiriting of jobs.
Where Toyoda’s direction shines is in his handling of the school and the feeling of time and place. Considering we witness (though mainly off screen) some awful violence and scenes of everyday humiliation, the school feels like a living, breathing and all too real place. As a world unto itself it’s utterly believable even though it’s almost impossible for it to actually exist – there's too much casual cruelty and violence even for your best British public school.
As with the director's other films, Toyoda finely balances the scenes of disturbing violence with more sedate moments. Equally, he tends not to show the violence but allows you to imagine it, where the consequences of such acts are witnessed only in the bloody aftermath. This is something to be pleased about, frankly, otherwise the film would likely become too unpleasant. Like 9 Souls and Pornostar, Blue Spring is a gleefully visceral film, and often made more dynamic by its rock soundtrack.
If this seems overly unpleasant or depressing it's not all bleakness. One teacher, Hanada (Mame Yamada) who tends the flowers, and teaches Kujo to do so, genuinely cares about his students but seems practically powerless to do anything about their situation. It’s noticeable how this small corner of the school, with flowers blooming, remains untouched by the violence and the ever-present filth; a metaphor for how the students can still bloom even if society has let them down, or they have let themselves down. There's positivity buried deep down if you're prepared to look for it.
Because Kujo and many of his friends are so apathetic, the film often comes most alive in moments of conflict, especially in a showdown between Kujo and Aoki. It’s as if violence and conflict are the only way such lost characters can communicate. Unfortunately this makes it hard to really get under the skin of some of the characters, and Toyoda never quite manages this as well as he does in 9 Souls. The issue lies in the story itself, because we don’t fully understand how everyone – teachers and students alike – have reached this point. This lack of nuance can lead the film to occasionally drag a little even though it’s barely over eighty minutes long. Still, the performances are solid, Mame Yamada standing out as Hanada, the flower tending teacher that cares, even if his students are being carted off by the police for murder.
Ultimately, Blue Spring is a potent, powerful film and considering the raft of cinema that made it to our shores in the late 1990s and early 2000s it’s surprising it never found a place in cinematic or even DVD release much earlier, especially as it fits the bill for what was Tartan’s Asia Extreme series.