Editor, U.S.; Los Angeles, California (@filmbenjamin)

Though THE BLOOD OF REBIRTH isn't autobiographical, it is apparently indicative of director Toshiaki Toyoda's tumultuous past five years. What you know of his life and previous films will greatly affect how you view his latest, which by most accounts seems to be a creative and personal cleansing - indeed, something of a rebirth.

As for me.. well, this was my first Toyoda film, and I knew nothing of the stakes surrounding the production, nor it's director, until after I saw it - like for instance the shooting schedule was a mere ten days. For this reason I won't go into any more behind-the-scenes in this review, as it wouldn't be pertinent to my actual viewing experience (for further deets on that story I refer you to the better informed review by Chris Magee and Mark Saint-Cyr from April's Nippon Connection).

So the film, as a film... how is it? With such a evocative and enigmatic title, from such a lauded director, what does it offer?

Toyoda loosely draws his simple frame work from the 15th century folktale about the adventurer, Oguri Hangan Daisukeshige. This time out, Oguri is a down-on-his-luck masseur, who is called upon by an ailing despot - with quite the mean streak - to knead out his venereal disease. Daizan the despot has tried just about everything offered under the sun, and still no relief. He relishes the day his balls heal, and he can be with his enslaved princess, Tarute. But when Oguri steps in, putting dreams of escape into Tarute's head, does a classic rivalry begin.
Before either can escape, Oguri is poisoned and sent to the crossroads between life and death. Choosing to be reborn, he sets his path for revenge and rescue, pretty much making him the most bad-ass masseur in all of cinematic history.

Minus a few points, this is all the story you can conjure up out of the picture. The only urgency to propel the plot comes from the lean running time of 83 minutes, and a few - perhaps too obvious - moments of conflict. Otherwise the film is in no hurry, and opts for an ethereal and rather morbid lilt, which embraces its folktale roots and displays a deep reverence for nature with extended travel sequences through the deep woods of Medieval Japan.

Lyrical and meandering in the best sense, both tranquil and psychedelic in mood with long stretches of no dialog, I found the picture to be thrilling in its ability to transport me to another world. What little violence there is, is outrageous to be sure. Filtered through Toyoda's penchant for gorgeous slow motion and weaving of music, it is also emblematic of something operatic (albeit low key and vibe-y).    

Because of this, others may find the film tedious till nausea. Take for instance the scene when Oguri - who has been traveling as a hungry ghost (a sort of half living person) - is fully reborn in the titular location, a scene in which musician-turned-actor Tatsuya Nakamura thrashes around and screams in slo-mo for a good five minutes... moments like this walk a fine line with the audience either being fully immersed and captivated by the experience up on screen or being totally baffled, perhaps even snickering, and probably annoyed.

Whatever way you take it though, it is clear Toyoda has set out to craft a cinematic experience to primarily engage the senses. He gives room for the mind to wander and melt away. Though vivid and dynamic in a visual sense, characters take a back seat, at the very most falling into classic archetypes with ease.

As stated, music is a prime thrust, wherein a multitude of bands and composers offer the most psychedelic thread of the picture's aesthetic; a score grooving with 70s bass riffs, avant garde rock tints, snare-ish percussion and aching string arrangements, collectively reminding me of understated composer, Igor Wakevitch.

THE BLOOD OF REBIRTH is a picture that doesn't need to shout to get our attention, but neither is it entirely sensual or meditative. It is a sometimes very comic, genuinely beautiful experience, and though not runaway great, offers something quite memorable and unique in the way Toyoda presents his folktale-as-cinema. Take for instance the climatic battle between Oguri and Daizan, which is so bizarre and out-there-awesome that it may just be worth the price of admission alone.

THE BLOOD OF REBIRTH screens July 3rd and 4th as part of the New York Asian Film Festival co-presented with Japan Society's Japan Cuts. Toyoda will be on hand for both screenings for an intro and Q&A.

The Blood of Rebirth

  • Toshiaki Toyoda
  • Hangan Oguri (based on his play)
  • Toshiaki Toyoda (screenplay)
  • Tatsuya Nakamura
  • Mayû Kusakari
  • Kiyohiko Shibukawa
  • Hirofumi Arai
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Toshiaki ToyodaHangan OguriTatsuya NakamuraMayû KusakariKiyohiko ShibukawaHirofumi AraiDrama

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