Blue Spring (Japan, 2001)

The dawn of the millennium has long become a distant memory but yet those formative years of the noughties bore witness to dystopic visions of youth from Japan’s filmic underground, with 2000’s Battle Royale and 2001’s All About Lily Chou Chou and Blue Spring ruling the roost. The latter, Toshiaki Toyoda’s second feature, warped the director’s punk aesthetic and DIY approach with a newfound hopelessness; staring into an abyss of biblical proportions, Toyoda’s vision ruthlessly spewed out its generation’s despondencies and tossed its denizens into the world to fend for themselves. Almost two decades later, Third Window Films is finally bringing this bleak yet revered cult classic back to the UK.

With the winner of The Clapping Game – a ritual which sees students clap their hands whilst defying death atop the school’s summit – declares Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda) the leader, the lives of those within his clan plunge into depths as ruinous as their concrete enclave. Dreams quashed by a major baseball loss, Kimura (Yusuke Ohshiba) nonchalantly ditches school to join up with the yakuza; aimless Yukio (Sosuke Takaoka), frustrated with the pressure of school and his non-existent future, snaps and spirals down a path of maniacal violence. It is a microcosm where education and adult governance have been replaced with such senseless violence and the leader’s iron fist. Becoming disenfranchised with this position, Kujo distances himself from his responsibilities, finding solace in the philosophical leanings of the diminuitive Hanada (Mame Yamada); his enthusiastic left-hand man Aoki (Hirofumi Arai) cannot comprehend this, and boldly takes matters into his own hands.

Based on the autobiographical works of Taiyo Matsumoto, Blue Spring makes exceptional use of its origins: its wildly dysfunctional universe retains the roughness which could only come from manga, coldly injecting the surreal to contaminate the real. Kujo’s contemplative journey through his utterly dilapidated surroundings, much like his fellow students, comes out of desperation; his listless boredom and reckless disregard for his own life permeate through his actions – his partaking of the suicidal clapping game is just a means to pass the time. Not only do Matsuda, Ohshiba, and Takaoka perfectly encapsulate their characters’ absurdist dilemmas but Toyoda’s low-brow execution frames them in a way that, whilst not entirely sympathetic, feels very human. There’s an urgency running rampant here despite the film’s slow nature, one in touch with the era’s cinematic discourse; it makes this as evocative a watch as it is provocative.

Featuring some of the country’s hottest emerging talent at the time, the solid performances here do well to push their narratives through the grey. Sure they’re rough around the edges but this perfectly mirrors the absence of a substantial existence. The only one whose albeit narrowminded purpose serves as a guiding beacon is Aoki, the yin to Kujo’s yang both in terms of motivation and drive; Matsuda and Arai’s energies are unrivalled here, providing a significant backlash towards the film’s end – resulting in one of cinema’s most mesmerising third acts – but its this relationship which pushes this film forward. With one wanting to break free from the other we are compelled to hope, and it is the only hope which could possibly arise from the film. Their inexperienced, almost fantastical, lives serve as a harbinger for not just teenagers but for adults and those serving on top; it is staggering at how effective Toyoda manages to succeed in pulling all of us in and subjecting us to an anarchic vision of excessive nothingness.

While Blue Spring surrounds itself with heavy themes it is far from being a hellish quagmire of existential drama too tough to stomach. Though it lacks the temper and force of Battle Royale and the poeticism of All About Lily Chou Chou its uncompromising vision oozes a completely DIY aesthetic made even more possible with The Michelle Gun Elephant’s punchy garage rock soundtrack, giving the film a uniquely music video vibe. Its cutthroat editing and changes from timelapse to slow-motion and everything in between help keep this vibe from becoming stagnant. Thanks to Norimichi Kasamtsu’s exquisite cinematography, Toyoda’s unflinching vision comes vividly to life, filling the screen with a profound despair no one can escape from.

Though it looks and feels like a product of its time it has aged remarkably well and remains strikingly relevant. Inheriting what is essentially a mess of a planet our generation takes to inane and meaningless pleasures to escape the numbing mediocrity and boundless despair whilst desperately seeking our own dreams. Blue Spring offers no comfort or solution: its strikingly simple message however is not lost on us and whilst the innocence of a generation was stripped of flesh in these films nearly twenty years prior, it is still to be regained. Toyoda’s film reminds us of this; not only that, it still holds up as a film in its own right alongside its contemporaries, projecting a disturbing if not restrained abyssal portrait which has never been replicated.