Judge Joel Pearce just doesn't get these Japanese kids today, with their Dance Dance Revolution and their Pokemon and their violent school gangs battling each other for control of their insular and nihilistic worlds...
"Teacher, aren't there flowers that never bloom?"—Kujo
As it turns out, high school violence is not only a problem in North America. It's a major concern in Japan as well. Blue Spring explores the school situation in Japan, as well as the violence and despair that marks the current generation of youth. ArtsmagicDVD has once again reestablished itself as a great distributor of Asian film with a solid release of this disturbing and fascinating film.
Facts of the Case
The situation at Asashi High is not very good. Most of the students seem completely apathetic and disaffected, with their hopes and dreams shattered after years of boredom and mistreatment. These students have formed their own rough society in this wasteland, one of cruelty and strength. The new leader of the senior class is Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda, Gohatto), whose general apathy is punctuated by moments of violence and physical prowess. His right hand man Aoki (Hirofumi Arai) has always been a misfit as well, but takes to the power that this position affords him. As the students of the school become more frustrated and bored, the violence escalates until the structure of this miniature society threatens to implode, destroying not only the boys' futures, but their lives as well.
Just when I think I know what to expect from Japanese manga adaptations, Blue Spring comes along and knocks me right off my feet. Because of its subject matter and roots, it has often been compared to Battle Royale, and that's sort of what I was expecting when I sat down to view it. Certainly, they do have several elements in common. Blue Spring has a very high style factor and a keen eye for camera angles. It has sudden and hard-hitting violence and a savage sense of humor. It pits a large group of high schoolers against each other. In the end, though, it's a very different film than its more popular counterpart, and an entirely unique look at this international problem.
While Battle Royale revels in the violence associated with the rebellion of youth against Japanese society, Blue Spring is a much more contemplative look at what happens to youth that are not given any hope, chances or encouragement. The school building is in abysmal shape, and their classes are spent learning things that don't seem to have any connection to their own lives. What motivation does a student have to learn advanced mathematics if he doesn't believe he will be able to get into college? What good is learning about the past if you don't think you have a future? Although these subjects aren't presented to the students with any enthusiasm, it's ironic to note that some of them should be highly relevant to these students. For example, their history teacher's description of the civil war is frighteningly similar to their own fights for control—but none of them realize this, because they no longer bother to pay attention.
The violence comes suddenly and brutally, but enough of it happens off-screen to make the violence that is seen more meaningful and upsetting than that of Battle Royale. It's impossible to enjoy the violence that fills this school, and at times it's horrible to watch. Perhaps a better comparison point for this film would be Lord of the Flies, as is mentioned in some of the bonus features. As in that classic book, an adult presence is basically missing from the society of these teens. It's not a complete absence, though; it just seems that most of the teachers in the school are too frightened to get involved or to say anything that could provoke the students. The teachers say nothing when the students write on the desk; ignore the ones that enter and exit the class at any point; and are only willing to interfere in the violence when it turns into murder. Only Mr. Hanada, the diminutive gardener, dares involve himself in this volatile situation.
The complex politics of the students are handled well by a talented young cast. Ryuhei Matsuda is remarkable as Kujo, whose performance seems random at first, but later develops an impressive level of complexity. He is a gang leader that is capable of using force, but prefers to be by himself whenever possible. Hirofumi Arai is just as good, believably transforming Aoki from a loyal follower to a dangerous upstart in a short amount of screen time.
The slick cinematography has been well-captured by a solid video transfer. It's not quite a reference quality track, but it's much better than I have come to expect from low budget Japanese films. The film is very dark, but there's a surprising amount of detail in the shadows. There are no visible flaws, and the only real problem is with the color saturation, which seems a bit lower than intended. The sound transfer is not quite as impressive. It is a stereo track, and demonstrates the limitations that come with that format. The music and dialogue is well-mixed, but it would have been nice to hear the music in the rear sound stage as well.
The disc is also surprisingly packed with special features. The most impressive is a commentary track with Japanese film expert Tom Mes, who gives the film a great deal of cultural and artistic context. This is the kind of track that so many of these kinds of films ought to have, but rarely do. So many of the events have deep cultural significance, and it is only through this type of interpretation that we can fully appreciate these films. Mes has a number of interesting things to say about this film, and he fills in the spaces with information about the director, actors and other films that connect in some way to Blue Spring.
There are also a series of filmographies, with a bit more information included than is usual. Much more fascinating are two interviews with director Toshiaki Toyoda, who comments on aspects of the film. I was very surprised and impressed to discover that this film was produced in three weeks. The other interview surrounds his debut film, Pornostar, which seems to deal with similar themes and problems.
Blue Spring is a deeply moving and troubling film. Though it isn't as much fun to watch as Battle Royale, it shows a glimmer of hope at the end that was absent in that more popular film. It's a fine example of filmmaking, and the extra material offers the context that's needed to fully understand it. I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the violence and hopelessness that plagues contemporary schools. Fans of foreign films will likely be pleased with it as well. I think we can expect to see great things from Toshiaki Toyoda in the future. Blue Spring was nothing like I expected it to be when I sat down to watch it, and I was amazed to find it to be even better than I had hoped. This is a hidden gem of a movie. It shocks, entertains and has something to say—all in under an hour and a half.
Everyone involved in the making of Blue Spring is free to go. ArtsmagicDVD is commended for releasing the film with more respect than we are used to seeing for Japanese films in North America.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Tom Mes
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