Except a Man Be Born Again
Shot over a mere ten days, The Blood of Rebirth/Yomigaeri no chi is Toshiaki Toyoda’s seventh feature after a five-year hiatus. The director is to introduce both New York-première screenings at the Japan Society’s fourth Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema, co-presented and overlapping four days with the New York Asian Film Festival (in partnership with the Film Society of Lincoln Center).
Adapted from a stage play derived from a fairy tale already done in kabuki as well as puppet theater versions, the story is placed in “the Middle Ages, when gods and demons reigned over a larger domain than humans.” That printed in titles, however, little of the heavenly or demonic follows. Special effects are absent, no swordplay or samurai, naked flesh or lovemaking; there are four killings and a suicide, but blood pretty much comes from fish sliced for the stewpot, and a dryly ironic union of blackened male skulls which may have locked lips and in any case point up the kinship of good and evil.
Toyoda aims “to depict the nobility of human beings, who possess the vitality to be reborn time and time again.” Nevertheless, rebirth is as downplayed as its twin title noun, blood. Obsessive forty-five- and ninety-degree camera angles and pans of leaves and misty waters do not add up to anything out of this mundane world, either, in a timeless setting. The whole begs for allegorical or parable interpretation, but the nature of such a reading is not made clear. Regeneration and revenge ostensibly drive the plot, but to what end? Depending on one’s musical inclination, the mellow psychedelic acid rock score -- composed and performed by Twin Tail, whose drummer, Tatsuya Nakamura, makes his acting début and whose producer is Toyoda -- either jars against the fairly dialogue-less film or else reinforces the visually not quite concrete mise-en-scène.
In either, or any, case, what is seen and heard (as music) is much of the total package to be “experienced with the five senses” rather than dissected by the intellect.
Like the blind hero of his country’s long-running Zatoichi series --several of which were recently shown at Japan Society -- Oguri (Nakamura) is a renowned masseur who prefers to wander as his own footloose master. He is summoned to a slave-built citadel, to cure its whining warlord (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) of venereal poison contracted from any of countless concubines. Unable to pinpoint the offending female, the Lord ordered “off with all their heads, chop,” and replaced the lot with demure prisoner princess Terute (Mayuu Kusakari).
The roving masseur relieves the infected despot, espouses fearless confrontation with that death which comes to all, and secretly warns Terute to flee for her life. Because he refuses the peremptory offer of a permanent position, he is poisoned and stabbed at an official dinner. The woman runs away, the irate Lord pursues her with his slapstick palanquin bearers, and murdered Oguri comes to at the crossroads outside heaven and hell; a whimsical guide with a watermelon offers him the former, where he can soon see his still-living mother, but the hero chooses to go back for “unfinished business in the land of the living, [which] is really hell.”
To this point, story and film-vehicle are promising, but the waters grow muddy. Oguri is more comatose than alive for the rest of the eighty-three minutes, inexplicably dragged around on a sledge, first by an unexplained dwarf monk bringing him towards the spring of rebirth, and then by equally untalkative Terute, herself pursued by the Lord while somehow losing her upper-left-cheek tattoo.
Alive, undead, dead or reborn, Oguri is classed as a Hungry Ghost, the designation also self-applied to the itinerant vendor (Hirofumi Arai) who will make a play out of left field for the heroine’s favors.
Prolonged submersion in the (amniotic?) reddish water of rebirth, and then long slo-mo primal screams (of the newborn?) hint at something. But in such a work, it is best not to look beyond what meets the eye and ear. One will either cotton to this sensory mix or dismiss it as an overextended music video.
(Released by Phantom Film; not rated by MPAA.)