Monday, June 28, 2010

NYAFF ’10 & Japan Cuts ’10: The Blood of Rebirth

In Fifteenth Century Japan, heroic masseurs roamed the land, living by their wits and hands. At least such is the case for Oguri, the protagonist of Japanese director Toshiaki Toyoda’s comeback vehicle. Derived from the legend of Oguri Hangan Daisukeshige (the hero of many great kabuki theater productions) and Buddhist concepts of reincarnation, Toyoda’s trippy The Blood of Rebirth (trailer here) screens in New York this week, as a joint presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film.

Oguri is a wandering masseur who treasures his freedom. When the syphilitic Lord Daizen requests his services, he knows it is a bad gig, but he cannot say no. When he politely declines an offer to become a permanent retainer, the cruel warlord murders the footloose Oguri. However, when the noble masseur reaches the after-world, he declines a place in paradise, preferring to return to the world he knew. Unfortunately, his reincarnated body comes back as a “hungry ghost” which must be submerged in a mythical spring of life for his spirit to be renewed. Feeling a strange connection to Oguri, Terute, Daizen’s only surviving disease-free concubine, escapes from the royal camp to drag the masseur’s husk to the rumored magical waters. Much death and rebirth ensues.

Blood is a lot like the psychedelic 1970’s films made by the likes of Dennis Hopper and Don Cammel with a bunch of their stoned friends up in the Hollywood Hills. Featuring an acidic prog-rocky soundtrack with some monster drum breaks performed by the band Twin Tail, a lush verdant backdrop, and strange metaphysical themes, it is definitely a druggie friendly film. (Ironically, it was an arrest for possession of “stimulants” that very nearly ended Toyoda’s career.) Yet, there is definitely a craftsmanship apparent in each and every scene.

Toyoda’s approach is often cool and maddening, simultaneously. Knowing when he has a striking shot, he holds some scenes seemingly forever. Still, there is no denying there are things in Blood audiences have never seen on film before. It even concludes with a genuinely uplifting crowd-pleaser of an ending that still remains faithful to the tenor of the film (if not the restrictions of logic). Though not necessarily a great showcase for the cast’s acting chops, Twin Tail drummer Tatsuya Nakamura is appropriately cool and world weary as Oguri, while the standout Mayuu Kusakari is surprisingly touching as Terute.

Indeed, Blood will not be to everyone’s tastes, not by a long shot. For the adventurous viewer though, it ultimately pays off rather well. For those who enjoy archetypal fantasy and power drumming, it screens this Friday (7/2) and Saturday (7/3) at the Japan Society as a joint selection of NYAFF and Japan Cuts.