Pornostar (1998) by Toshiaki Toyoda

An aimless drifter finds himself recruited into a violent gang struggle in this crime drama. We never learn much about the protagonist Arano (Koji Chihara), who wanders the streets of Tokyo clutching a sports bag. When he is confronted by gang leader Kamijo (Onimaru) he shows little reaction to his aggressive threats. When he later turns up at their headquarters having murdered two other gangsters, Kamijo decides rather than killing him, as they were instructed to do, to use him in their negotiations with drug-dealers and their turf-war with rival Yakuza boss Matsunaga (Tetta Sugimoto). However, Kamijo soon discovers that he is unable to control Arano’s violent outbursts and hatred for all yakuza, threatening their business and their lives.

Writer-director Toshiaki Toyoda creates a unique crime drama from the perspective of a mysterious outsider who strolls carelessly into the violent underworld of thugs, drugs and punks. We have familiar scenes of mobsters dealing with their boss; attempting to sell acid; or wondering how they are going to carry out their orders to murder the head of another crime family. But in each situation things are complicated by Arano’s nihilistic and unpredictable world view. We never discover why he hates the Yakuza so fiercely, although any number of reasons would be easy to imagine. Likewise, he remains an enigma with regards to his past and also what he carries around in his bag. It is a crime thriller that seems to be cracked wide open with the inclusion of this singular individual. The direction moves from stylised sequences to more mundane everyday moments, and the score similarly appears at moments of high drama while being entirely absent at other moments. This creates a tonal dissonance between the ‘real’ world and the stylised violence of the yakuza film in which the protagonist finds himself.

“Pornostar” delights in the mystery of its central character. The contents of the bag that he carries remain unknown throughout, lending themselves to even a metaphysical interpretation. Arano remains somewhat distant from us as the audience and we are never sure exactly what he is thinking, or what he might do next; his reasoning for joining the gangsters is similarly left unexplained. We do see him stand up to an adult bullying children, which may suggest some motivation for his actions. Likewise, his hatred of the yakuza is suggestive of some past history with them. His only concern seems to be what will be written on his epitaph, a question he asks several times throughout the film. Perhaps he is intended to be a blank slate, buffetted by those around him, lacking any will of his own. His tragedy seems to be that he is unable to walk his own path, rather forced into the violent society we see around him. The sequence early in the film when we see him appear through a crowd of people at a crosswalk is the perfect metaphor for this theme of attempting to establish a sense of individuality in a society.

9 Souls (2003) by Toshiaki Toyoda

A rag-tag band of prison escapees set out to help each other realise their final wishes before they are re-captured or killed. After murdering his father, shut-in Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda), finds himself locked up with a group of violent offenders. A short time into his sentence they manage a miraculous escape, deciding to stay together, travelling around in a campervan as they re-visit important places and people from their pasts. The film features an all star cast including Jun Kunimura, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Yoshio Harada.

Writer and director Toshiaki Toyoda had long wanted to make a prison break film, beliving them to be one of the most exciting genres. Partly based on a true news story of escaped convicts travelling around together, “9 Souls”, brings together an incredible cast and motley collective of criminals who act almost as a surrogate family to each other. Toyoda clearly put a lot of work into the characters, each of whose crimes are briefly written on screen, and the outstanding cast manage to portray these disparate individuals without going into unnecessary exposition or flashbacks of their lives. In fact we only see one crime comitted by the group pre-arrest (even then it is off-screen), the murder of Michiru’s father, with the others only referencing their offences. This helps us empathise with the group, whose murderous pasts would make them quite irredeemable. Instead we are treated to a comic road-trip as the group attempt to evade capture, dressing as women or having to avoid old acquaintances. The direction is first-rate, with the characters framed to show their physical and emotional proximity and several incredible shots of the surrounding scenery as they travel. The ruddy sunlight of the film suggests a melancholic realisation that these men may be on their final journey. The soft-rock score, slowly ramping while going nowhere captures the sense of frustrated ambition.

“9 Souls” leans into a metaphysical reading with moments that seem particularly unreal. Director Toyoda has stated that films allow us to blend reality and imagination, and that is evidenced here. The group’s escape is one egregious example of a miraculous occurence that defies belief (they see a mouse, realise it must have a hole somewhere, and the next moment they are running free of the prison). Another example is in one escapee’s discovery of a peep-show that appears like a mirage, which sees him complete his own journey. Each of the men seems to be searching for something to bring themselves peace and it could be said that in some sense they are already dead, simply lost souls attempting to justify themselves before they pass on (either to incarceration or the long sleep of death). Whether they are seeking redepmtion for their crimes, attempting to right the wrongs of the past, or prove to themselves that there is some good in their hearts, they are brought together by the hope that this is true. The final moments of the film, which again rely on this blurring of reality, drives home this point that it is hope that keeps people alive. A fantastic prison break film that touches on the ideas of what is truly lost when people commit crime and questions the notion that humans can be entirely bad.