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Review © Alex Apple, 2005.

Directed by Toshiaki Toyoda, 1998, 98 mins., starring Koji Chihara, Onimaru, Rin Ozawa, Akaji Maro and Kee.

The theory goes, naturally, that your first movie is the easy one. Just like a musician's first album, this is the one into which you can chuck all your good ideas, all the ideas that have been brewing in your head since film school / the episode of Eastenders you were allowed to direct / that series of adverts for dog food you made. Uzumaki, Eraserhead, Casshern, Joyuurei - all are examples of good debut movies. Of course, there's thousands of examples of bad debut movies – Charlie's Angels, anyone? – so the good debut is something to treasure. Higuchinsky's Uzumaki for example just oozed style and vision, likewise Kiriya's Casshern. And while Joyuurei lacked a Sadako-style visual kick in the teeth, it laid out Hideo Nakata's skilful mastery of the slow burn.

(On the other hand, the second movie you make will undoubtedly be the tricky one. All those good ideas you had in college while on the toilet have been used up. Now it's time to see if any more arrive while you're picking fluff out of your navel. If not, well, it's back to the dog food commercials. You rather suppose you could grow to like it, well, live with it – at least it keeps you in fags, beer and idol photobooks.)

What, then, of Pornostar, the debut of Toshiaki Toyoda who would go on to helm psychotic coming-of-age flick Blue Spring as well as the masterful Nine Souls?

What we actually get is not just a statement of later intent but also an enigmatic, nihilistic movie which, just like his later works, only slowly reveals its hand – and a strong hand at that. Our (anti?) hero has no given name, to the extent that here at Snowblood Apple we referred to him only as Anorak Guy in our notes. He's a real sociopath – seemingly unable to relate to anyone in the "real" world, as he arrives in the centre of Tokyo he barges into people, apparently on a single-minded mission to do... something. He can only see violence, hate... but has a fascination with the organised crime gangs run by the Yakuza.

We'll call Anorak Guy Arano, because that's what imdb.com calls him, which is good enough for us. Self-preservation is clearly not one of Arano's strong points, as one of the locals he barges past happens to be local wannabe part-time Yakuza (yeah, you try reconciling all that lot) Kamijo, who is also in mid-row with his girlfriend Alice. Just after he's held a knife to her throat – THWACK! In barges our friend Arano, and a brooding stand-off ensues. Somehow, somehow, Kamijo lets Arano get away with it – Arano meantime picks up Kamijo's knife that he dropped, deposits it in his sportsbag and goes on his way, paying little heed to Alice's scorning statement that he'll end up a Yakuza too if he's not careful.

Kamijo and the rest of his gang disappear off to say hi to their boss (Akaji Maro, last seen as the shaven-headed cop in Suicide Circle) while Arano goes to bother some Yakuza ticket touts, who eventually get the message and lead him off to visit their boss - conveniently also Kamijo's boss. As Kamijo is talking about wanting out of the Yakuza game, refusing an order from the boss to off rival gang leader Matsunaga, they're distracted by a commotion coming up the stairs, turning around to find the ticket tout bleeding to death having been stabbed by Arano. After Arano is given a brutal beating by deaf-mute lackey Tatsuo, he's dragged off by Kamijo et al to be whacked just before they go after Matsunaga.

...except Kamijo clearly sees some spirit in Arano and decides to let him live – he was intrigued by something Arano said in the showdown with the boss where he stated all Yakuza are useless. Back in his chic condo, he presses Arano on this a little more, only for Arano to start waxing lyrical once more, this time about epitaphs. You can't help but think Kamijo's perplexed, irritated, frustrated yet intrigued in equal measure about his new enigmatic friend, who makes little sense and likes playing with matches and beef tomatoes. Nevertheless, he seems to put his full trust in the guy, letting him effectively join the gang, and taking part in a drug deal with a couple of Matsunaga's US contacts.

All goes well in the deal, other than the usual hard bargaining about the price for the LSD, until Arano shoots the two dealers rather unexpectedly. Kamijo's livid, of course, although tacitly acknowledges he did a good job. By means of reward, he entrusts Arano with the job of assassinating Matsunaga – the guy's clearly mad and brave enough to do it, so why not entrust the job to someone who might even vaguely enjoy the task?

Meantime, Alice approaches Arano, and teaches him to skateboard using a board they stole off some junior teen Yakuzas. She's disillusioned with her relationship with Kamijo, and together they hatch a plot to attack the gang, steal the LSD and head off to Fiji together to start a new life. How is Kamijo going to react to this, if they pull it off? And what the hell is he going to do about his loose cannon of an associate?

There are, it has to be said, some stunning scenes in this movie. Toyoda's very fond of the directorial set-piece and this film is no exception, not least the amazing scene where Arano sets to work on Matsunaga. A mixture of first- and third-person shots, it's incredibly intense and brutal. Toyoda's depiction of Arano's descent into psychopathic anomie, to the extent that he shocks a section of society previously considered to be pretty unshockable, is enormously powerful and probably a deep critique of modern society.

Arano out-yakuzas the Yakuzas in many ways – his sociopathic antics shock and excite them at the same time, and the way he is far more willing than any of them to carry out the more violent spectrum of their activities speaks volumes about just how committed to dark criminality they are. Arano thrives on moral superiority, superficially running a one-man war against the Yakuza, but you can't help but think that there's more to it than that. What actually drives him is never made clear, but it's quite obvious that he is not as well-adjusted to modern living as his colleagues are. He seems to thrive on inflicting pain, even going as far as committing the "honest mistake" murder of the American drug dealers. He seems unable to form normal human relationships, not even with Alice, and as such the Yakuza steer clear of him as much as they can. However, Arano is like a leech and sticks close to his foes/friends, knowing ultimately his presence will lead to bloodshed but at the same time appearing to not really care. It's a massively powerful performance from Koji Chihara.

Pornostar is pure Toshiaki Toyoda. Everything you've seen in Blue Spring and Nine Souls you can see in essentially prototype form here – the slow-mo walking to loud guitars, unexpectedly violent scenes, Kee... While there's no doubt Pornostar was made on a massively low budget, that doesn't mean by any means it's any less of a movie. If anything, following this, Blue Spring was an outright disappointment. Pornostar is, in equal measure, brooding, violent, visceral and slow-burning. Granted, it does drag in places, but somehow if the frenetic pace of some of the scenes was kept up for the entire movie it would be rather over-exhausting. Rather, Toyoda provides us with equally a character study and a social critique, establishing his interest in the motivations (rather than the actions) of Yakuza which was developed further in both Blue Spring and Nine Souls. For a debut feature, and as an exercise in agenda-setting, Pornostar is nothing less than a revelation; as a rounded movie, it's strong but lacks the edge of his later works.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 7½/10
Violence: 9/10
Sex: 0/10
Litres of tomato ketchup: several dozen - more lovely beef tomatoes than you can shake a katana at. Yes, it's probably symbolic: no, we don't know what it means either
Anoraks: 1 (green)
Pussy Cat: Meee-ow!
It's raining knives: Hallelujah!
That title: Yes, it's probably symbolic: no, we don't know what it means either, but it'll get us some bad search engine listings <shudder>

Films in a Similar Style: Blue Spring, Nine Souls, Gozu, Oldboy

*** Iconic but slow cult gem***

Pornostar Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2005

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Toshiaki Toyoda
Koji Chihara
Kee

Links

Good news! Pornostar is being officially released in Region 1 in August 2006 by Image Entertainment. The bad news? They've renamed it Tokyo Rampage, for some unfathomable reason...
http://www.horrorview.com/Pornostar.htm - detailed review from Horrorview, along with news of a US release
http://www.jpreview.com/Reviews%20HTML/reviews/pornostar.html - G.H. Evans waxes lyrical about the film
http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/pornostar.shtml - Midnight Eye give it their auteur-ish once-over
http://www.asianfilms.org/japan/porno/ - massive resource from asianfilms.org, complete with interviews, trailers, etc. Essential.

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