“The Blood of Rebirth” (2009) transforms a 15th century legend into the comeback movie of the decade. Shot in only 10 days on a ridiculously small budget, “The Blood of Rebirth” reflects director Toshiaki Toyoda’s experiences with band Twin Tail during an industry-enforced hiatus. The resulting film is a stunning meditation on personal freedom, rebirth and revenge.
Toyoda’s forced retreat from filmmaking goes back to 2005. On the cusp of the release of his highly anticipated “Hanging Garden,” Toyoda was arrested for drug possession. “Hanging Garden” was buried and in spite of a lenient court sentence (he was given probation for 3 years,) industry blackballing had many thinking his promising career was over. Not one to be idle, he joined the band Twin Tail, incorporating visual works into their live performances. The experience was to have a profound effect on the director, inspiring him to make a film around the band’s 70’s style, atmospheric sound and even casting Twin Tail front man Tatsuya Kamakura in the lead role.
“The Blood of Rebirth” unfolds in three distinct segments that feel like watching music. A narrative introduces the main characters. Freedom-loving masseur Oguri, has been engaged by Lord Daizen (Kiyohiko Shibukawa,) who is hoping massage therapy will rid him of a nasty STD he’s picked up. Daizen is so pleased with the work he offers him a job, but Oguri turns it down preferring to “live under no one’s care.” Daizen, angry at not having his way, promptly dispatches him to the afterlife. Oguri chooses to return to the land of the living as a ‘hungry ghost,’ a spirit with unfinished business but before he can begin his quest for revenge, he must bathe in a well with restorative powers. Trouble is, he doesn’t know where to find it and in his weakened state is incapable of getting there on his own. A Buddhist priest, played by Toyoda favorite Mame Yamada, is the first to find him. He fashions a sledge and begins to haul Oguri over the rocky land. Several other take their turn but it is Terute (Mayuu Kusakari,) an escaped slave from Daizen’s court, who takes up the rope for most of the journey.
The mood and pacing of the film change at this point as Terute slowly drags Oguri foot by painful foot through a verdant landscape. For 20 minutes dialogue and action is turned over to scenery and music. The camera frequently takes Oguri’s point of view, tilted in the direction he has leaned his head. Terute gets Oguri to a boat before Daizen catches up to her and slays her with a sword, her blood staining the calm water red. The color red is prominent; for Toyoda, red is symbolic and is featured strategically in every one of his films. An amazing, psychedelic series of shots comprise the final battle between Daizen and Oguri. Toyoda is surely rewarding our patience during the slow moving mid-section with a visual and aural treat at the film’s end.
With his return, Toyoda has created his most contemplative movie to date. Indeed, in thematic content and pacing, “The Blood of Rebirth” is a virtual stranger to his previous films. One thing has not changed – Toshiaki Toyoda remains among the most talented directors working in contemporary Japanese cinema. His future looks very bright – as long as he can stay out of trouble.