Born in Osaka, Japan in 1969, Toshiaki Toyoda was a childhood chess prodigy and trained to be a professional player from the age of nine years old. Through that time, though, he was an avid cinemagoer, and when he was seventeen, he gave up chess to pursue a career in film.
His first breakthrough came when he started working for producer Genjiro Arato and had the opportunity to co-write the script for a film called Ôte (1991), directed by Junji Sakamoto, for whom Toyoda professes a lot of admiration.
From there, it was only a short step to directing his own film, but it wasn’t until seven years after Ôte, in 1998, that his first feature was released. Pornostar (aka Tokyo Rampage) is a violent, nihilistic revenge tale, as an enigmatic young man (Chihara Junia) goes on a killing spree, finding and dispatching any yakuza he can find. It won Toyoda the Directors Guild of Japan ‘New Directors Award’ and set the template for the rest of his work: bleak, uncompromising, and bloody.
In a surprising digression, Toyoda decided to film a documentary for his second film. Unchain (2000) follows the career of the Japanese boxer Unchain Kaji, who retired due to an eye injury having never won a fight. It is a difficult watch, as the lack of success in Unchain’s boxing career carries over into his life after it.
Blue Spring (2001), based on the manga by Taiyō Matsumoto, was Toyoda’s third film, and it picked up on a lot of the stylistic threads of Pornostar. Its characters, a gang of schoolboys vying for control over each other, are just as disassociated with their surroundings as the young yakuza-killer. In this case, violence seems just as inevitable.
Jumping forward in Toyoda’s career, we see remarkable similarities between Blue Spring and his latest film, Crows Explode (2014). Like the former, Crows Explode is based on a well-loved manga, which also tells the story of teenage schoolchildren violently trying to assert their control over each other. In this case, however, the pressure on Toyoda was increased considerably, as the previous two films in the Crows trilogy were directed by Takashi Miike (Crows Zero in 2007 and Crows Zero 2 in 2009). Toyoda had big shoes to fill.
In the end, Crows Explode is an intense, frenetic action film that celebrates its comic-book origins. By the time he made it, Toyoda had eight films under his belt, some of which (like Unchain and Blue Spring) laid the foundations for what has been his biggest project to date.
Toyoda has faced some difficulties of his own, having been arrested in 2005 for possession of a controlled substance. He subsequently found it all but impossible to make a film in Japan, so it was four years after Hanging Garden (2005), the film that was just about to be released when Toyoda was arrested, that he made The Blood of Rebirth (2009). As the self-referential title suggests, The Blood of Rebirth did act as a new start for Toyoda, and what better way to announce his return than to contribute to one of the most enduring traditions of Japanese cinema, the jidaigeki. His medieval story of revenge evokes that of the young yakuza-killer in Pornostar, and its supernatural element pays homage to such legends of the past as Kenji Mizoguchi and Kaneto Shindo.
To date, Toyoda’s work remains thinly distributed outside of Japan. Crows Explode has seen a home video release in France and Third Window Films have put together an outstanding boxset of three of the director’s early works, Pornostar, Unchain and 9 Souls. Hopefully, these are only the first of many of his films to find the audience that they deserve.
Perhaps in an attempt to zero in on its violent style, Pornostar was renamed Tokyo Rampage by its American distributors. Despite its lack of subtlety, the alternative title is an apt summation of a film that is driven by rage from start to finish. A mysterious young man goes on the rampage for reasons unknown, leaving a bloody trail of dead yakuza behind him. Toshiaki Toyoda’s debut feature set the template for the rest of his work, including the choice of buzzing, perfectly-balanced soundtrack.
Toyoda’s latest film attempts to follow in the footsteps of a hero of Japanese cinema, Takashi Miike, who directed the first two films in the Crows trilogy, adapted from the manga by Hiroshi Takahashi. Toyoda is up to the task, as Crows Explode is a fast-paced, action-packed sequel that evokes memories of his earlier, narratively similar Blue Spring.
Nine convicts escape from their prison in this, Toyoda’s fourth film, and his penultimate one before an unintended hiatus from film-making. In hindsight, the subject matter of 9 Souls is somewhat ironic given Toyoda’s own difficulties with the law, but it is nevertheless one of his most striking films. The bloody, uncompromising style of his debut, Pornostar, is in effect once again here, as each of the convicts – all well-defined characters – handle their unfinished business.
Unchain Kaji is the definitive underdog. Toyoda follows his boxing career over four years, until he is forced to retire due to an eye injury, having never won a fight. The director shows his versatility with Unchain, which followed his striking debut, Pornostar. To date, it remains the only feature documentary Toyoda has made but it shows that he is adept at telling real stories as well as fictional ones.