by Jeremy Clarke.
Teenage high school movie Blue Spring (2001) centres on the leader of a violent boys’ gang in their final year at school. The nonchalant Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda) has befriended Aoki (Hirofumi Arai in his debut role) since the latter first joined his class in their infancy: these days Aoki is Kujo’s number two. The gang now comprises eight boys and periodically restages a terrifying ritual. In the opening scene, four of the boys chicken out while the other four including Kujo and Aoki take part.
Their flat school roof has a one storey tower accessible by metal fire escape type stairs. On the roof’s edge is a metal railing overlooking the open ground in front of the school building. The four boys climb over the railing so that their backs are facing the several storey drop below and hold on to the railing with their hands. Then they count from one upwards. On one, they let go the railing and clap their hands once, on two twice and so on. As the numbers go up, the danger of falling increases. On this occasion, they get up to seven. No one falls… this time.
The twenty-minute Making of reveals that the tower was built by the crew on top of the building so it could be moved back from the drop, with mattresses to catch the actors if they fell. Even with that in mind, the scene doesn’t feel at all like screen trickery: these boys really do appear to be playing on the edge of a huge drop. It’s pretty terrifying to watch.
Director Toshiaki Toyoda is no stranger to screen violence. His Pornostar (aka Tokyo Rampage, 1998) pits a fearless, nihilistic loner against assorted mobsters and ends in bloody carnage. His comedy drama 9 Souls (2003) follows a crew of hardened, escaped prisoners. His documentary Unchain (2000) concerns a boxer who took his nickname from Ray Charles’ song Unchain My Heart and who utterly fails to achieve his career dreams. All these films suggest Toyoda as absolutely the right person to adapt a manga about high school delinquents.
Taiyo Matsumoto’s original manga Blue Spring (1993) featured seven short stories about different disaffected schoolboys. The first story “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” is the one that provides most of the material here, although the clapping game is far more effective on film than in the few perfunctory panels detailing it on the page.
Another story “Peace” makes Yukio (Sosuke Takaoka) sit through a careers session. When asked what he wants to do with his life he has absolutely no idea and remarks that he’s very keen on world peace. Later, he hangs out and talks with a friend in the toilets until their conversation sours and Yukio fatally knifes him. The story is almost self-contained as an episode within the wider film, maintaining the overall tone but having little to do with the overall gang story.
A third story “Suzuki-san” is also adapted via the character of Kimura (Yusuke Ohshiba), who plays for the school’s failing baseball team. He climbs over the school fence to join a former pupil who is now a yakuza, as that lifestyle seems to promise him more than anything the school has to offer. The manga then recounts episodes involving the pair outside the school, but Toyoda’s screenplay drops these incidents beyond the world of the school premises, instead showing nothing more of Kimura than his leaving with the yakuza and later returning. Other Matsumoto episodes don’t get a look in.
The film’s opening clapping game scene sets the tone for what follows. Graffiti on the stairwell walls proclaims ‘Kujo’s territory’ and gang members assault other boys in the lavatories with one having a bucket of water emptied over him while he sits in a cubicle. Baseball bats appear to be the gang’s weapons of choice, although they’re happy to stomp on another boy’s head while he’s down on the ground.
In one curious moment, Kujo faces off against two other boys, grabbing the nose of one of them and twisting it violently, causing blood to flow. As Matsuda reaches his fingers and hand towards a point on the other’s forehead between his eyebrows, it’s almost as if the actor were rehearsing his role in Before We Vanish (2017) in which he plays an alien who touches people’s foreheads to rob their minds of selected concepts. According to Toyoda on the disc’s commentary track, Matsuda was the only actor he considered for Blue Spring’s lead after he saw him being cocky at a press conference for Gohatto (1999).
The teachers are portrayed largely as ineffectual types with little to offer. Kujo shares a genuine bond with the one staff member who is an exception, the midget Haneda (real life magician Mame Yamada), who runs a small garden where students are encouraged to grow flowers. This seems to bring out another side in Kujo, even if he does plant flowers alongside upright cigarettes, man-made artefacts that look totally out of place in an orderly garden world. We see nothing of Kujo’s home or family life and if we occasionally see him hanging out with a girl, much of his interaction with other boys seems to be testosterone-driven bravado. With Haneda he is different, a quiet boy with genuine musings about his place in the universe.
Some of the more violent scenes and the end title credits are underscored by Japanese metal band Thee Michelle Gun Elephant whose memorable riffs echo long afterwards. They had “four members wearing black skinny suits like mod suits”, says Toyoda who modelled Blue Spring’s school uniforms after them. Shortly after the film was released, the band split up.
Blue Spring is released on All-Region Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD on 13th May 2018.