Blue Spring (Aoi haru)

Japan (2001) Dir. Toshiaki Toyoda

School was hard, at least for me – bullied, unable to keep up with others – but if this film is any indication, and I hope it isn’t, I got off very lightly compared to the sheer horror on display here courtesy of a group of teenage sociopaths that even the school have given up on as lost causes.

Asashi High is an all-boys senior high school that could easily be mistaken for a juvenile detention centre, with its graffiti covered walls, scruffy, punkish pupils with no care for the rules, and flagrant disrespect shown towards the teachers. One group who have already given up on their dreams are part of the school’s Illegal Society, whose dominion over the other boys is uncontested by the staff.

Leadership of this gang and the school is determined by a dangerous test of resolve, the “Clapping Game” which laidback Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda) wins after an unofficial challenge when bored. His best friend Aoki (Hirofumi Arai) sees this as a chance to throw his weight around by proxy but Kujo prefers to remain passive which begins to irritate Aoki as younger kids think they can get away with running amok on their own terms.

It’s fair to say, even if it a little dubious accolade, that nobody does nihilism in cinema better than Japan, which might surprise people whose only idea of its people is one of politeness, kindness, and stringent regard for the rules. Whether it is the extreme black comedy of Takashi Miike’s Crows Zero series, the devastating drama of Confessions or the ultimate school nightmare in Battle Royale, Japanese schools do not have a good rep on the big screen.

Based on the manga by Taiyō Matsumoto, Blue Spring was a series of short stories which may explain why there is such a loose narrative to hold the film together. Then again, I don’t know Matsumoto’s work thus can’t say how many of the stories Toshiaki Toyoda chose to adapt for his film adaptation. Given its brisk 82-minute run time, I can’t imagine it is many of them.

The other casualty of this that much of the developments aren’t always so clear with some happening with little to no explanation, which also harms the characterisations of the main cast. Also in Kujo’s group with Aoki are Yukio (Sousuke Takaoka), Yoshimura (Shugo Oshinari), and Ota (Yuta Yamazaki), all burdened with the same feeling of having no future thus embrace the rebellion of the thug life.

A mini-feud begins when Aoki is soaked in the toilets by a half Japanese, half-American junior upstart Leo (Rei Yamanaka), who is soon taught a lesson with a baseball bat by Kujo, but not as badly as Aoki would have liked. Elsewhere Yukio is scouted by a local yakuza to join his gang but his ruins his chance when, without reason or provocation, stabs Ota to death and is arrested. So, the Yakuza recruits the school’s disenchanted star baseball player Kimura (Yusuke Oshiba) instead.

So where are the teachers you may ask? They are there but they to seem to have given up on these students too, only concentrating on those who are willing to tow the line and learn, ignoring the misbehaviour of the unruly few. It’s a bit difficult when they openly eating in class, arriving late or talking to each across the classroom but if they maybe made the lessons just a tad more exciting… Just saying.

Equally absent are the parents of these kids, who surely must have noticed the cuts, bruises and worse their sons come home with yet nothing is done about it at all. The only repercussions we see is Yukio being arrested, otherwise the unbridled and shocking violence is meted out as if it was simply a regular daily occurrence not worth bothering with.

If this is a genuine indictment of Japanese schools, no wonder they create such disturbing and bleak works in their arts coming from such traumatic and gnarly environments. But this is only conjecture of my part, since there are odd moments of surreal levity we wonder if Toyoda is making a statement against the flawed education system that is abandoning its youth.

One such thing is the school principal, a midget who spends his days tending to flowers which he succeeds in encouraging Kujo to join him in when they are not kicking a football around the field. I know there is nothing to say a small person can’t become a headmaster but in this context and the disconnect he has with discipline and actually running the school suggest he might have been included for a laugh.

Slightly darker is the boy known as Ghost (Eita), who has a terminal illness so the school just let him sleep all day if he wants to. Later on the film, his eyesight suddenly goes yet he still shows up for school totally blind. If the flower motif is a blatant metaphor that confirms its relevance in the surreal conclusion, Ghost’s presence is less obvious, at least for this writer.

The cast were all a few years older than their characters, like other movie school kids, yet without these years to their lives, they couldn’t pull off the nuance required to make these fated lads more than lazy tropes. Ryuhei Matsuda has always been an understated actor since his debut aged 15 in Taboo, which helps with the laconic journey of Kujo. Meanwhile Hirofumi Arai gets to go wild in taking Aoki from loyal friend to embittered enemy, changing his appearance to match his volatile new attitude.

With Blue Spring Toshiaki Toyoda doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Japanese schools but he’s not the first to do so either. The general story is rather aimless for the most part, like the boys themselves, but Toyoda presents us with something possessing a stealthily hidden hook that make it oddly compelling and compulsive to stick with even when it gets uncomfortable and feels irredeemably hopeless.