Toshiaki Toyoda is a name likely unknown to all but the most hardcore of Japanese cinema lovers. That’s a real shame, as he deserves a lot more love. Thankfully, Third Window has done a great job of boosting the profile of Toyoda’s work with stand-alone releases of his debut features and now a box set collecting highlights of his work from 2005 to 2021. This includes two features, three short films, and one project whose length falls somewhere in between. It also includes a set of extras specially made for the set with Toyoda himself that really helps the viewer gain insight into the director and his work.
So why 2005 to 2021? It makes sense when you learn about Toyoda’s history. In 2005, he was arrested for possession of marijuana (just after he had made Hanging Garden, which is included in this set). Japan has strict anti-drug laws and, thus, Toyoda’s career cratered. Professionally forbidden from making films for some time, he then had to restart his career from scratch, and the effect of this incident on his life is clear in both the films he made afterward and in the interviews given in this set.
Despite Toyoda’s need to start over, there’s quite the selection of films in the set (although it is not comprehensive). Hanging Garden paints a portrait of the Japanese family unit and the lies it tells itself to maintain cohesion. Wolf’s Calling is set in the mountains of Japan. Based on the figurative and literal exile Toyoda found himself in, Calling follows a young man haunted by the ghosts of his past. Shortly after filming, the 11/11 earthquake struck Japan, causing a landslide in the shooting location; had the crew still been on set at the time, they would have all perished. This near-death experience inspired Toyoda to make I’m Flash. It follows the young leader of a religious cult deciding to end the movement, with ex-gangster bodyguards in tow to protect him from people whom the cult has wronged. Toyoda said he wanted to make this film because he felt survivor’s guilt and wanted to explore that feeling through film. It’s really quite moving.
The last three films represent Toyoda’s Resurrection Trilogy. Made after Toyoda was arrested again (this time for owning an antique firearm in violation of Japan’s similarly strict gun laws), the short-film sequence sees Toyoda exercising formal skills in a minimalist format while expressing what is clearly a lot of anger at contemporary Japan. The first (Monsters Club) is largely abstract and generally a cool setup for a film we’ll never see. The second, The Day of Destruction, is ostensibly about the Tokyo Olympics, but given its metaphor of a deadly plague unleashed and the consequences, well … The final installment, Go Seppuku Yourselves, is an angry cry from Toyoda’s perception of how authorities have handled COVID and where the blame lies. These short films are angry, passionate and certainly distinct from much of contemporary Japanese cinema. Legal issues relegating Toyoda to mostly smaller or outside fare seem to have not fazed the director and instead energised him to work within his constraints.
Apart from the films, the extras are terrific. The specially commissioned interviews with Toyoda are really fantastic and illustrate so much about the filmmaker’s background in a way that informs the films anew. It’s rare that audiences get such unfettered access to the creative minds behind the films they love, but Toyoda’s relatively small stature in the filmmaking world means he had the time to sit down and record many hours of interviews for this set, ensuring a complete picture of his intentions. This obviously isn’t always required for films, but it’s helpful for Toyoda to offer context on the short films (whose abstraction is a budgetary limitation) — especially when things more readily evident to a native Japanese audience don’t cross in translation. Third Window has done a great job here, and though they might not always strike gold with the work of Japanese auteurs they unearth, they really have here with Toyoda. I hope we can continue to get his films further into the future, as he’s clearly a director who deserves more success.