Saturday, March 23, 2013

If It's Spring And You Know It Clap your Hands

Weeellllll, Spring is finally here, so it seems only fitting to try to beat my old clapping record and reread/rewatch Blue Spring, by Taiyo Matsumoto (film version appropriately helmed by 9 Souls and Pornostar director Toshiaki Toyoda).  If you are or were ever a young man who has ever been bored or pissed, you will almost certainly find something in common with Blue Spring, whose title refers to the emotion and season, respectively.

For the boys of Kitano High School, spring signals the approach of a summer that can't come fast enough.  Their days are pained with boredom and rebellion, and punctuated by violence and a dangerous game where they are willing to bet their very lives to set a new record and gain the respect of their fellow students.  It's as if the longing for adulthood were so excruciating that they would rather chance young death than die of boredom.  They talk crudely, write graffiti, get in fights, and make more than a few passing remarks about masturbation and sex, all the while competing for popularity and respect.

Throughout the seven separate stories, the narrative seems fragmented and unrelated at first, though it quickly becomes apparent that throughout each individual character's vignette, a larger picture is forming of a school whose students have no role models and where every adult in their life has essentially given up on them.  They exist in a world that is very much their own, where they have built their own hierarchies and social dynamics without any sense of consequence outside that world.

Kitano High brings to mind the Eighth District Youth Vocational Training School (8th District Youth Prison! Entry Free!) from Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo.  In Akira, Otomo uses the Youth Vocational School to help give life to a larger story, where every character and location helps to create a believable Neo-Tokyo; itself a larger backdrop for a very personal story with cosmic repercussions.  Matsumoto's Kitano High on the other hand, is the key to Blue Spring; it's the feeding trough, the water cooler, the melting pot where everything takes place.  It is the crux of everything for these students whose episodes we get to see.  It is a place that embodies and magnifies every negative element of their lives.  It is where every bad habit is nurtured and festers, despite the attempts of a few teachers who you get the impression actually care.  Even the school principal delights in seeing the students entertain themselves with their deadly game, and whose own statuettes of dollars signs and calligraphy scrolls reading "Nothing Beats Money" is reflected in the students' graffiti; and while the principal himself engages in an abusive relationship with his secretary, it is hard not to see the correlation between how these young men view their surroundings and how they live out their own social dichotomies.
The graffiti serves another purpose as well, letting the audience see the authors influences, turning the manga into a kind of high school notebook, giving the sense that this is a novel about a very specific youth, and this is less a random set of stories and more of an autobiography.  Matsumoto-san literally writes his influences on the walls; from specific works like Otomo's Boogie Woogie Waltz and Jean-Jacques Beineix's 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue) to including names like Kurosawa, Nakagawa, Ohta, Inoue, and Takada, in which he lists, almost as a timeline of important people, right before the names of his protagonists, Kujo, and then Aoki, who who has just unseated his predecessor.  The characters of Kujo and Aoki themselves bring to mind the relationship between Akira's protagonists, Kaneda and Tetsuo.
There is a wonderful quality about his drawings that make them seem light and effortless while still being intricately constructed and complex.  The signs and graffiti that seem so haphazardly placed have real purpose in the story, and it's easy to get a sense that they were meticulously placed; much like so many other Japanese arts, where the intention is to give the feeling that everything is placed there naturally, as if that is the only place it could be, Matsumoto almost crowds his panels with scribblings but manages to never overwhelm the reader or have anything seem out of place.
The film version focuses mainly on the opening story concerning characters Kujo and Aoki, entitled If You're Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands, though it manages to weave in pieces of the other stories while maintaining a more focused narrative structure.  As opposed to the manga, which tells each story in turn, Toyoda's film uses the tale of Kujo and Aoki as the main body of the work, taking moments to explore the other characters and their specific vignettes to paint a larger picture of Kitano High.  As the stories follow no real linear fashion, the viewer finds it easy to return to the main protagonists and pick up right where they left off.  Finally, the film's more classic style of photography meshes well with the subject matter, and the rock soundtrack by Kenji Ueda takes it right where it needs to be: balancing right on the edge of beauty and nihilism.
Blue Spring is one of the few occasions when a film lives up to it's source material.  I am usually not a fan of comic adaptations, and generally believe that too often comics are used as glorified storyboards rather than it's own separate medium, but ever once in a while something comes along and becomes the exception to the rule.  I love film and comics for totally different reasons, and most of the time, great comics are great because they are comics; the medium they exist in has certain allowances that other do not, and a great story that is written specifically for one format or the other has difficulty translating that experience.  Blue Spring, however, works as both a film and a comic book.  The manga gives you the ability to pour over every page and examine the subtext of the graffiti at your leisure (even the English language edition, in which Kelly Sue DeConnick masterfully and painstakingly translates every scribble), while the film's pacing and accompanying music make it an antithesis to any classic coming-of-age tale.  We see this film not as a transition for these boys, but as the most important moment of their lives.  Every choice they make affects them in the here-and-now.  There is no future for some of them, and we find it painful to think of what made them this way.  Blue Spring sits as a sign in the hallway, offering us a small service for ¥100: Know Your Future, Forget Your Past.    

No comments:

Post a Comment